When you visit or move to another country you will find rather strange and unusual Christmas festivities. These are some of our favourites!
Celebrated around the world, Christmas is undoubtedly a time for traditions. Here we take a fun look at some of the unusual practices that have grown overseas. They may seem very different to the traditions you follow at home, but for those making a move overseas, you may find a new way to enjoy your Christmas holidays and festivities.
Christmas is an excellent time for sharing with family and friends, so why not brush up on some of the traditions of a new homeland and join in with the local traditions and customs?
Many leave the UK for a life abroad, so we look at what expats and those visiting for the festive holiday can expect to encounter! Why not try a few of them for yourself to get a taste of a different culture?
Australia – Kangaroos pulling Santa’s sleigh!
As the weather can be wonderfully warm across Australia over Christmas it is traditional to spend at least some of it at the beach. However, they still have traditions that bring Christmas magic to families. Many people still have the traditional Christmas roast dinner; however, Christmas BBQs on the beach with prawns are also very popular in Australia.
The traditional image of Santa has had a makeover so that he can withstand the warmth. You will find Santa sporting flip-flops and an Akubra hat, and he could well be on a surfboard! He is also more likely to be accompanied by six white ‘boomers’ (male kangaroo slang) as the reindeer take a break away from the heat.
Canada – A scary knock at the door!
Whilst Canada draws many traditions you may already be familiar with, including turkey, mince tarts and crackers, they also have some more unusual customs in some areas.
You can find the Mummers in Newfoundland and a closely related variant of Belsnickeling in Nova Scotia, where people dress up and go house to house, and ask people to guess who they are. The costumes are certainly on the more scary side, more akin to Halloween than our version of Christmas!
In the northern areas of Canada, native Inuits will celebrate the winter’s solstice or Sinck Tuck. There is much feasting, dancing, and the exchange of presents but the food is likely to include caribou, raw fish and seal!
Ukraine – Throw pudding on the ceiling and cobwebs on the tree!
Following the end of communism, Ukrainian Christmas traditions had a rival with Catholic Christmas taking place on December 25th and Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. However, this year a branch of Ukraine’s Orthodox church has announced that it will allow its churches to celebrate Christmas on December 25th.
For Ukrainians, Christmas is a time to celebrate with the family and to look forward to a good harvest in the New Year. They prepare a dish known as Kutya, which combines cooked wheat with honey, ground poppy seeds and sometimes nuts, enjoyed on Christmas Eve. Now for the unusual bit: many families will throw a spoonful of the Kutya at the ceiling, believing that, if it sticks, they will enjoy a good harvest.
Another longstanding Ukrainian tradition is for homes to place a spider web decoration on their Christmas tree. Dating back centuries, the origin is that a poor family could not afford decorations for their Christmas tree, and when the family woke up, they found beautiful spider web decorations all over their tree. It is said that the beauty saved their Christmas, and brought luck to the family. To this day, a spider web decoration on the Christmas tree brings hope that the family will have good fortune for the following year.
France – You won’t go hungry!
French gift giving is pretty fluid, and they certainly do what feels right for their family. First, a lot of families give and receive Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve; some wait until Christmas day and some wait longer until the Feast of Kings on January 6th.
The French love their food and Christmas Eve dinner (Le Réveillon) can last 6 hours! Following a traditional Christmas turkey, where they may serve smoked salmon and oysters, the French really go to town. You can guarantee 13 symbolic desserts representing Christ and his 12 apostles at the Last Supper will follow the feast tradition.
South Africa – Enjoy deep-fried caterpillars!
Prepare your taste buds for the festive South African delights of the deep-fried caterpillar. Mopani (juicy emperor moth caterpillars) are a delicacy said to be pretty delicious, despite how they look when served with spicy peanut sauce. They replace cookies over the festive period, so they are worth a try, even for the faint-hearted.
If fried caterpillars are not your thing, you can still look forward to seeing traditional Christmas trees and children hanging stockings ready for Santa to fill them with goodies.
Cyprus & Greece – Beware of mischievous spirits!
Christmas in Cyprus and Greece see present exchanges waiting till January 1st, St Basil’s Day, alongside a ‘renewal of waters’ where water jugs in a home are emptied and refilled.
A Christmas Day feast is still one to be enjoyed, as it marks the end of the 40 days of fasting. Whilst turkey is served, many families also have a slaughtered pig and share sweet treats of Kourabiedes and Melomakarona to eat alongside traditional Christopsomo, a Christmas bread decorated with a cross. Here’s a traditional Greek recipe so you can try baking your own.
During the 12 days of Christmas people keep their fires burning to stop the kalikantzari coming down the chimney. These are mischievous little spirits that cause mayhem and play tricks on people.
Germany – Decorate your tree with a pickle!
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It is believed that the idea of a Christmas tree began in Germany, dating back to the 16th century. To this day, many families enjoy the ancient tradition of hiding a pickle decoration on the tree. They then give a gift to the first child in the household to find the hidden pickle.
It is probably no surprise that this tradition did not catch on as much as the Christmas tree!
Italy – Bagpipe playing shepherds!
Spending Christmas in Italy, you will likely find a magnificent old woman, Befana, delivering your presents as an alternative to Father Christmas on January 5th.
If you are a fan of Nutella, which was created in Italy many years ago, you could join in with the festive spirit by gifting a Nutella jar with Christmassy-coloured lids. We are sure this will be welcomed by young and old neighbours alike.
In Rome and the south of Italy, you may be met with the unusual sight of bagpipe-playing shepherds (zampognari) walking through the streets and performing in piazzas, dressed in traditional sheepskin and wool cloaks.
New Zealand – The pohutukawa Christmas tree and a new take on carols!
New Zealand is another country seeing Christmas arrive amid the warmer days of summer. Expect to barbecue on the beach and receive a pair of jandals (yes, you guessed it, a cross between a sandal and a flip flop!) as a gift, whilst sitting around New Zealand’s own special Christmas tree, the Pohutukawa tree, with its bright crimson red flowers.
Popular Christmas songs have been adapted to reflect the nice weather, so if you go to a carol concert, brush up on the changed words to your old favourites such as A Kiwiana Christmas!
Portugal – Bonfires, banana trees and feeding the dead!
In Portugal giant bonfires are traditionally lit on Christmas Eve after mass and burn through the night to welcome the rising sun.
If part of your new life in Portugal sees you sharing a Christmas meal with a Portuguese family, you will experience the traditional Christmas feast known as ‘consoda’. It is a time to remember loved ones. So, do not be surprised to find families setting extra places at the table for deceased family members. The practice is believed to bring good fortune to the house. Do not be tempted to pick up food crumbs that many will leave for deceased relatives.
A popular meal that is often served in Portugal during Christmas is Bolo Rei (Portuguese Christmas Kings Cake). One modern tradition is Braga’s banana tree (Bananeiro de Braga) where people meet to wish each other a merry Christmas with a glass of Moscatel de Setúbal, accompanied by a banana. The bizarre tradition began at a Tavern in Braga with a fruit warehouse, but it somehow caught on.
Canary Islands – Dancing, music and grapes!
The biggest Christmas celebration in the Canary Islands is actually on Christmas Eve, which is known as Nochebuena (the Good Night). Christmas traditions feature music, dancing and food. You can experience the musical traditions of Ranchos de Pascua that date back to musical groups travelling around the villages in the 16th century.
Alternatively, you could enjoy the more recent Rancho de Teguise in Lanzarote, which has preserved typical dances at the church entrance to honour the new child Jesus.
New Year’s Eve (La Nochevieja) is also a big party! One tradition is to eat 12 grapes at 12pm for good luck in the year ahead – one for each strike of the clock.
Spain – Watch out for goblin poo and runners in red underwear!
Spanish Christmas traditions vary from region to region. Within the Catalonian community, you should not be surprised to find a caganer, a little gnome-like figure, hiding somewhere with his trousers down, dropping a little poo amid the more traditional nativity characters. This tradition dates back to the 18th/19th century, so the story goes. In Barcelona, you will find a Christmas market where you can buy one of these little characters.
You will also find that the Three Kings bring most children gifts. Santa Claus’ popularity is rising, yet many still wait to celebrate with Christmas gifts delivered by the Kings on January 6th (delivered overnight on the 5th) instead of Christmas day. The Kings parade through the streets, giving out sweets, and when the children get home, they put shoes out for the Kings to return overnight and fill with presents.
Not Christmas, but we thought you might like the Spanish tradition of wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve. If you are close to La Font de la Figuera, you can expect to see runners wearing just red underwear. If you want to join in, you should note that the small town has the highest pneumonia rates in the country, so we guess it can be a bit chilly!
Dubai and the UAE – Christmas in the desert
Despite the very different climate to the UK over the festive period, Christmas in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates is surprisingly similar to that of a UK Christmas. Homes and shopping malls decorated with fake snow, a traditionally decorated Christmas tree and many religious Christmas services over the festive period can be a pleasant reminder and a chance to participate in some familiar traditions.
No matter what the temperature, you can expect to find a hot cup of cocoa and have the luxury of enjoying it on the beach or whilst turning up the aircon to feel a little winter chill whilst enjoying traditional Christmas songs.
But in addition to imported traditions, Dubai will often put its own unique spin on festivities with a laser, light and sound show.
Poland– Watch out for live carp in the bath!
If you visit your Poland neighbours in the run-up to the festive season and need a bathroom break, you may find a live carp swimming in the bathtub. They cook and eat the carp as part of a festive feast on Christmas Eve known as Wigilia supper. A lot of traditional dishes are prepared and you’ll likely find hay under a white tablecloth on the dinner table. The hay symbolises that Jesus was born in a manger and the white cloth represents the veil of Mary.
Another nice tradition is leaving an empty place set at the table for unexpected guests or those who might pass by who are hungry. Some believe that this space may be filled by the spirits of passed loved ones or even Jesus himself.
Sweden – The Yule Goat and Donald Duck!
Instead of a donkey, be prepared for the Yule Goat, a tradition dating back to Pagan times. Miniature versions adorn Christmas trees, and you can find a gigantic larger-than-life version in the city of Gävle, every year since the 1960s.
Swedes also have a strange penchant for 1950’s cartoons so Christmas is not complete without Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Jiminy Cricket and other Disney classics.
USA – popcorn and pickles on the Christmas tree!
The USA is not known for particularly strange Christmas traditions but every state tends to have their own unique twist on Christmas. However, they tend to dress their Christmas trees with popcorn and make popcorn garlands.
Also, do not be surprised to see a pickle ornament like a gherkin hiding on their tree with the first child to find it winning a gift! There are many stories about how the tradition got started, so it could be fun to see which one you believe.
They are also big fans of drinking eggnog, a tradition from the 18th century, made from raw eggs. It may not be everyone’s drink of choice, but it is certainly worth trying as a new resident in the USA.
Japan – Fried chicken instead of turkey!
Whilst Japan is a predominantly non-Christian country, they certainly make the most of the Christian holiday, although language barriers have changed some traditions a little. Many children believe Christmas is to celebrate Santa’s birthday, and as such, the event is mainly a commercial stunt. Christmas decorations start to disappear late on December 25th. Families will not be placing many presents under the Christmas tree. They are just for show, a single gift for each child is placed on the pillow, and Santa comes through the window, as most Japanese houses have no chimney.
Thanks to an effective marketing campaign back in the 1970s by KFC (yes, the fried chicken empire), the Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (Kentucky for Christmas) campaign saw fried chicken rise to fame for Christmas dinner. The idea came after overhearing a foreign couple talk about how they missed turkey for their Christmas dinner and used KFC as a substitute.
Now, even those who do not celebrate with a tree or other Christmas seasonal activities will still order a KFC meal for Christmas many months in advance! You need to be prepared, though, as it becomes hectic, and all of this happens on December 24th rather than the 25th. As with most Japanese Christmas traditions, a Christmas cake of strawberry shortcake often follows it.
Austria – Ghouls wandering the streets!
We have left Austria until last, as this can be a scary experience that you will undoubtedly want to prepare for. Austrian tradition sees a ghoulish ‘Krampus’ creature come to life as the evil accomplice of St Nicholas, seeking out badly behaved children.
Throughout December, scarily masked figures wander the streets in an attempt to find out who has been naughty or nice and leave the naughty children worried about what they will receive from Krampus for Christmas! You may want to warn your younger family members that being good is best!
Where will you be spending Christmas this year?
The more bizarre traditions can make Christmas as an expat an experience to savour. So, if you have moved abroad for work, family, or one of the many other reasons Britons choose to emigrate each year, spending Christmas observing customs in your new country could be a great way to connect with local people.
It provides a good chance to become part of the community around your new home and bring something different to the festive period for your family and visitors from the UK.
If you are looking for Christmas present ideas you can check out our recommendations for gifts for people living in another country.
Of course, if you need help with a move abroad, we are here to help; we provide international shipping services as well as international removals, and our local knowledge and expertise could really help ensure your move is as stress-free as possible. This could allow you to settle in quickly so you can enjoy the experience of a completely new culture, whether at Christmas or any other time of year.