Winter Holiday Traditions Around the World | For Kids

Tell us about your favorite holiday traditions!

Every December, people all over the world gather to celebrate the holiday season with family and friends.  In the United States, in the days leading up to Christmas we decorate Christmas trees, string lights on our houses, bake gingerbread cookies, attend church, or go caroling through the streets. One of our favorite traditions is to drive around and look at all of the Christmas lights. Inflatable decorations of Santa Clause, the Grinch, or other beloved holiday characters can also be found on people’s lawns. 

On Christmas Eve, children hang stockings close to the Christmas tree before going to bed.  They leave out milk and cookies and even sometimes carrots in anticipation of a visit from Santa Clause. This is the bearded, cheery Old Saint Nick of the Western tradition, who flies through the sky in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. He stops at every house to put candy and toys in each stocking.

On Christmas day there are presents and music and Christmas delicacies.  We nibble on candy canes, fruit cakes, puddings, or Three Kings Cake.  For dinner, we feast on turkey, beef, ham, or seafood with all the delicious desserts – pies, cakes, and cookies of every description!

Now let’s talk about other countries because there are lots of fun and unique festivities happening all over the globe, too!

Around the world during Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, people gather with family and friends, giving gifts for not just one night – but eight!  They light candles on Menorahs, attend religious services, sing songs, and make wonderful dishes like matzah ball soup and fried potato pancakes.  So delicious!

In Africa, as well as the US and other parts of the world, Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 through January 1st.  Kwanzaa highlights African-American culture and history.  Seven candles are lit on a Kinara to honor their seven principles of African Heritage, including unity, purpose, creativity, and faith.  Feasts are held with a bounty of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.  And there are performances, too – drumming, dancing, singing, and poetry.  This wonderful tradition fairly recently, in 1966.

In England, they celebrate Christmas similar to the United States and many people like to put a “Christmas Cracker” by their plates at dinner time.  What is a Christmas Cracker?  It’s a cardboard tube filled with little candies and prizes.  It is wrapped in paper and ribbons and when you pull the ribbons, it cracks open like a pinata, with all the goodies spilling out.  To me, it sounds like a fun way to start a Christmas meal – like blowing whistles at a birthday party.  The United Kingdom also celebrates “Boxing Day” on December 26, when gifts are given to tradespeople, helpers, and the less fortunate.

In Germany, they celebrate St. Nicholas Day, who is the patron saint of children.  Every year, on the night of December 6th, children place their shoes outside their house – or by a door or fireplace – and wake to find them filled with candies and toys left by Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.  Perhaps the United States took this German tradition and changed it a bit, hanging stockings for Santa instead of leaving shoes for Saint Nicholas!  Either way, it’s a fun tradition!

But of all of these, Iceland is the winner, for nightly visits by Christmas characters!  Icelandic children put their shoes by their window for 13 nights leading up to Christmas.  They are then visited each night by one of “13 Yule Lads” –  who look more like trolls or elves – with crazy names like Doorway-Sniffer,Spoon-Licker,Sausage-Swiper,Candle-Stealer, Curd-Gobbler, and Window-Peeper!  These little men put candy in the shoes of good children or rotten potatoes in the shoes of naughty ones.   I sure wouldn’t want rotten potatoes in MY shoes – would you? 

In the Philippines, they hold a giant lantern festival called “Ligligan Parul” every December in San Fernando, the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.”  These lanterns – which are said to symbolize Jesus’s Star of Bethlehem – are not little lanterns that sit on a table.  They are HUGE and round – almost as big as Ferris wheels – with hundreds of colorful, blinking lights.  These lanterns are displayed in various cities throughout December and thousands of people gather to see them every year.  If you love going to fairs to see the Ferris Wheel and all the lights, this lantern festival must be AMAZING!

And what about Christmas in Australia and New Zealand?  In December, they also have stockings, presents, and Christmas trees, but since it’s so warm there in their part of the world, they hold barbecues and go swimming instead of skiing or building snowmen!

On the other side of the globe, Mexico has a festival called “Las Posadas,” meaning “the inns.”  It honors Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn before the birth of Jesus.  This festival involves a parade through the streets led by “Mary and Joseph,” and ends with a feast at a new house every night for nine nights.  They also celebrate Las Posadas with music, prayer, pinatas, and fireworks – kind of like an American Christmas and Fourth of July rolled into one!

In Sweden, they build an immense straw goat and place it in the middle of town in honor of the Swedish Yule Goat.  This straw goat can be taller than a house, with big horns and bright red ribbons wrapped around its legs, nose, stomach, and horns.  At first glance, it reminds me of a huge Christmas reindeer with a beard!  But why do they celebrate a goat?  Well, some say it comes from an old pagan religion honoring Saturn, the god of good harvests.  Back then, the people would sacrifice young goats to Saturn as part of their winter celebration.  Others say the goat honors the Norse god Thor, who rides through the sky in a sleigh pulled by two goats.  This is very similar to the tradition of Santa Claus and his reindeer – and that’s why you will see goat decorations hanging on Christmas trees in Sweden.

But be careful in Austria!  I hear they have a spooky creature called a “Krampus.”  This beast looks like a wooly yak – or bull – with large horns and a red face, that parades through town on the night of December 5th, called “Krampusnacht.”  He waves a wooden stick and carries a basket, asking children if they’ve been good or bad.  If they have been good, they get a treat like nuts, fruit, or apples, but if they have been naughty…well, let’s just hope we never find out!

In South Wales, Christmas is like trick-or-treating in America.  Every December, they put a horse’s skull on a stick and then drape a sheet over it to make it look like a ghostly horse. People then carry this horse figure around town, knocking on doors.  They sing part of a song at a person’s door and the person needs to finish the song, then give them food or drink. Sounds a bit scary but also fun, unless you don’t know the song.  I wonder what happens then?  Is a trick involved? Maybe someone from Wales can tell us!

In Italy, their Christmas celebrations involve a witch!  Twelve days after Christmas, on January 5th, children leave wine and sausages out for La Belfana, a witch who zooms down chimneys on a broom and leaves treats for all the good children – or coal for the naughty ones.  It is said that La Belfana received an invitation to see the birth of Jesus centuries ago but didn’t attend.  She now feels bad about missing this momentous birthday and roams the Earth every year looking for baby Jesus while leaving gifts for children.

And one other Halloween custom has made it to Christmas – the custom of carving vegetables.  Here in America, we carve pumpkins for Halloween.  In Oaxaca, Mexico, they carve radishes for Christmas!  But not ordinary radishes…no, these are HUGE radishes as big as our pumpkins!  It is quite a contest to see who can carve the most amazing radishes – everything from monsters to Christmas characters.  What a great event in Oaxaca.   

In Ukraine, they put spider decorations – called “pavuchky” – on their trees!  Why?  Well, a legend states that once there was an old widow with small children.  The children grew a Christmas tree from a small pine cone but couldn’t afford any decorations.  That Christmas, they went to sleep, and in the morning found their tree covered in spider webs.  When the sun hit the spider webs, they turned into silver and gold.  Some believe this is how the custom of hanging shiny tinsel on trees became a popular Christmas tradition.  Pretty neat, don’t you think?

What Christmas traditions do you observe with family and friends?  Which tradition is your favorite? Would you like to try some of these other traditions?  If so, which ones?  I think it would be fascinating to travel around the world to see these unique traditions, festivities, and decorations. With the help of your parents, you’ll have to look up pictures and videos on the Internet to learn more about them. I would love to hear from you and learn how you celebrate the season. 

If you want to share, click on the link in the show notes and tell me what you do with your family and friends during the holiday season.  With your parent’s permission, share your tradition, your first name, and your country.  And you just might hear your name and story featured in our next episode!

Until then, from my family to yours, we wish you a happy holiday season this year!