With nearly 2.5 billion Christians spread out across all corners of the globe, December 25th is an international day of celebration of the birth of Christ. Different nations/cultures have developed numerous different Christmas traditions and/or celebrations, some dating back centuries. These traditions and celebrations have been exported to other cultures over and vice versa, sometimes unknowingly.
Not to sound cliche, but Christmas truly is a time where people of all different backgrounds come together to celebrate the same thing.
Here are five different Christmas traditions and/or celebrations from around the world.
Origin: Bavaria, Germany
Christmas markets, also known as Christkindlmarkt (Southern Germany pronunciation translating to “Christ’s Child” market) are street markets that pop up in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Originated in Germany, the Striezelmarkt in Dresden is considered the first genuine Christmas market. The Striezelmarkt was first held in 1434 but earlier markets known as “December markets” are referenced as far back as 1298 in Vienna. The Striezelmarkt was the precursor to what would become modern Christmas markets, which begin during Advent. Many towns in Germany, Austria and Switzerland usher in Advent with the opening of a Christmas market.
Markets generally include a nativity scene, Nussknacker (nutcrackers), traditional Christmas cookies such as Lebkuchen and Bratwurst. Glühwein – a heated, spiced wine – is often considered a favorite at traditional Christmas markets.
Modern Christmas markets include the staples in addition to more ethnic German food and alcoholic beverages, stalls that sell various gifts and a wide array of hand-made products. Famous Christmas markets are held in Dresden, Nuremberg, Frankfurt and Nuremberg among other German/Austrian cities and towns.
Christmas markets are also one of the more well known Christmas traditions to have impact outside its origin region. Christmas markets can be found around the world, typically in regions with significant German populations. The United States in particular has a fair share of Christmas markets with major, annual markets in Chicago, Philadelphia, Arlington, New York City and Bethlehem, PA among other places. Markets have increasingly become an annual tradition in many English municipalities since 1982, with Lincoln, England establishing what remains one of the biggest Christmas markets in the U.K. Annual markets are currently held in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool among other places.
Strasbourg, France has celebrated a Christmas Market around its Cathedral since 1570, when the region was part of the Holy Roman Empire.
Origin: The Philippines
The Philippines is an overwhelmingly Christian nation with upwards of 90% of the population identifying as such. Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines and nobody quite gets into the Christmas spirit like they do. Christmas light displays featuring “paróls“; star-shaped lanterns meant to be a representation of the star of Bethlehem, are prominent. The paról symbolizes Filipinos’ goodwill during the Christmas season and represents light triumphing.
Paróls came to prominence in rural areas of the Philippines when people would use them as a light source on their way to Midnight Mass, which is another part of the Filipino Christmas celebration. The paróls came in handy before electricity was widely available in the country and have remained a part of the Fillipino Christmas season. “[The parols are] as important to Filipinos as the Christmas tree to Western culture — without parols Christmas wouldn’t be complete,” Philippines native Christian Ian V. Bordo told CNN’s Sarah Brown.
Large light displays including Paróls can be found throughout the Philippines from September all the way through August. Those of Filipino descent carry the tradition with them across the globe, including San Francisco.
Eggnog is a mix of beaten egg, sugar, cream, milk, nutmeg and some type of liquor – typically brandy, rum or whiskey. Though eggnog’s exact origin is the subject of debate, it is widely agreed that the drink is an evolved form of a medieval British ale-type drink known as “posset”. Posset was made with hot milk that was curdled with wine and ale and flavored with spices. The original drink that would become known as eggnog was known as “egg flip” in England due to the practice of “flipping” (rapidly pouring) the mixture between two pitchers to mix it. The term “eggnog” is thought to be an Americanized term for the concoction.
Eggnog became a traditional Christmas drink in the 1700’s. The American colonies at the time provided vast swaths of farmland which made liquor more affordable. Eggnog continued to be popular across both sides of the Atlantic during the 18th century, before and after the revolution. Eggnog was a favorite of George Washington, who even had his own personal recipe.
Eggnog remains a Christmas staple in both England and the United States, making it one of the many Christmas traditions with a global reach. Eggnog is called “coquito” in Puerto Rico and is made with rum and fresh coconut juice. In Iceland, eggnog is served hot as a desert.
Origin: Northern Europe and The United States
The modern Santa Claus is essentially an Americanized version of a Christmas figure found in many European countries. Santa’s earliest origins are based on the real life Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Greek Christian Bishop. Saint Nicholas was known for his generous gifts to the less fortunate. During the Middle Ages, his feast day – December 6th – was commemorated with children receiving gifts in his honor.
“Father Christmas” is an English Christmas figure dating back to the reign of Henry VIII, where he was portrayed as a large man with green robes. The Saint Nicholas celebration was no longer celebrated at this time, meaning “father Christmas” instead arrived on Christmas day. “Sinterklass” is the Santa equivalent in the Netherlands and Belgium while Germanic culture also features a Santa figure with pagan origins.
The Santa Claus of today is more an Americanized version of all these characters. “Kris Kringle” had become a popular Christmas character in parts of the United States by 1845 – leaving gifts in stockings for children of “good personage”. What became the classic visual representation of Santa Claus was originally drawn by famous cartoonist Thomas Nast. The illustration was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1863.
America’s economic boom following the Second World War cemented Santa as a giver of boatloads of gifts to well behaved children. Coca Cola was instrumental in the popularization of Santa, having featured him in ads since the 1920’s. While different variations of this character still exist across the globe, Santa has pretty much cornered the market and become one of the more global Christmas traditions.
The Gävle Goat
The Gävle Goat is built on the first day of Advent and is a giant version of a traditional Swedish yule goat. Yule goats may have Germanic pagan origins and today exist as popular Christmas ornaments.
Typically standing around 13 meters tall, the Gävle Goat is made of straw and stands in the town square of Gävle. The plan was initially devised by advertising consultant Stig Gavlén and financed by Harry Ström. The original goat was constructed by the town’s fire department in 1966 and ironically burned down. Goats were then built in the following years and survived, only to be burned down again in 1969. Two drunk teenagers burned down the goat yet again in 1970, just hours after construction.
Tired of having the goats burned down, the financiers at the time decided to scrap the tradition in 1971. Versions of the goat were then constructed from the National Science Club from the School of Vasa only to be destroyed by fire, hit by a car and stolen between 1971 and 1980. Vandalizing the goat had turned into one of the more odd Christmas traditions on this list. Finally, the goat survived again in 1981 before more destruction.
In 1985, the goat was featured in the Guinness Book of Records and despite being guarded by military personnel, it was still burned down. The Southern Merchants – who were the financiers before the goat’s repeated destruction became tiresome – built their first goat since 1971 in 1986. To this date, a Gävle Goat is constructed by both the Science Club and The Southern Merchants.
The goat was most recently burned in 2016 and 2019’s goat is still standing; guarded by a double fence, CCTV, round-the-clock guards and a K9 unit. Gambling on the goat’s destruction has gone on since 1988 and the Gävle Goat can now be monitored via live-stream.