Living abroad as an expat can be challenging during the holiday season, particularly if you are far away from family and friends. What’s more, you might find that your new home celebrates with very different traditions from the ones you are used to, or they might not even celebrate the same holidays at all.
To help you embrace the traditions of your new home country, we’ve prepared a list of some of the more unusual Christmas traditions from around the world. Whether you have never celebrated Christmas before or find yourself celebrating in a foreign land, we hope this list inspires you to make some new traditions for yourselves!
The Philippines holds a Giant Lantern Festival on the Saturday before Christmas Eve in the city of San Fernando. The festival started with the tradition of making simple paper lanterns, but today it has turned into a fierce competition with elaborate electric lanterns that can reach up to six metres in height. This popular festival attracts visitors from around the world and San Fernando is now known as the ‘Christmas Capital of the Philippines’.
Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan but that doesn’t stop people from celebrating in their own way. Inspired by a group of foreigners that were unable to find a Christmas turkey in Japan and so had to opt for fried chicken instead, many Japanese now choose to enjoy a KFC meal on the 25th December. A famous marketing campaign by the fast food brand in the 1970s – 'Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!' or ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ – has led to this somewhat bizarre new tradition.
South Korea is the only East Asian country to recognise Christmas as a national holiday, but their celebrations may be unfamiliar to many Western expats. Santa Claus is known as ‘Grandpa Santa’ or ‘Santa Harabujee’, and he is often depicted in a blue rather than red outfit. Whilst the Koreans do exchange gifts at Christmas it is customary to give money rather than presents.
Germany is also host to one of the more unusual Christmas traditions. On the 5th December children leave a shoe outside the house for Saint Nikolaus (not to be confused with Santa Claus) to fill with sweets and toys overnight. But be warned, those children that haven’t been good this year are likely to find their shoes filled with dry branches instead.
Continuing with the shoe theme, in the Czech Republic it is tradition for unmarried women to throw a shoe over their shoulder at Christmas. If the toe of the shoe falls pointing towards the door, then they are predicted to get married within the next year. Most of the celebrations also happen on Christmas Eve rather than on the 25th December in the Czech Republic, including the traditional meal and opening of presents.
In Sweden Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the festive Yule Goat. Every year the Swedish town of Gävle creates a giant straw statue of a goat on the first day of Advent. Said to derive from the pagan tradition the Yule Goat is believed to help deliver gifts at Christmas. Sadly for the Yule Goat, a new tradition has also been created whereby every year someone tries (and usually succeeds) to burn down this festive monument.
Middle East and Africa
In Ethiopia Christmas Day is celebrated on the 7th January, not the 25th December, as they follow the ancient Julian calendar. The celebration is known as Genna where you will often find the locals taking part in a traditional game that is similar to field hockey. Many Ethiopians will also fast in the run up to Christmas, enabling them to celebrate with a hearty meal on the day itself.
In Lebanon it is traditional to decorate the Nativity scene by planting seeds, including chickpeas, broad-beans and lentils in cotton wool. The seeds are watered throughout December to ensure the shoots appear in time for Christmas Day.
Being in the Southern hemisphere, Christmas comes during the summer in South Africa. In addition to the usual festive food many South Africans shun the mince pies in favour of a tasty deep-fried caterpillar! The harvest of these creatures coincidentally coincides with Christmas time, meaning there are plenty to go around.
For some people living in the US it is tradition to hide a pickle (or pickle shaped ornament) on the Christmas tree, with the first person to find it on Christmas Day receiving a prize and good fortune for the coming year. This odd tradition is commonly believed to come from Germany although there is no evidence to support this, so the origins of the Christmas pickle remain a mystery!
In Mexico traditional Posadas are a big part of the Christmas celebrations. For each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas from 16th - 24th December, communities will come together to process through the streets with candles and sing carols. Each night the procession will end in a different home with food, drink and a piñata for the children.
In Venezuela the residents of Caracas like to travel to church on Christmas Day in an unusual way… on roller skates. The tradition has become so popular that roads are often closed early in the morning to allow people to roller skate ‘en masse’, to Mass! The night before children will also tie a piece of string to their big toe and hang it out the window so passing roller skaters can give it a friendly tug.
Merry Christmas to all our members around the world. However you choose to celebrate, we hope you have a very happy holiday!