Every culture that celebrates Christmas also has its own festive ways to make the holiday special. Some of those involve dishes or treats that only appear once a year. Others give gifts that carry a particular meaning, and still others decorate in a particular way, hold festivals, parades or parties to ring in the season. Growing up, I know my family's holiday season just wouldn't have been the same if we didn't hang the Christmas pickle on the tree, if dad didn't read A Visit From St. Nicholas to my brother and I before we went to sleep on Christmas eve — or didn't enjoy the Feast of Seven Fishes. In some countries, people can say the same about a visit from the Krampus, eating KFC or pulling a Christmas cracker.
This year, the holiday might look different for a lot of us, but that doesn't mean we can't keep many of our most treasured traditions. Maybe you'll even want to try out some of the most beloved Christmas traditions from around the world in your own home. You might just find a new cherished activity that your children and grandchildren (and their grandchildren!) won't be able to do without.
In Japan, celebrating Christmas is still relatively new. It's only been widely recognized for the past couple of decades, and is typically seen as a time to spread joy and cheer, or even a romantic couple's day, instead of a religious holiday. Many order KFC for Christmas dinner, or make a reservation at a restaurant instead of cooking a big feast.
In Poland, and many Polish communities worldwide, Christmas Eve dinner or (Wigilia) begins with sharing the Oplatek. The paper-thin square wafer is made of flour and water has an image of the Nativity on it. Everyone at the table breaks off a piece and shares a holiday greeting before passing it along. Sometimes, even pets get in on the fun.
All over Central Europe, people enjoy carp for Christmas Eve Dinner, according to NPR. But rather than picking it up from the supermarket, traditionalists let the fish live in the bathtub for a couple of days before preparing and eating it. Legend has it, the scales bring luck and good fortune for the coming year.
In Sweden, Finland, and Norway, St. Lucia's Day is a special part of the Christmas season that commemorates a woman said to be one of the first Christian martyrs. Celebrations involve candlelit processions, with the eldest girl in each family dressed up like St. Lucia in white gowns, often wearing a wreath with candles. The girls will also serve the family S-shaped Lucia buns and coffee or mulled wine.
In the seafaring country of Greece, decorating Christmas trees and boats has been popular for centuries. The first known Christmas tree in Greece was put up by King Otto 1833 next to a large decorated boat, which families traditionally erected to celebrate men's return from sea voyages. Today, in cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, large lit-up boats appear alongside trees.
In Ethiopia, people celebrate Christmas, called Ganna or Genna, on January 7 in accordance with the Ethiopian Orthodox Calendar. Mass often begins with a special candelit procession, in which participants wear a thin white shawl called a Netela and process around the church three times before the service begins. They don't typically give gifts during Ganna; it's a time for church, games and of course, food.
In Germany, you can do your Christmas shopping with a mug of mulled wine in one hand and a bratwurst in the other at festive outdoor markets. The sprawling seasonal markets pop up all over the country with artisans selling gifts for everyone on your list.
Filipinos take the Christmas season seriously, with big Nochebuena parties on Christmas Eve. Many will attend Mass, called Misa de Riso in the evening, and then feast and dance into the wee hours. Decorations often go big too, with the parol, a lighted star lantern, featuring prominently.