You know the drill in the United States. We’ve got jolly old Santa who shimmies down the chimney bearing a big bag of swag. We’ve got flying reindeer and naughty lists and elves on shelves. We run the gamut from solemn celebrations of Christ’s birth to frenzied displays of consumerism, all in the name of Dec. 25.
But while some American traditions have drifted into other cultures, it’s safe to say that many of the 2 billion people across the globe who celebrate Christmas do it without the customs we hold dear. The American Santa, for instance, was only fully realized in the 19th century after being characterized in Clement Clarke Moore’s “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” and illustrated by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Many other places have their own Santa figure and other traditions as well — some quirky (by our standards, but who are we to judge?), some a bit terrifying, and all lovely in their own way. Consider the following:
1. Finland: Sauna time
It’s kind of hard to beat Finland in terms of Christmas. It's where Santa is from, after all, and it's the original winter wonderland. Much of the cheer takes place on Christmas Eve, the morning of which is started with rice pudding. The day is filled with Christmas ales and carols (which really should always go hand in hand). There is “Glögi” (mulled wine) and gingerbread, and the day is not complete without a long lull in the Christmas sauna.
2. Greece: Naughty goblins
A goat-footed kallikatzaros dances with glee. (Photo: ΟΕΔΒ 1961 [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
In Greece and other Southern European countries, mischievous goblins known as "kallikantzari" cause all kinds of chaos during the holiday season. According to folklore, the little creatures spend the year underground sawing the "world tree" in an effort to make Earth collapse, but just as they get close, Christmas comes along. Since the 12 days of Christmas are the only time they are able to escape the underworld, they emerge from their subterranean toil and wreak havoc — but Earth is given a reprieve. By some accounts, they are mostly blind, speak with a lisp and enjoy eating frogs, worms and other small creatures. They delight in urinating in flower beds and destroying Christmas decorations, among other antics. Fortunately, they can be kept at bay by hanging the jaw of a pig behind the door or keeping a fire lit in the fireplace. Phew.
3. Mexico: Minding the Ps
As in posadas, piñatas, poinsettias and ponche. One of the popular traditions of the Christmas season in Mexico is "las posadas," in which people re-enact Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. Making costumed pilgrimages through neighborhoods from house to house for nine days, the evenings end with a celebration replete with candy-filled piñatas, poinsettias and a Christmas fruit punch called ponche.
4. Sweden: St. Lucia Day
Sweden's long dark winters cause much celebration of light. (Photo: Claudia Gründer [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Many Scandinavian countries honor St. Lucia (or St. Lucy) each year on Dec. 13. St. Lucia Day began in Sweden, but by the middle of the 19th century had crept into Denmark and Finland. Towns select a St. Lucia to lead a procession each year which includes young girls dressed in white gowns with "light in their hair" — a nod to the saint who brought light to the dark Swedish winter. Head wreaths used to be adorned with candles, but now battery-powered bulbs generally do the job. "Star boys" also dress in white gowns with tall paper cones atop their heads, carrying wands with stars. The day marks the beginning of Christmas season and it is meant to bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year. (Compare that to how Americans kick off the holidays.) At home, the oldest daughter dresses in white with a crown of twigs and serves coffee and baked delicacies to family and friends who may visit throughout the day. (Which is to say ... she doesn't spend the day behind her closed bedroom door with headphones on texting her friends for hours on end? What?)
5. England: Paper royalty
England has paper crowns, we have cheap felt Santa hats. (Photo: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [public domain] [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
While Scandinavia may take the cake for its Nordic associations, the Victorians in 19th century Britain definitely gave Christmas a lot of charming pizazz as well. To this day, wonderfully quirky traditions persist. Like, when kids write letters to Santa, they are not sent by post but rather burned in the fireplace so that he can read the smoke. Christmas crackers are a popular tradition as well — the paper tube crackers are pulled at the table with a celebratory “pop,” revealing a trinket, joke and a paper crown. The wearing of paper hats and crowns is part of a tradition dating back to Roman Saturnalia celebrations which also involved festive headgear. And a tradition that Americans could do well to learn: taking down the tree and decorations within 12 days of Christmas to avoid suffering bad luck for the next year.
6. Australia: The Christmas barbecue and 'sandmen'
Frosty's cousin from Down Under. (Photo: mark goble [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
So, Australia totally has Christmas, but it’s summer and it’s really hot, which puts an unusual twist on the whole roast-goose-and-steamed-pudding thing. But the country has adapted and slowly transitioned from a more traditional holiday scenario to one that better suits their geography; including the building of "sandmen" during beach holidays and barbecues!
7. Ukraine: The 12 courses of Christmas
A number of Eastern European cultures celebrate Christmas Eve with a meal consisting of 12 courses, one for each Apostle. Since this comes during the time of nativity fast, the meal excludes meat, eggs and dairy; meaning that those 12 courses include a lot of fish, mushrooms and grains. Plus pickles and dumplings and doughnuts, oh my! There are many rituals involved in the tradition, one of which is that the meal is not started until the first star in the sky is spotted.
In a somewhat similar Italian Christmas tradition, families eat seven courses of fish on Christmas Eve. The tradition dates back to the Catholic custom of abstaining from meat during Lent and seven represents the seven sacraments, the seven days of creation and the seven deadly sins.
8. Norway: Gnomes rule
Woe comes to those who forget to provide porridge for the Christmas gnome. (Photo: Jenny Nyström [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
Those Norwegians. Not only do they get Slow TV and the ever-awesome "friluftsliv," but they get their Christmas presents delivered by a Santa gnome! In Scandinavian tradition, a Nisse is a household spirit usually described as a short man or woman donning a red cap and who looks after the house or farm. In the 19th century, the Nisse took on the role of Christmas gift-bearer and was then called "Julenisse" and has remained a large part of the holiday ever since. An important part of the holiday is to remember to put some porridge with butter out for the Nisse because they have a short temper and have been known to wreck the joint when neglected.
9. Russia, Greece and Bulgaria: A cold swim
That'll wake you up ... an Epiphany Day swim in the Don River. (Photo: Sergey Venyavsky [CC BY-SA 3.0]/RIA Novosti Archive/Wikimedia Commons)
While we get cozy in our bedazzled Christmas sweaters in front of a roaring fire, men in Orthodox Christian countries jump into frigid bodies of water. While this actually doesn't happen until Epiphany Day in January, it remains a Greek, Bulgarian and Russian Christmas tradition. An Eastern Orthodox priest throws a cross in the lake or river and the crowd rushes into the water. Whoever gets to the cross first is believed to have good luck in the new year ... which hopefully doesn't begin with pneumonia.
10. Alpine countries: Beware the Krampus
Because nothing says 'Merry Christmas' like a furry child-stealing devil. (Photo: Unknown [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
If a candy-cane-sweet sentimental holiday isn’t your cup of punch, perhaps you can find some inspiration from this Austrian, Swiss and German Christmas tradition. Enough with cheerful ol’ Saint Nick, they’ve got his colleague, the wonderfully devilish Krampus. Although there are a number of variations, he is usually a frightening anthropomorphic furry thing with horns and a long menacing tongue, decked in chains and cowbells. His mission? Too punish all the naughty boys and girls. Who needs the Boogie Man? Adding to the terror, during parades and festivals during December young men dress up as Krampus to create some real-life nightmare material. And we thought coal in the stocking was bad?
11. Iceland: A very wicked witch
Figures of Grýla, right, and her husband Leppalúði on the main street of Akureyri, Iceland. (Photo: David Stanley [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Santa sure looks good about now. Like the Krampus, Icelandic children hear tails of the witch/ogress Grýla who punishes badly behaved little children. According to lore, Grýla picks them up, puts them in her sack and then cooks them in her cauldron, reports Guide to Iceland. Some descriptions say she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head; others say she has 15 tails, each holding hundreds of balloons filled with trapped children. Sometimes Grýla works in cahoots with her ogre husband, Leppalúði. They bring bad children back to their cave and the tasty tots are never heard from again.
Editor's note: This file has been updated with new information since it was written in December 2015.