Inside 27 Unique Christmas Traditions From Across The Globe — And The Bizarre Stories Behind Them

Published December 21, 2023

In parts of Spain, children celebrate Christmas by beating a log until it "poops" out gifts — and that's far from the only unusual holiday tradition that can be found around the world to this day.

Christmas is one of the most popular global holidays, with more than two billion people participating in Christmas traditions of some sort around the world every year. Even in countries with a small Christian population, Christmas remains an important celebration.

Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas in the same way. In fact, it would be fair to say that no two Christmas celebrations are entirely alike, even just going from house to house in America. Still, the overall picture is bound to look somewhat similar: a decorated Christmas tree with presents beneath it, stockings hanging above the fireplace, and a feast on the dinner table.

But when you compare Christmas traditions around the world, those differences become much more noticeable — especially when you consider that many of them did not start as Christmas celebrations at all.

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Inside 27 Unique Christmas Traditions From Across The Globe — And The Bizarre Stories Behind Them
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How Pagan Rituals Became Christmas Traditions

Long before Christianity dominated much of the Western world, religion was much more varied and localized. Today, we call this Paganism, but to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Germanic peoples, tales of nature spirits, pantheons of gods, and legendary heroes were the subjects of daily worship. Pagan religions often revered the natural world and paid tribute to it.

This eventually led to the all-important celebration of Yule, or Yuletide, the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

Yule was an end-of-the-year celebration commemorating the previous year's events, honoring the gods with a festival of song, food, and drink — and sometimes sacrifice. Yule occurred during a sort of double month that combined December and January into a period known as Giuli, which was based around the winter solstice and the darkest part of the year.

Christmas Traditions Around The World

Wikimedia CommonsYule was a celebration of the preceding year that was held on the darkest night of winter.

The ancient Vikings and Goths likewise believed that the days leading up to Yuletide were ripe with magic. They thought that undead creatures known as draugr wandered the Earth and that Odin himself led a ghostly Wild Hunt across the sky. Hence, they made sacrifices to appease the gods.

And although Christianity all but wiped out many of these pagan religions, a lot of their rituals had become engrained in society. Rather than outlawing these practices, the Catholic Church typically found ways to reincorporate local traditions into their new religion in a process known as "Christian interpretation."

In fact, this is how the Christmas tree became popular. Likewise, many historians believe Jesus was born in the spring. The Church changed that date to Dec. 25, possibly so that it would align with Yuletide celebrations.

Remnants of Yule can still be seen in many Christmas traditions around the world, especially those of Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. For instance, there's the Yule Goat in Sweden, the legend of Frau Perchta in Germany, or the many Icelandic tales of horrifying monsters like the Yule Cat and Grýla the ogress. And many of these once-pagan customs have even made their way to America.

The Most Common American Christmas Traditions

Japanese Print Of Santa Claus

Public DomainAlthough Santa Claus was primarily a North American concept, his iconic red suit and bushy beard can be seen depicted in cultures across the world.

Although it is generally considered to be a religious holiday, it's fair to say that Christmas has changed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In America, it is recognized as a national holiday, and the "Christmas season" now begins — at least according to retailers — as early as October.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, a man named Santa Claus first entered the cultural zeitgeist, drawing inspiration from the Dutch Sinterklaas and the German Saint Nicholas. Santa's eternal popularity was solidified in the 1823 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Since then, the American idea of Christmas has only expanded. There are countless films and television specials about the holiday, ranging from family-friendly cartoons to horror movies. Nearly every family who celebrates will decorate their house with a Christmas tree. Many may make small gingerbread houses and fruitcakes. Radio stations play a mix of traditional Christmas carols and contemporary Christmas hits.

It's certainly a far cry from Christmas' Yuletide roots.

But it isn't all bad, either. For all of the jadedness that comes with the commercialization of Christmas, this end-of-the-year holiday period is also a time when many people set their differences aside and act out of the kindness of their hearts, paying goodwill forward and performing charitable acts.

It can certainly be a stressful time, but humanity has always found a reason to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another. Across the world, people want to spread joy and celebrate together at the end of the year — and there's something reassuring about that.

After exploring these unique Christmas traditions from around the world, see our list of nine terrifying Christmas legends from across the globe. Or, check out our gallery of odd vintage Christmas ads.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Harvey, Austin. "Inside 27 Unique Christmas Traditions From Across The Globe — And The Bizarre Stories Behind Them.", December 21, 2023, Accessed June 23, 2024.