International Christmas Traditions
Celebrating Christmas with lush red and green bunting from producers like Independence Bunting is more exciting and fulfilling when you understand the history and origins of some Christmas traditions across the globe.
We’re well into the Fall season, which means Christmas is right around the corner! Start “stocking” up on Christmas decorations to enhance the joyful traditions of the season. Celebrating Christmas with lush red and green bunting from producers like Independence Bunting is more exciting and fulfilling when you understand the history and origins of some Christmas traditions across the globe.
Finnish people also have a unique history regarding their Santa Claus. In modern times, Santa Claus is also known as Joulupukki, which translates to “Christmas Goat.” Before you scratch your head, there’s a perfectly good explanation for this. Legend has it that in times past, a Yule Goat existed who was much the opposite of the joyous, gift-giving Santa. He was quite scary, in fact, and actually begged people for presents without giving anything in return. Over the years somehow, the goat changed into a kinder, more generous figure and eventually Santa Claus became the modern incarnation. However, the name Joulupukki stuck and Santa Claus today is still sometimes referred to as such.
Additionally, many Finnish who are away try to make it home by the 21st of December in time for the three holy days of the holiday: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. Houses are thoroughly cleaned for the holidays, and either on the 23rd or Christmas Eve is when Finns get their tree from the local market. Christmas Eve is the most involved of the three days. Finns typically begin that day with a breakfast of rice porridge and plum juice. Families decorate their tree and listen to a noontime broadcast, “Peace of Christmas.” It has also become a tradition on Christmas Eve to visit the gravesites of those who have passed. Since that time of year brings nightfall as early as 3PM, families bring lanterns with them as they march through the snow. These lanterns are left by the graveside, illuminating the entire cemetery in a warm glow of light. Additionally, a nice relaxing sauna visit is a favorite of the Finns as well.
A favorite Christmas Eve dinner of Finns is a leg of pork with a side of mashed potatoes, slow-baked in a birch box container in the oven. Other dishes include casseroles, rutabagas, carrots, cured salmon and even turkey. Traditionally, lutefish was served to start, but it’s become a rare dish in modern times.
Many people in Scandinavian countries begin the Christmas season by honoring St. Lucia, or St. Lucy, on December 13th. This is in part why we also refer to Christmas as a season, not a day since often festivities and other celebrations go hand in hand with the holiday.
In modern times, St. Lucia’s Day is now celebrated with girls dressing up in long, white dresses, a crown of candles, and a red sash tied around the waist to honor the saint. In towns, villages, and even for the nation, a girl is often chosen to represent Lucia for a procession complete with caroling. These Lucias may also bring their carols to hospitals and nursing homes along with Pepparkakor, which are gingersnap biscuits. Another treat particular to St. Lucy’s day is Lussekatts, a sweet bun with raisins and flavored with saffron that is eaten for breakfast.
Like Finland, Christmas Eve is big in Sweden, and when the main holiday feast is eaten. A buffet, or julbord is served at lunchtime, with lots of fish; cold fish, herring in various dishes, gravlax (salmon cured in sugar, salt, & dill), as well as smoked salmon. Julskinka, a Christmas ham, plus turkey and roast beef are also served, meatballs, sausages, koldomar (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat), pork ribs, and so much more! Desserts consist of more pepparkakor, sweets, and other pastries.
One unique tradition on Christmas Eve is the watching of Kalle Anka och hans vanner onskar God Jul, or just, Kalle Anka. This translates to, “From All of Us to All of You,” which is Donald Duck’s Disney Christmas special. The tradition has been around for over 50 years, and has become an endearing way to get the family to gather ‘round in the spirit of Christmas.
Also on Christmas Eve is the exchange of presents, brought by Jultomten (Santa), or even Tomte, which are little gnomes or elves.
Early Christmas morning is when the Swedish attend church. Christmas festivities wrap up on January 13th, Tjugondag Knut. On this day, the Christmas Tree comes down, and all of the Christmas sweets are finished up!
Many of the German traditions will likely sound at least vaguely familiar to the American ear, since a lot of our holiday customs do originate from there.
Much of the preparations for Christmas begin before the month of December, and the festivities start on December 6th, the day for St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. The night before, children practice an old tradition, familiar to other European countries as well, of putting their shoe or boot outside the door. On this night, St. Nicholas goes from door to door, carrying his book of sins from children throughout the year. Good children receive treats in their boots, while the naughty ones receive just twigs. Story sound vaguely familiar? These traditions are the origins of the Christmas stockings we hang by our fireplaces!
In other German traditions, the Christkindl (also Christkind) was the Protestant-based figure who bore gifts for the children at this time. Like Santa and St. Nicholas, the Christkindl is also an elusive gift-giver, and children are told that attempting to search for him will deter him from bringing presents. In the U.S., Santa’s alias, Kris Kringle actually originated from mispronunciations of Christkindl. Today, the Christkindl figure competes with the modernization of the Santa Claus figure, but in some parts of Germany, it is still relevant.
Germany is also big on celebrating the Advent, with a variety of Advent calendars on display in their homes. Before the 19th century, families would mark the days before Christmas with chalk on their wall. Eventually in the mid-19th century, advent calendars were crafted, then the first printed one appeared in Munich, 1903. You’ll also find the Adventskranz in homes as well. This is the fir wreath containing four candles; one is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. Some of the original Adventskranz contained four large candles and 19 smaller ones.
Germany is quite famous for their Christmas Markets, filled with holiday food and decor. The practice of these markets hail back to the Middle Ages, but are extremely popular still. Most of the major cities have one, but the largest ones in Germany can be found in Dortmund and Cologne, drawing over 4 million visitors each year!
Christmas Eve is also a big night in German culture. Christmas trees, another tradition from the Middle Ages, are decorated on this night. Traditionally, the mother of the house decorates it in secret if the children are young. The father keeps the children distracted, and a bell sounds when it is time for the children to lay eyes on their beautiful tree filled with decorations, edible and otherwise! A Christmas Eve feast is also part of the festivities, along with opening gifts. Feasting also continues through Christmas Day. Stollen is a popular treat for this holiday; it is a yeast bread with dried fruits and topped with confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar.
Christmas is known as Jul in Norway, and the holiday prep also begins in early December. Norwegians officially begin the Christmas season on December 13th with their St. Lucia celebrations. Their traditions involve dressing the youngest daughter of the family as the saint, with the white robe, red sash, and crown of evergreens complete with candles. The boys dress up in long white shirts with pointed hats. Breakfast is served to the parents by the children, and include lussekatter (Lucia buns) and coffee.
One of the more popular Christmas decorations, the yule log, comes from Norway. The ancient Norse have been using yule logs to celebrate the return of the sun at the winter solstice for a very long time. Because they celebrate the sun and describe it as a giant wheel of fire, their ideas bolster the international concepts of using light and fire to celebrate the Christmas season.
Plenty of julebord, or Christmas parties are hosted around this time of year. Juleaften, Christmas Eve, is also an exceptionally festive day. Families often go to church before their big dinner, which usually starts around 5pm. Dinner is typically a feast with pork, lamb ribs in the Northern and Western regions, while lutefisk and cod are popular in the Southern regions. They also have plenty of Christmas drinks, juleøl, which are beers for the Christmas season, usually a darker and spicier brew. For children and others who don’t drink, there’s julbrus, a sweet soda enjoyed by everyone. Norwegian cookies like goro and berlinekrans are favorites around the holidays. Gingerbread, pepperkake, and gingerbread houses are also hugely popular. Dinner can linger for awhile unless the kids become restless waiting to open their Christmas presents, brought by Julenisse (Santa Claus).
Christmas Day is actually a very private holiday with just family. This also starts the time of Romjul, from December 25th through New Year’s Eve. The day after Christmas, friends are welcomed back into the home to finish what’s left of all the holiday feasting.
We hope you enjoyed learning about these Christmas traditions, some which may be familiar and others new to you! Remember to include Independence Bunting in your holiday festivities, with our bold and bright pleated fans, gorgeous Christmas bows, and Christmas bunting to add a classy touch to your holiday celebrations. Explore our website, or visit our contact page for any inquiries.