Joy to the World: Christmas Festivity Across the Globe

Italians hark "Buone Feste Natalizie." Norwegians carol "God Jul." In Thailand you hear "Suksun Wan Christmas."

Merry Christmas, everybody. In any language.

Every culture brings its unique tradition to the festive season. So what interesting things take place globally as Dec. 25 rolls around?

Santa Claus Around the World

Santa Claus is one of those almost-universal Christmas icons, although he goes by a different name in many countries.

In Russia he is Father Frost. In Brazil he is better known as Papai Noel. But in Poland he has top celebrity status, where he is referred to as Starman.

And who says Santa can arrive only on a sleigh?

Down Under, he cruises in on a surfboard or rusty outback four-wheel drive. But for those living in rural areas, Santa does more than simply just wear red.

"Santa comes by on a big red fire truck on Christmas Eve, giving all the kids in the street a bag of lollies and a present," said 22-year-old Australian Chelsea Walk.

Since about 280 BC, Santa soared throughout the world delivering toys and candy to well-behaved boys and girls. The job has its perks, too: after a long year at the North Pole, girls and boys across the world reward Ol' Saint Nick with a special little treat.

While Americans traditionally leave Santa a glass of milk and cookies, "The Brits and Aussies prefer to keep Santa energized with beer, sherry or a mince pie," said Walk.

However, the big red-and-white man isn’t the only one coming to town with a sack of seasonal surprises.

"In Japan we have a Buddhist monk called Hotei-osho," said Japanese business student Tomoko Sasaki. "Some even think he has eyes in the back of his head, so as children we always tried to behave like he was nearby."

And how did he get his name? "He carries gifts in a hotel laundry bag," said Sasaki.

Sweden has a mischievous Christmas gnome called Juletomte, visible only to the family cat. Accompanied by his pet straw goat, "Tomte" can only be distracted from playing practical jokes by his favorite food — rice pudding.

But perhaps the children of Iceland are the luckiest of all, as they have 13 Santas known as "Yule Lads." According to, kids put their shoes in their bedroom window when the lads come to town. One by one, every night from Dec. 12-24, the children receive small presents in their shoes.

And it seems as though Rudolph isn't the only one in need of a nose job. The big-nosed witch, La Befana, visits the children of Italy on Jan. 6.

Why so late?

"She was said to have been so busy cleaning her house that she missed out on going with the three wise men to Bethlehem," said New York-based travel writer Rita Dempsey. "Children hang up their stockings so that she will fill them with toys and gifts."

Christmas Dinner

Among the tidings of gift-giving, religious Masses and kisses beneath the mistletoe, in many countries, Christmas jingles in the single biggest day of the year for food indulgence.

Global Gourmet writer Ian MaKay suggests that it is common for the Japanese to wait for hours lined up outside the local Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"At the root of this practice is the perceived similarity between Colonel Sanders and jolly old St. Nick," Makay said.

New Zealanders opt for a midnight menu of salted, dried codfish with boiled potatoes. Head to Belgium and expect cougnou, a special sweet bread shaped like the baby Jesus for breakfast, while those in Hungary serve up stuffed cabbage.

Most Americans associate Christmas with a stable-full of roasted ham or turkey, herb stuffing and sweet potatoes. This is followed by loosening the belt to make room for pumpkin pie and eggnog.

A few other cultures, however, don't have to worry quite so much about gaining excess pounds.

"Countries of the Southern Hemisphere feature fresh fruits and vegetables at their Christmas feasts which are often communal," said MaKay.

For the Zulu homelands, Zimbabwe and Peru, the Christmas celebration overlaps the festivities associated with the summer harvest. That means leafy greens, young corn, fresh fruit and ice cream.

And Australians prefer brewskis to eggnog.

"Aussies enjoy cold meat, seafood, salad and lots of beer," said Walk. "This is followed by an afternoon of backyard cricket with the neighbors, or lying on the beach as the summer sun scorches down."


In the Christian homes of Iraq, an unusual ceremony is held in the courtyard of the home on Christmas Eve.

"One of the children in the family reads the story of the Nativity from an Arabic Bible. The other members of the family hold lighted candles, and as soon as the story has been read a bonfire is lit," said Dempsey.

"If the thorns burn to ashes, the family will have good fortune. When the fire is reduced to ashes, everyone jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish."


Christmas begins in Sweden with the Saint Lucia ceremony.

"Before dawn on the morning of Dec. 13, the youngest daughter from each family puts on a white robe with a red sash. She wears a crown of evergreens with tall-lighted candles attached to it," said 25-year-old Swedish graphic designer Ang Isaksson.

"Accompanied by the other children, she wakes her parents, and serves them with coffee and Lucia buns."

And the males aren't forgotten. They join in by dressing as "star boys" in long white shirts and pointed hats covered in stars. Such a character originates from the Swedish legend of Saint Stefanos, a worker in King Herod's stables who gave the horses water when he saw the star of Bethlehem.


Before bedtime in Venezuela, children tie one end of a piece of string to their big toe and hang the other out the window. The next morning, roller skaters give a tug to any string they see hanging.

After Mass, everyone has themselves a Merry Little Christmas with coffee and crispy tortillas, otherwise known as tostados.


The Welsh love caroling, meaning it's far from a Silent Night in the streets around Christmas.

"We call this 'eisteddfodde' and it is often accompanied by a harp," said Welsh-native Adam Lloyd. "In certain rural areas, a villager is chosen to be the Mari llwyd, and they roam the town draped in white carrying a horse's skull on a long pole. Anyone given the "bite" by the horse's jaws must pay a fine."


Jamaicans also do more than simply rock around the Christmas tree. They perform a traditional folk-dance known as the Kumina from door-to-door on Christmas morning. On the way they collect gifts of food and drink, dressed up to depict cows and devils.

But whether you decorate your home with paper lanterns like the Chinese, pine leaves like the South Africans or chili pepper ornaments like the Mexicans, when it comes to Christmas, we all have a few things in common.

"It's a time of family togetherness, unconditional love and goodwill," said Dempsey. "No matter where in the world you spend the joyous festive season, Christmas will always be a reflection and celebration of human life."