• by b.l. richards

Christmas Around the World

Dickens' Christmas Tree

Arguably the most celebrated holiday in the world, Christmas is a product of hundreds of years of both secular and religious traditions worldwide. The Christmas of today is a Victorian invention of the 1860's. Think Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Most of us know where the holiday comes from and all that but how about a little origin story of some of our better known traditions that we celebrate and then some downright weird ones around the globe that might make you forget that we are talking about Christmas.

From Mexico, we get the Poinsettias. Back in the 1800’s, an American minister to Mexico brought a red-and-green plant from Mexico to America. As its coloring seemed perfect for the new holiday, the plants were named after the man himself, Mr. Poinsett.

In 17th century Germany, decorating evergreen trees started the whole Christmas Tree event. The tradition of tinsel, also invented in Germany, is based on a legend about spiders whose web turned into silver when they were spun in a Christmas tree. There is also a German tradition about hiding a pickle that I just learned some in the states play although I never heard of it. Please don't use the Urban Dictionary definition.

Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. It is probably also responsible for the popularity of log-shaped cheese, cakes, and desserts during the holidays. Oh and Norwegians don't have to clean the house on Christmas Eve because they have to hide the brooms so witches can’t come and steal them. I'll use that superstitious excuse next time on my mother.

An Englishman named John Calcott Horsley helped to popularize the tradition of sending Christmas greeting cards when he began producing small cards featuring festive scenes and a pre-written holiday greeting in the late 1830s. You're welcome Hallmark.


Celtic and Teutonic peoples had long considered mistletoe to have magic powers where it could heal wounds, increase fertility, and provide good luck. It was during the Victorian era, the English started hanging mistletoe. Now we have an excuse to kiss someone other than grandma and uncle Carl, maybe even someone we like.


The earliest recipe for Fruitcake is from Rome and it’s older than Christ and just this year, a 106-year-old fruitcake was discovered and was described as in "excellent condition" and "almost" edible. I’ve never had a fruitcake in my life and don’t plan on ever having one.

Candy Canes started in Europe but didn’t appear in the U.S. until the 1800's. At first they were all white but then took on a shape representing Jesus’ hook for shepherding his lambs and colors representing purity (white) and Christ’s sacrifice (red). Think about that next time you are sucking on a Candy Cane.

Christmas ornaments were inspired by the shape of apples as apples were the original Christmas ornaments, put on the tree to symbolize the Garden of Eden.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

I found a lot of Halloween related customs during Christmas as well. Some just downright spooky.

In Greece, many believe in goblins causing mischief during the 12 days of Christmas. You could get rid of them by burning logs or old shoes, or hanging sausages in the chimney. Who's that in the chimney? It ain't Santa Clause!

Evil Krampus of Austria likes to chase and beat kids with branches. Bah Humbug!

Here is a new reason why cats are just plain evil. In Iceland, if you don’t receive new clothes before Christmas, The Yule Cat will come and eat you. At least they let you receive candy in shoes left on windowsills so besides the cat, just another reason to stay inside.

Instead of Santa and a reindeer driven sleigh, in Italy, you might be approaced by Befana, the friendly witch as she flies around on her broomstick on the night of January 5th, bringing gifts to good children and lumps of coal to the bad ones.

In Guatemala, local men in devil costumes appear on the streets and chase children during the first week of Advent until the time of “The Burning of the Devil, where people pile objects they no longer want or need in front of their houses, scatter firecrackers on top of the heap, and set fire to it.

Spider webs are common Christmas tree decorations in Poland because, according to legend, a spider wove a blanket for Baby Jesus.

KFC and Christmas in Japan

I placed everything below in the “What in the World File!”

  • In Japan, it’s all about the KFC due to some attractive advertising in the 70’s. Mad Men I tell you.

  • This sounds just plain fun. Roller Skating to Mass in Venezuela. Wonder if they play disco.

  • Deep fried caterpillars are on the menu in South Africa.

  • I know sometimes, I feel that the holiday can just be tossed in the crapper. In Catalonia, they might agree with me as statues of famous figures doing their bathroom business are believed to bring hope, prosperity, and fertility in the year to come, many in nativity scenes. Makes me feel better already.

  • Tired of being lonely for the holidays, be like them in the Czech Republic. In front of your front door, throw a shoe over your shoulder, and if it points toward the door, you might be married within the year. Wonder if at weddings, you should start throwing shoes instead of bouquets as it might thin the herd.

  • How about mixing Japan’s KFC tradition with Estonia and take your chicken into the sauna with you.

  • Oh hell, just throw pudding at the ceiling like they do in Slovakia.

  • Or my all time favorite, dress up like Santa and do a pub crawl here in the good ol’ USA.

Happy Festivus

Merry Christmas everyone and Happy Festivus for all you Seindfeldians. (As I want that to become a true holiday tradition).

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