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Christmas and New Year Customs Around the World

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

✦ Andy Williams had it right when he proclaimed Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year and, as soon as his song hits the airwaves each year, we know that the festive season is well and truly underway.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, featured on Brilliant-Online
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

This year may be slightly different in how or even where we celebrate but, ultimately, it is the season of good will when families can reconvene to share gifts, love and indulge in a feast of fine food and drink.

Here we take a look at how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the world, closely followed by New Year’s Eve festivities - some traditional, some a bit wacky but all filled with joy and cheer!

Light it up!

Decorations are a given during the festive season as individual homes, city streets and town centres are adorned with an impressive array of items and light displays. However, one would have to go some way to outdo the city of San Fernando in the Philippines, dubbed the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” Here a Giant Lantern Festival (Ligligan Parul Sampernandu) is held each year on the Saturday before Christmas Eve featuring dazzling parols (lanterns) that consist of thousands of spinning lights that symbolise the Star of Bethlehem. Competition is fierce to construct the most impressive parol and visitors flock from far and wide each year to witness the occasion.

Fright night!

Krampus, St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice, featured on Brilliant-Online
Krampus, St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice

One might be forgiven for thinking residents of Austria have confused Christmas with Halloween as each year during the first week of December a beast-like demon creature known as Krampus comes out to play, roaming city streets, frightening kids and punishing the bad ones. People dress as Krampus, St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice, and frighten children by clattering chains and ringing bells, threatening to whisk the naughtiest ones away in their sack!

Sticking with the supernatural theme we head to Norway where a slightly odd traditional is witnessed each Christmas Eve as families hide their brooms! This centuries-old tradition initially came about due to the superstition that witches came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. It may be somewhat unorthodox but it is still hugely popular today as families continue to hide their brooms to prevent them being stolen.

Finger lickin’ good!

Kentucky Fried Chicken, featured on Brilliant-Online
Kentucky Fried Chicken

While Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in Japan (indeed, December 25th is classed as a normal working day), it has taken on nostalgic tones in recent years. Rather than gathering around the dining table to tuck into the traditional Turkey dinner, revellers in Japan head to their nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken! The tradition started in 1974 and has grown in popularity to the extent that some pre-order their food boxes months in advance and multi-hour queues are frequently seen snaking around city blocks each year. The Colonel would be proud indeed!

Food is also the order of the day for families in Finland who traditionally consume a bowl of porridge made of rice and milk topped with cinnamon, milk, or butter. There is an almond hidden within the gruel and whoever finds it is declared the winner – to prevent family squabbles and resentment, many parents hide more than one almond to ensure everyone is a winner! Afterwards, the family head to the sauna to warm up together.

’Tis the season to be jolly!

Tamales, featured on Brilliant-Online

In Caracas, Venezuela, another less-than-traditional festive meal is consumed as families indulge in a steamed wrap made out of cornmeal dough and stuffed with meat known as ‘tamales’. Many are consumed on Christmas Eve following the days’ exertions when the city’s residents head to church in the morning on roller skates! Roads across the city are closed off to ensure a smooth, safe route for the myriad of skaters!

Things get equally as energetic in Denmark as families place their Christmas tree in the middle of the room on Christmas Eve and dance around it while singing carols, part of a superstitious tradition where homes are decorated with characters called “nisser” who are believed to provide protection.

We are all familiar with the 12 days of Christmas but in Iceland they go one better and celebrate 13 days. Each night in the lead up to Christmas day, children in Iceland are visited by a group of troll-like characters known as the 13 Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar in Icelandic). The children leave their footwear by their window before bed and in the morning will discover whether they have received candy or a batch of rotten potatoes, depending on whether they have been good or bad during the previous year!

Better late than never!

Kutya, featured on Brilliant-Online

Finally, we head to Ukraine where celebrations come slightly later than elsewhere as the country officially observes Christmas Day on January 7th. Ukrainians dress in traditional garments and costumes and a procession walks through the streets town singing carols. “Kutya” is the dish of choice for the big day, made of cooked wheat mixed with honey, ground poppy seeds, and sometimes nuts. One traditional sees families throw a spoonful of kutya at the ceiling and, if it sticks, it is believed to signify that a healthy harvest will be on the way in the new year.

Sydney on fire!

New Year’s Eve. A time to celebrate the old and embrace the new. A time to make fresh resolutions, kick bad habits, pop champagne corks, listen to the crackle and boom of fireworks and smooch with those nearest and dearest as the clock strikes midnight.

Fireworks are synonymous with New Year’s Eve and nowhere does it better than Australia! Sydney is world-renowned for the fireworks extravaganza it delivers each year, the first major city to greet the New Year, setting the bar high for the rest of the world to follow. In 2019, 1.6 million people crammed into Sydney harbour where a staggering $5.8 million was spent on fireworks alone.

Karen Williamson, OZ Land Photos, has been taking photos of Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations for the last 13 years. Originally from California, she fell in love with Australia over 30 years ago and she now calls it home. For her, the power of photography is the ability to capture fleetingly beautiful moments and magically make time stand still, something her range of New Year photographs display perfectly.

As Karen says on her website, “On New Year’s Eve, I would wrestle my way through the crowd to get the best spot with a view of the magnificent Harbour Bridge in Sydney. For hours, not moving an inch from my spot, I waited patiently waiting for it to burst into flames at the stroke of New Year’s Eve midnight. The clicking of my camera was drowned by the explosions of yellow, red, blue, pink arrays of lights and sparks.”

You can see Karen’s wonderful range of photos here.

The bells!

Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan, featured on Brilliant-Online
Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Elsewhere on New Year’s Eve, should you be in Japan you will hear more than just the 12 chimes as the year turns. According to Buddhist beliefs there are 108 human sins and at midnight on New Year’s Buddhist temples across Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times to represent the purging of these sins.

An unusual ritual in Germany involves melting small pieces of lead, pouring the liquid into cold water then observes the resultant shapes to indicate one’s fortunes for the coming year; a ball signifies luck, a star happiness and a crown wealth. However, do worry if a cross shape is formed as this is thought to represent death. Might want to reach for a glass or two of the German sparkling wine known as Sekt should that happen!

Beware walking the pavements should you toast in the New Year in Italy, particularly Naples, where a common superstition is to discard old items out of windows to make way for new and fortuitous luck. This typically entails ejecting soft and light objects although sofas, tables and similarly heavy structured items have been known to be tossed from balconies in years gone by, a practice also popular in South Africa.

However, to maintain balance, Italy is also the nation that popularised the New Year’s Eve smooch, a ritual warmly embraced the world over!

Lucky pants!

Wearing your lucky pants is serious business in places like Brazil, Mexico and Italy where the colour of your underwear come midnight is said to determine your plight in the year ahead. Red brings love and romance, yellow wealth and success. White stands for peace and harmony, green for well-being and nature. Many also wear red underwear on New Year’s Day to bring good luck all year long.

Eating grapes, featured on Brilliant-Online
Eating grapes

In Spain, and several Latin American countries, eating a grape on each of the 12 midnight chimes is considered to usher in good fortune and luck for the year ahead. Fitting 12 grapes in your mouth at once is regarded as not only an impressive feat in itself but pretty much guaranteed to bring luck!

A common tradition in Denmark is to smash crockery against your neighbour’s door. The size of the broken pile is thought to indicate both your level of popularity among friends and the likelihood of good fortune for the year ahead.

Offering far less chance of injury, in Ireland bread is banged against the walls of a home to ward off evil spirits and foster chances of prosperity in the New Year. Eating the bread post ritual is optional.

The ball drop in New York City’s Times Square is now established as a cultural reference point, attracting over 1 million people in sub-zero temperatures with a further 1 billion watching globally on TV. This phenomenon began in 1907 when fireworks were banned in the city and a 700-lb wood and iron ball served as substitute. Lowered as the clock strikes midnight it has been lauded tradition ever since, save for 1942 and 1943 when cost saving measures during the war were introduced and a minute’s silence observed instead.

In ancient times, fire and noise were said to dispel evil spirits and bring good luck. Created by the Chinese over a thousand years ago by fusing bamboo and gunpowder, fireworks are now synonymous with New Year’s celebrations the world over. Other cities such as Dubai, London and New York strive but never quite match this spectacular kaleidoscope of the opening act in Sydney, as alluded to above, which truly starts proceedings with a bang!

Mr Old Year

Scarecrow burning, featured on Brilliant-Online
Scarecrow burning

As the clock strikes midnight in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Cuba and Puerto Rico, scarecrow burning is hugely popular. Effigies typically known as Mr Old Year are created from old clothes stuffed with straw then set alight to eradicate bad memories of the outgoing year.

If you are in the Philippines, an age old tradition dictates being surrounded by anything of a circular nature in an effort to boost your chances of wealth in the year ahead. Pockets full of round coins, round shaped food and even clothing covered in polka dots are all common sights as the New Year is ushered in.

Mahatma Gandhi observed “the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” It appears the kind natured folks of Belgium heeded these wise words as they not only extend New Year’s greetings to friends and family but to pets and livestock as well, believing this to bring health and good luck for all in the coming year.

Arguably the most sombre of rituals occurs in Chile where families spend the evening sleeping at cemeteries next to the graves of their loved ones. Not for the feint-hearted!

And finally we go to Estonia where it seems over indulgence during the festive period isn’t quite enough. To toast the New Year and ensure an abundance of food and strength for the year ahead people have been known to eat up to 12 meals on New Year’s day alone! One would imagine subsequent resolutions of dieting and gym membership are high in the following days!

Wherever and however you celebrate New Year this year we at Brilliant-online wish you all the very best of health, wealth and happiness for a fantastic evening and an even better year ahead!

Welcome 2022!


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