Family holiday traditions around the globe

Sunday Signal

By Michele E. Buttelman

Signal Staff Writer

Every family has special, and varied, holiday traditions. Some families open gifts on Christmas Eve. Other families have a strict “No Gifts Opened Until Christmas Morning” rule. Some families will open one gift on Christmas Eve, the rest on Christmas morning. 

In my family, my grandmother would present us (her six grandchildren) with a special, handmade ornament. These cherished heirloom ornaments are still loved and hung on our trees with care … as they have been for more than 50 years. 

Around the world, Christmas is celebrated in many different ways, with many different traditions. 

As families grow, add and lose members, traditions change, but it is also important to pass family traditions down to new generations.


In France it is said the first decorated Christmas tree appeared in the Alsace region in the 14th century. In many regions in France, Christmas celebrations start with St Nicholas day on Dec. 6. Children receive sweets and little gifts. 

On Christmas Eve, children put their polished shoes out in front of the chimney and hope Père Noël (Father Christmas) fills the shoes with sweets. As in America, presents are exchanged on Christmas Day. 


In Italy, a nativity scene, “Presepe,” is put up in churches, town squares and often in homes. This is, for many, the most important Christmas decoration. The nativity scene display, with a crib filled with straw, originated in Italy.  

Children then eagerly await Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to hand out presents to children on Christmas Day. 

Christmas celebrations in Italy can last several weeks from early December to Jan. 6. 

As in much of Europe, families celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. Children write letters to St. Nicholas asking for gifts and hang a stocking, or put a plate on the table, to receive small gifts.

Father Christmas, brings presents to children on Christmas Eve, but gifts between family members are exchanged on Jan. 6, the Day of Epiphany.

Food is an important part of an Italian Christmas. The traditional Christmas cake, the panettone, is often compared to fruitcakes because it is made with raisins and candied fruits. The sweet, yeast cake has a bright yellow color. In Italy, Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally a light meal, with no meat and a lot of seafood


In the weeks leading up to Christmas, festive Christmas markets are set up on main squares in many German cities. Christmas markets and stalls sell traditional holiday German fare such as Christmas stollen, hot and sticky sweet roasted almonds, Lebkuchen hearts (gingerbread hearts) and other Christmas sweets.

Homes are decorated with fairy lights and festive ornaments, however, the Christmas tree is not installed and decorated until Christmas Eve morning.

Gifts are traditionally exchanged on Christmas Eve with large family celebrations held on Christmas Day and the day after Christmas. 

Among the many Christmas traditions in German is the lighting of the Advent wreath. Typically, families decorate an Advent wreath with four red candles. On every Advent Sunday, one more candle is lit until all candles are alight.

Many Germans display a traditional wooden Christmas pyramid in their homes. This pyramid is a little carousel with angels and a nativity scene spread across several levels. The carousel spins with the help of the heat from lit candles that set the mechanism in motion. This tradition originated in eastern Germany and dates back to the middle ages. 


In England, most people start decorating for the holidays in mid-November. 

Many homeowners collect donations from visitors to aid charities.

A yule log traditionally blazes on the hearth. They decorate their homes with holly, ivy and other evergreens and hang a mistletoe “kissing bough.”


Children in Norway wait for Julenisse, the Norwegian Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, Julenisse brings presents to children. 


In the Philippines there is a special tradition of having a Christmas lantern, which is called paról. The lantern is star-shaped, a tribute to the star of Bethlehem, and made out of bamboo and paper. 


In Australia, the Christmas season is in the summer. Families often celebrate the holiday with a picnic at the beach and sing Christmas carols. 


In Brazil, nativity scenes are popular décor. The Papai Noel, or Father Christmas, travels from Greenland to Brazil to give presents to Brazilian children. In Brazil, you say Bom Natal or Boas Festes to wish friends a “Merry Christmas.” ­ 

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