The holidays are shaping up to look different for everyone this year. Travel restrictions, virtual gatherings, and socially distanced shindigs are the uninvited guests of this year’s festivities—but they don’t have to ruin the whole party. While globetrotting might not be a viable option this December, that doesn’t mean inspiration can’t come internationally.
Change up your Christmas routine (more so than COVID already has) with these fun and unique Christmastime traditions from around the world that can be adapted into your own family’s customs and norms.
Germany: Die Weihnachtsgurke
Although the origins of this pickled practice are murky, the tradition of Die Weihnachtsgurke is simple. A pickle-shaped ornament is hidden among the boughs of the tree, and the first person to find it is either given an extra present, allowed to open their presents first, or gifted with good luck for the rest of the year.
The most likely explanation for the German association with this tradition dates back as early as 1597 when the small town of Lauscha (now Thuringia) began making a name for itself with its world-class glass-blowing industry. Many of the ornaments that these artisanal glass-blowers made were shaped like fruits and vegetables, including the classic, crunchy pickle.
Italy: The Feast of Seven Fishes
From 1880 to 1924, approximately four million Italian immigrants journeyed to America to escape widespread poverty and civil unrest. They brought with them a seafood-filled Christmas Eve dinner tradition rooted firmly in Roman Catholicism: the feast of seven fishes.
The number seven is mentioned more than 700 times in the Bible, and the fish-filled menu falls in line with the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat and dairy products on the eve of certain holidays. The mouthwatering menu for this feast includes Brodetto di Branzino (wild bass sea soup), Paccheri con Sugo di Mare (seafood pasta), and Pesce al Forno and Griglia (baked and grilled fish, respectively).
Japan: Kentucky for Christmas
Bringing fast food to a holiday gathering might be a faux pas here in the states, but it’s a beloved custom in Japan. The first KFC opened in Nagoya in 1970, and by 1981, the chain expanded to 324 stores nationwide. The Colonel’s popularity was due in part to a massive marketing campaign launched in 1974 in which fried chicken was falsely advertised as a traditional American Christmas food and My Old Kentucky Home was used as a pseudo-Christmas carol. (Can anyone really blame them for making that assumption, though?)
Nearly 50 years later, “Kentucky for Christmas,” or Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, is still a widely practiced Japanese custom. Families celebrate the holiday over a large ‘Party Bucket’ of fried chicken, cakes, and even wine.
New Zealand: Backyard Barbie
No, not that Barbie. Since New Zealanders enjoy their summer season around Christmastime, a common Kiwi Christmas custom (say that five times fast) is a backyard barbecue. While not everyone in the states has the pleasure of enjoying temperate weather during the holidays, taking a cue from Kiwis puts a fun and tasty spin on the states’ classic Christmas cuisine.
Barbecue favorites include ham, venison, shrimp, fish, whitebait fritters, and hot fruit pudding or pavlova. Another New Zealander tradition worth getting behind is celebrating two Christmases—once in December and once in July, which is actually midwinter for Kiwis.
Switzerland: Advent Calendars
Bellas festas da Nadal!
Who says festivities need to wait until the week of Christmas to begin? In Switzerland, families begin celebrating on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve with homemade or store-bought Advent calendars. Advent calendars have 24 little flaps that open to reveal Christmas scenes, poems, stories, or small gifts like toys and chocolate.
Advent calendars can be customized to be kid-friendly, adult-friendly (like this airplane shooter advent calendar), or somewhere in between. If you’re a Keurig user, check out this handy tutorial for making an advent calendar out of recycled K-Cups.
Iceland: Christmas Book Flood
Bookworms rejoice; this is the Icelandic Christmas tradition you never knew you needed! Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, most of which are sold from September to November. They call this massive wave of book sales the Jolabokaflod, or Christmas book flood. This bookish craze began during World War II when paper was one of the few things not rationed in Iceland.
Since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has sent out an annual book bulletin in early November ahead of the Reykjavik Book Fair. New books are gifted each Christmas Eve, and the rest of the night is spent drinking hot cocoa and snuggling up with a good book. In a word: perfection.
Ireland: Ladies-Only Little Christmas
Nollaig shona dhuit!
After weeks of decorating, cleaning, cooking, and hosting, the women of Ireland take a well-deserved break every January 6th on Nollaig na mBan, also known as Little Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany. In religious terms, this day marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men to the stable in Bethlehem.
In secular terms, Nollaig na mBan is the day the women of Ireland grab some much-deserved rest. Men take over the cooking, cleaning, and general housework while the ladies socialize in their homes or local pubs. While a pub crawl might not be an option this year, we highly advocate a ladies-only Zoom call to decompress and relax after an entire month of being the hostess with the mostess.
Egypt: Vegan Fast
Eid Milad Majid!
Only 15% of Egyptians identify as Christians, and most of those Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7th, and from November 25th to January 6th, Coptic Christians participate in a special fast called the Holy Nativity Fast. Those fasting enjoy a primarily vegan diet, abstaining from meat and other animal byproducts.
After attending a late-night Christmas service on January 6th, Coptic Christians head home to enjoy a massive feast of all the delicious foods they’ve been avoiding. The most popular dish is Fattah, a hearty dish made of spiced boiled lamb or beef with garlic tomato sauce served over a bed of rice and crunchy toasted pita.
Mexico: Radish Carving
If carving pumpkins is your favorite part of Halloween, consider adopting the century-old Mexican tradition of carving radishes for Christmas. Large, purple radishes were originally carved into intricate characters and scenes to draw shoppers into Mexican Christmas markets. One hundred years later, the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, hosts a wildly popular radish-carving competition on Noche de Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes.
A family radish, squash, or pumpkin-carving (or decorating) night is a fun, creative way to spend quality time over the holidays. While the winning prize in Oaxaca can be up to 30,000 pesos, or roughly $1,500, easy prizes from home include being the first to open a present or getting an extra gift or sweet treat.
The Caribbean: Black Rum Cake
The Caribbean rum cake dates back to British plum puddings and fruitcakes brought to the colonized islands in the 19th century. Islanders revamped the western European recipes to last longer in the Caribbean’s warm and humid climate. The addition of sugar and alcohol to the rich, fruit-filled cakes created a uniquely dark, dense, and utterly delicious cake enjoyed by natives on holidays and special occasions: the black rum cake.
Prunes, currants, raisins, and glazed cherries are finely chopped and soaked in red wine or dark rum for up to a year. The fruit is then added to the rum cake batter along with robust flavoring and warm spices. Add a taste of the tropical to your Christmas table spread with this mouthwateringly good Caribbean black cake recipe.