World Traditions

By Lauren Baumbauer

September 4, 2009 5 min read

Feeling a bit bah-humbug with the typical Christmas traditions? Are you lacking any incentive or excitement to get into the holiday spirit, even as every store plays tired holiday songs?

A look into the way other countries and cultures celebrate the holiday season may give some inspiration for new ways to celebrate Christmas with friends, significant others and families. From party ideas and rituals to decorations, even something small can go a long way to create holiday cheer.

A fun and tasty tradition found in several countries is the Christmas cake. Often associated as a fruitcake and jokingly passed on as a terrible present in North America, it serves as a mainstream tradition in the United Kingdom, Japan, the Philippines and other countries.

Originally, eating a plum pudding on Christmas Eve was a way to line the stomach after fasting in England, according to the English Tea Store. It evolved into a cake form for richer families, who had the means to bake them in ovens. There are many varieties of Christmas cake, and they often are made a month or more in advance. The holes are filled with whiskey every week until Christmas. Scotland has a Christmas cake called a Whiskey Dundee, including, as the name suggests, Scotch whisky.

Christmas cakes in Japan are frosted sponge cakes with chocolates and seasonal fruits and are a main part of celebrating Christmas, especially because Christmas is celebrated there as a fun holiday without religious context. Calling a Japanese woman older than 25 a "Christmas cake" meant she was "out of season," or an old maid. This has changed to the age of 31 because of changes in Japan's culture, with people marrying older, and because it's linked with toshikoshi soba, a dish eaten on New Year's Eve (the 31st).

The Philippines' Christmas cake is usually a yellow pound cake soaked in brandy or rum with very long shelf lives. The cakes are sometimes eaten the following Easter or Christmas of the next year.

Many recipes for Christmas cakes or other, more exotic Christmas foods from around the world are found in books or online. There are many variants to recipes, so make sure to do a lot of research to find the perfect cake for you.

There are also ways to add days of celebrations to the holiday season besides just the traditional 25th of December. The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day in England, when boxes filled with sweets, coins, gifts or food are given to visitors or people who serve the homes, such as letter carriers. In Italy, gifts traditionally are given Jan. 6 instead of Dec. 25 because that is believed to be the day that the three wise men reached the newborn baby Jesus. On St. Lucia's Day (Dec. 13) in Sweden, the eldest daughter in the home wears a white robe and a wreath of candles in her hair. She then serves the rest of the family cookies and coffee. In France, gifts are first given to children Dec. 6, and more are brought on Christmas. While children get to open their presents right away, adults are supposed to wait until New Year's.

How about something a little different from lights for decorating? According to, an online community that acts as a virtual town and gives visitors a chance to meet Santa Claus, in India, houses are strung with mango leaves. In Ghana, homes, schools and neighborhoods are decorated with crepe paper ornaments. Colorful paper lanterns fill Christian homes in China.

Hanging Christmas stockings over a fireplace is a common tradition in the United States. That tradition started in England, but some countries have slightly different ways of getting extra gifts. In the Netherlands, shoes are left out filled with straw and sugar, and in Spain, shoes are left on windowsills and are filled with straw, carrots and barley for the horses of the wise men in hopes one of the wise men will leave them presents.

Games are also a fun way for families and friends to celebrate, especially as part of festive parties. According to, in England after dinner, crackers, or colorful paper tubes filled with a paper crown, a riddle and a trinket, are pulled and let out a cracking sound. Christmas Eve usually is celebrated with more tradition and festivities in Mexico, and this includes the use of pi?atas, which are paper or pottery objects filled with candies. Children hit them with sticks to break them open.

Local cultural centers often offer information, concerts or special events around Christmastime representing or celebrating Christmas as it is in different cultures and countries. The Polynesian Culture Center in Laie, Hawaii, has had a four-week "holiday extravaganza" celebrating the holiday season the way the Polynesians would. There are decorations, events and information for visitors. Check local or not-so-local culture centers for events to participate in or enjoy.

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