Christmas Traditions Around the World
Just as the expression “Merry Christmas” varies around the world, so do ways to celebrate the holiday meal. Each region’s menu is steeped in local traditions and flavors. Here are some tasty examples.
There are as many ways to celebrate Christmas as there are countries and cultures around the world that celebrate it. For instance, in Poland and Ukraine, local residents sit down to a Christmas Eve feast of epic proportions, while in Greece, many hold off on gift-giving until New Year’s Day — which is also the feast of St. Basil, Greeks' own version of Father Christmas.
Many of us in the United States will be sticking close to home this year, without the traditional parties, travels, or gatherings, but it’s still fun to read about holiday traditions around the world. It's especially interesting to learn how other places welcome the Christmas season if that means sampling some of their favorite foods right in our own kitchen.
With that in mind, I’ve rounded up 18 countries’ customs with tips on incorporating their quintessential holiday dishes into your own Yule menu. Who knows — you might even create a new Christmas tradition of your own.
Argentina: Vitello Tonnato
Argentina is deeply rooted in its European heritage — as evident in the local cuisine, which showcases Italian and Spanish flair. In this South American country, the Christmas Eve meal is the holiday season treat. Argentines sit down to a table of delicious eats such as roast turkey, stuffed eggs, and vitel toné. Known as vitello tonnato in Italy, where it originated, this mouthwatering appetizer features thin slices of veal served beneath a blanket of anchovies, parsley, lemon slices, and a mayonnaise-like tuna caper sauce. Christmas Day is typically reserved for barbecuing.
Christmas Eve in Armenia takes place on January 5, the day before what Armenians call “Water Blessing Day.” It's the celebration of the Epiphany, the day the three wise men are said to have appeared to the baby Jesus, and of his baptism. For many Armenians, a typical holiday treat is ghapama, which means “cooked in a covered pot.” This sweet pumpkin dish is eye-catching and easy on the stomach, a perfect reintroduction for those who've been fasting in the days leading up to January 6, Christmas Day. Basically, you coat the interior of a hollowed-out pumpkin with butter and honey, stuff it with dried plums and apricots, crushed nuts, rice, and a sprinkling of cinnamon, and bake it until tender. Add a bit more honey and butter afterward for an extra-special holiday season treat.
Cuba: Cuban Lechon Asado
Christmas season celebrations were banned throughout Cuba for nearly 30 years. However, these days, you’ll find plenty of Christmas lights and Christmas trees and even see images of Santa Claus. There's also ample music and dancing, loads of rum, and family feasts brimming with delicious island cuisine. One of the most notable Christmas Day dishes is lechon asado, a whole suckling pig roasted on a stick over charcoal for a full day. Luckily, this recipe calls for only an 8-pound pork shoulder instead of an entire pig, though it’s still a commitment (the meat needs to marinate at least 8 hours and get oven-roasted for about 5). Pair it with sides of black beans, rice, and plantains for a Christmas Day feast.
Denmark: Roast Pork with Crispy Crackling
Winter days may be short in this Scandinavian country, but the holiday season is filled with brightness. Like their neighbors in Sweden, the Danes enjoy their main celebration on Christmas Eve. Festivities include families dancing around the Christmas tree, holding hands, and singing Christmas carols. What could be cozier? Maybe a glass or two of gløgg, hot mulled wine (another Christmas tradition), and a wondrous Christmas Eve meal, in which roast pork with crackling (flæskesteg in Danish) is the shining star.
The key to this tender and juicy Christmas Eve dish is finding a cut of pork with the rind still intact, a delicacy you may need to request at your local butcher. Then, using a sharp knife, slice through the meat in narrow strips and rub the entire roast through with oil, lemon, sea salt, and pepper, making sure it all seeps into the scores. This helps draw out moisture and create the outer crackling (a holiday season favorite). Serve the pork alongside boiled potatoes and caramelized brown potatoes (brunede kartofler) for the ultimate Christmas season meal.
When writer Charles Dickens penned the holiday novella A Christmas Carol back in 1843, his description of Bob Cratchit's holiday meal confirmed goose as a perennial part of the British Christmas tradition. Goose as a main dish dates back millennia across the UK, including Scotland, as well as in Ireland and in much of mainland Europe. This is in large part thanks to the bird’s relative inexpensiveness and ability to withstand natural elements.
While turkey is a more popular choice on tables throughout England these days (and the bird Ebenezer Scrooge brought to the Cratchit family on Christmas morning), goose remains a fun alternative. To get your own goose oven-ready, simply remove the neck, giblets, and wishbones (use them for stock) and stuff the cavity with a mix of mashed potatoes, apples, onions, orange zest, and other seasonings. Pop the goose in the oven to roast, and then serve it up with a side of apple sauce and roasted potatoes. Of course, don’t forget the mincemeat pie for dessert. It's a holiday season must.
Ethiopia: Doro Wat - Ethiopian Chicken Stew
Along with countries such as Serbia, Russia, and Egypt, Ethiopia marks Christmas Day on January 7, a date based on the Julian calendar, which Orthodox Christians use. Ethiopians customarily begin fasting in late November, eating nothing but one vegan meal a day until Christmas Eve. It's a period of time known as Tsome Nebiyat, or “Fast of the Prophets,” which often ends with a hearty, spicy, and soul-warming chicken stew called Doro Wat on Christmas Day. In Ethiopia, the wat preparation traditionally involves killing a chicken, cleaning it, and cutting it into 12 pieces to honor Jesus’ Apostles. This recipe makes your holiday season a whole lot easier with a store-bought chicken you slowly simmer in a rich blend of spices, with the addition of soft-boiled eggs. A side of spongy injera flatbread is a must for soaking up the sauce.
While traditional holiday season meals vary across Greece, a staple you'll find on most tables on Christmas Day is lahanodolmades. These bits of classic comfort food are the Greek version of cabbage rolls (different from dolmas, which use grape leaves for their wrapping). For this holiday season recipe, ground beef and creamy arborio rice are flavored with dill, garlic, onion, and parsley; bundled up in softened cabbage leaves; oven-baked; and drizzled generously in homemade avgolemono — a tangy and refreshing egg-lemon sauce.
India: Pork Vindaloo
The southern Indian state of Goa is home to a large Christian population because it used to be a Portuguese colony. So, the Christmas holiday season is celebrated widely throughout the area. One dish, pork vindaloo, is a constant in Goa's traditional holiday feasts, which typically take place on Christmas Eve before midnight mass. The name derives from the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d'alhos, meaning "marinated in wine and garlic," which helped preserve meat during long overseas sailing trips. The Goan version of the dish is much spicier, thanks, in part, to dried red chilies, and has a tangier taste as most recipes use a vinegar-based sauce in lieu of wine. Warm rice or naan flatbread make the perfect sides for this flavorful Christmas Day favorite.
Italy: Baccala alla Napoletana
Baccalà, salted codfish, is an Italian staple, one especially popular in southern coastal areas like Naples. It's also a perennial part of Italy's traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Known in that country as La Vigilia di Natale, Christmas Eve involves a seafood extravaganza also called the Feast of the Seven Fishes among Italian-Americans, though in Italy, there's no set number of dishes. Instead, Italians serve up everything from fried calamari to zuppa di pesce (fish soup), depending on what’s available. The more offerings, the better. Still, nowadays, baccalà is essential to Italian Christmas Eve meals in most regions.
This version of the recipe is known for its bold flavors and combines the succulent taste of salt-cured cod with a spicy tomato sauce, black olives, capers, garlic, pine nuts, and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil.
Jamaica: Jamaican Goat Curry
In Jamaica, at least during non-Covid times, Christmas Eve festivities typically begin with the Grand Market, a mix of last-minute shopping, aromatic eats such as fried fish and jerk chicken, and holiday season excitement, which involves plenty of street dancing. Each large town has its own Grand Market, which opens around 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and lasts until Christmas Day morning. Most Jamaican families eat their Christmas dinner during the late afternoon on December 25. It’s a full-on feast, with generous helpings of fried plantains, breadfruit, and a must on local tables: goat curry. This beloved holiday dish traces its origins back to the mid-1800s, when the British Empire brought East Indians to the Caribbean as indentured workers. Tender chunks of goat meat (an island favorite) simmer in coconut milk, Indian and Jamaican spices, and chili pepper, to create a wonderfully aromatic and flavorful dish.
Mexico: Pollo Verde Tamales
What are some Christmas traditions in Mexico? The holiday season is often an extremely exuberant time countrywide, with candle-lit processions, parades, and fireworks. Though things are likely in flux this year due to the pandemic, festivities typically kick off on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and run till January 6, Three Kings' Day. After a late-night mass on Christmas Eve, local residents sit down to an epic midnight meal that lasts well into Christmas morning. Foods include rich, pork-filled pozole, pavo (roasted turkey), and handmade tamales, a staple on most tables. While the type of tamales varies from region to region, the act of coming together to prepare them (known as a tamalada, or tamale-making party) is a multi-generational Christmas family tradition.
Pollo Verde Tamales, aka green chili chicken tamales, are especially popular during the holiday season. They feature masa dough made from ground dried corn, shredded chicken, tart green tomatillos, and serrano chilies, all wrapped up in corn husks and steamed.
Philippines: Pancit Malabon
In the Philippines, Christmas Eve is a revered holiday and the night of the traditional Nochebuena feast. Like in Mexico, this meal takes place at midnight after a late-evening mass and includes a range of dishes — from pineapple-glazed ham to lumpia, crispy spring rolls wrapped in paper-thin pastry and loaded with savory fillings. Nochebuena often lasts well into Christmas morning. One dish you'll find on many Christmas Eve tables throughout the Philippines is Pancit Malabon, a seafood-heavy dish made with thick rice noodles, covered in an orange-hued fish sauce flavored with crab meat. What makes it especially pleasing is the variety of cooked seafood, including squid, mussels, and shrimp, as well as sliced hard-boiled eggs and crumbled pork cracklings on top. This wonderful Filipino Christmas tradition makes for a lovely holiday season alternative in other places.
Poland: Spiced Gefilte Fish
Poland is especially famous for its 12-dish Christmas Eve vigil supper, or Wigilia, a meatless multicourse meal in which the number of foods represents the Apostles of Jesus as well as the months of the year. It's the main event of the Christmas holiday season — the candlelit Christmas Eve feast begins once the skies darken. Soups, pierogi, and sauerkraut are all part of this holiday menu, along with gefilte fish. While these spiced, seasoned fish patties or loaves are often associated with Jewish celebrations, gefilte fish is also a regular among Polish Catholic families on Christmas Eve. The dish is made from fish ground with eggs, potatoes, and bread crumbs, which creates a sort of seafood meatloaf. Enjoy warm or cold.
South Korea: Beef Bulgogi
Unlike in other Asian countries such as China and Japan, Christmas is a national holiday in South Korea as its population has a relatively large percentage of Christians. While Christmas decorations and even Christmas lights are part of the holiday season celebrations, Christmas Day is much more about coming together with your partner or friends than a full-fledged family festivity like in Western countries. A potluck-style Christmas Day dinner filled with traditional Korean fare is the norm. Expect foods like Beef Bulgogi, a gui (grilled) dish of paper-thin meat slices made on a barbecue or in a cast-iron skillet and featuring sweet, savory, and smoky flavors.
Explore more Christmas food traditions around the world
In Germany, Christmas season wouldn’t be complete without mulled wine and stollen bread, as well as Krampus, the half-goat, half-demon who traditionally accompanies Saint Nicholas through the streets of Bavaria (and other European regions like Northern Italy and Austria) on December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, visiting homes and businesses.
In Japan, chowing down on buckets of fried chicken from KFC is a beloved holiday tradition, one that began in the 1970s with a top-notch marketing scheme.
A lavish multi-course feast known as le Reveillon is a Christmas Eve favorite in the north of France. It begins just after midnight mass and continues till Christmas morning. Foods typically include decadent coquilles St. Jacques, and for dessert, a Yule log, the delightfully chocolatey cake reminiscent of gathering around a cozy fire.
Christmas trees are an essential part of the holiday season in Sweden, and their version of St. Nicholas is Jultomten, who often delivers his gifts to children on Christmas Eve. Traditional Swedish foods include Jansson's Frestelse, a creamy potato casserole with onions, anchovies, and bread crumbs. Sweden’s Christmas season goes well past New Year’s Day into January, and the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6 — sometimes called the trettondedag jul, "13th-day yule” — is a religious holiday in the country.
There’s more where this came from on Yummly’s Christmas page dedicated to spreading cheer and whetting appetites. Feeling inspired to explore more holiday feast ideas? The following articles are full of delicious options for all tastes.