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Different ways Christmas is celebrated around the world

By December 13, 2016October 3rd, 2023Newsletter

Different ways Christmas is celebrated around the world

December 13, 2016

The South African diaspora lies scattered across time zones, hemispheres, country borders and oceans across the world. Though most South Africans migrate to areas with distinct expat representation, South African emigrants can be found throughout the globe.

The most popular expat destinations for South Africans are:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • UK
  • USA
  • Canada
  • Europe

But some other popular spots include Southern Africa, the UAE and Asia.

South Africans celebrating Christmas abroad

You may not be home, and we feel for those of our friends and family who are missing South Africa. But on the upside, you’re able to experience the festive season with some new flair, magic and mystery.

We thought we’d take a look at the different ways Christmas is celebrated across the globe.

Christmas abroad – different strokes for different folks

The Americas

Christmas in South America is a BIG DEAL. With a predominantly Christian faith across the continent, most residents of these countries take their faith quite seriously.

According to  a white paper called Las religiones en tiempos del Papa Francisco (Relitions in the times of Pope Francis) published in 2013, the breakdown of faith across the South American faith is as follows:

  • Argentina: 84% Christian | 16% Other
  • Bolivia: 93% Christian | 7% Other
  • Brazil: 84% Christian | 16% Other
  • Chile: 70% Christian | 30% Other
  • Colombia: 78% Christian | 22% Other
  • Ecuador: 93% Christian | 7% Other
  • Paraguay: 96% Christian | 4% Other
  • Peru: 87% Christian | 13% Other
  • Uruguay: 49% Christian | 51% Other
  • Venezuela: 91% Christian | 9% Other

So save for Uruguay, most of the countries in Southern America celebrate Christmas with a bang.  Some of the unique ways in which Christmas is celebrated in this neck of the woods include:

Fake snow

Just like South Africa, most of South America has a warm summer. But since Christmas is linked to “snow” in most of our psyches, the South American nations tend to use cotton balls to decorate their christmas trees.

Pesebre & retablo

In addition to hints of snow, most homes will prepare a nativity scene to put next to the Christmas tree. This nativity scene is called “Pesebre”. In Peru you’ll also find a “retablo”, or devotional painting next to the nativity scene and at altars in churches.

Sidra, Cola de Mono & mauby

The Christmas drink of choice in countries like Argentina is apple cider, or “sidra”, while Chileans prefer “Cola de Mono”, or Monkey’s Tail, which is prepared with aguardiente, rum, coffee, milk and aniseed. Mauby is another popular drink which has its roots in the Caribbean. This drink is prepared from fermented mauby bark and fruit.

Ninos envueltos, Noche Buena & Cazuela de Ave

Each country has its own traditional Christmas dishes, and it’s no different in the Americas, where “Ninos envueltos” is one of the main dishes in some countries. This meal consists of steak filled with minced meat, spices, boiled eggs and onions which is rolled and baked. Peruvians love their “Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve) meal which is a turkey dish. Others, like the Chileans, prefer “Cazuela de Ave” which is chicken soup with potato, onion and corn.

Turron, Natilla & Pan de Pascua

Desserts or sweet snacks include “Turron”, “Natilla” and “Pan de Pascua”. The former is a nougat delicacy made with honey, sugar, egg white and almonds. “Natilla” is a custard-like pudding made from corn starch. The latter is a cake made with candied fruit, raisins, walnuts and almonds which was inherited from the German immigrants in Chile.

Viejito Pascuero or Papai Noel

Unlike Father Christmas in other parts of the world, Viejito Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) is a small figure who can easily make his way through chimneys. A bit more practical than the boisterous, big and burly Father Christmas we’re used to. The Brazilians are also more practical when it comes to Father Christmas. “Papai Noel” isn’t dressed in the popular cosy red attire, but wears silk clothes instead.

La Bajada de los Reyes

None of that “exchanging gifts on Christmas” for Peruvians. No sir – the exchange gifts on the Epiphany or “la Bajada de los Reyes” which occurs on the 6th of January, or the end of Christmas.

Quema Polvora, candles & elevar globos

Christmas season doesn’t start on the same day in all countries, but you’ll be sure to see “Quema Polvora” (fireworks), candles and “Elevar Globos” (elevating globes) in different places in South America throughout December. You’ll also hear traditional Christmas songs accompanied by “cuatros” (small guitars), “maracas” (rattles) and “furrucos” (small drums). Processions can be found throughout the streets, and you’ll probably see characters like Boom Boom Sally and Long Man as well as plays where a Brazilian gypsy tries to kidnap Baby Jesus.

Asia & the Pacific

Only a small population of Asian countries are Christian. Most of the population in South East Asian countries follow Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and the moral philosophy of Confucianism.

Towards the middle east and west the most popular religions are Islam with a small percentage of people falling into the Hindu, Christian, indigenous, Jewish or other faiths. The area of Asia with the most Christians include the northern territories such as Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Cyprus.

In most countries with a predominant Muslim following, Christmas celebrations are either forbidden or kept private. Countries where you shouldn’t expect to see any Christmas celebrations include:

  • Thailand: most of the country is Buddhist, but you can head to Bangkok if you’re looking for a few wisps of Christmas.
  • The Maldives: 99% of the population is Muslim, so you shouldn’t expect any tinsel if you happen to be in this region.
  • North Korea: the country almost went to war with South Korea over plans to construct a 30-foot Christmas tree near the two country borders. Apparently Christmas is seen as psychological warfare by the Northern of the Koreas.
  • Tajikistan: the country officially banned Christmas in 2015, though they’d already banned Santa Claus Father Frost from televisions in 2013.  Citizens aren’t allowed to exchange gifts or erect Christmas trees. Additionally, no gift-giving, festive meals or fundraisers are allowed during the run-up to the New Year.
  • Brunei: it was the third country to ban Christmas and those who dare celebrate it could face jail time. Non-muslims are, however, allowed to celebrate Christmas privately in their communities, but are not allowed to speak to Muslims about their plans.
  • China: Christmas celebrations have been under scrutiny since the Communist Party takeover in 1949 – though the restriction on religious celebrations spans most religions. Due to it being a commercial holiday, though, some shops and restaurants will exhibit the odd Christmas decor.
  • Mongolia: as a Buddhist country, you won’t realise it’s Christmas Day in Mongolia unless you celebrate it by your lonesome.


The jury is still out as to whether Russia is essentially part of Asia or Europe, so we’ll mention this country in both continents. In Russia, Christmas is celebrated on 7 January due to them following the old Julian calendar for religious celebrations as the country is mostly Russian Orthodox. During the days of the Soviet Union Christmas wasn’t really celebrated. These days, however, Advent runs from 28 November to 6 January.

If you want to wish someone Merry Christmas in Russian you can tell them “C рождеством!” or “Счастливого рождества!” Struggling with the pronunciation? Well just say ah-zh-dee-st-VOHM or s-schah-st-lee-vah-vah rah-zh dee-st-vah then.

Many orthodox Russians steer clear of meat and fish during Christmas, while the main Christmas dishes include sauerkraut, borsch (beetroot soup), solyanka (vegan potluck) and salads. Vzvar is a sweet drink made of dried fruit and honey in boiled water which is often enjoyed with the Christmas Meal.

“Дед Мороз” (Ded Moroz) is Grandfather Frost and he ALWAYS has his grand daughter, Snegurochka at his side. And if you’ve ever heard of Babushka, you’ll be happy to finally know the origin of the name Babushka, according to Russian legend, was an old grandmother who met the wise men on their way to see Jesus.


Jordan is one of the few Muslim countries which allows Christians to celebrate Christmas as the country’s constitution allows for freedom of practicing one’s religions. Though Christmas is allowed to be celebrated, it’s still limited to certain areas and mostly people celebrate in private with their families.

Christmas is mostly celebrated in the northern towns where most of the Christian population resides. Especially in Fuheis, approximately 20 kilometres north of Amman. In these areas churches hold special mass and hotels and restaurants serve special Christmas dinners. Fuheis also sees the erection of a large holiday tree in the city centre at times.


One of the countries where you can look forward to extravagant Christmas celebrations is the Philippines. The country’s ties to its Spanish influences means that most of the country celebrates this religious festival and they like to celebrate Christmas as long as possible.

In fact, you’ll probably start hearing Christmas carols in malls as early as September, though the official celebrations start on 16 December. Mass is attended daily from the 16th until the 25th and the celebrations last until the 1st of January when the Feast of the Three Kings is celebrated.

With approximately 80% of the population being Christian, it’s the only Asian country with a predominant Christian population.

Some of the local Christmas traditions include “parol”, which is a bamboo frame with a lighted star lantern wrapped in Japanese paper in cellophane. Most people pull an all-nighter on Christmas eve in the Philippines after attending their last “simbank gabi” (Christmas Eve Mass). People attend Noche Buena (open house) to celebrate Christmas together and share “lechon” (roasted pig), bibingka, puto bumbong, steamed rice, fruit salad and other dishes.


You will find some festivities in India, where Christmas is a state holiday leftover from British reign, but be reminded that most of the country does not celebrate it in a religious sense. Although a mere 2.3% of India’s population are Christian, in a country with over 1 Billion people this translates to over 25 million Christians. It is, however, one of the smaller religious festivals in the country. Most of the Christian population are in the region of Mumbai and Goa with scattered Christian communities in Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram.

Christians in India attend midnight mass with a procession through the streets followed by a feast of various delicacies. Churches are decorated with Poinsettia flowers and candles.

If you want to say Merry Christmas in India, you’ll have to learn quite a few languages and dialects. Some of these include:

  • Hindi: Subh krisamas
  • Urdu: Krismas Mubarak
  • Sanskrit: Krismasasya Shubhkaamnaa
  • Gujarati: Anandi Natal/Khusni Natal
  • Bengali: Shubo Borodin
  • Tamil: Kiristumas Valtukka|
  • Konkani: Khushal Borit Natala
  • Kannada: Kris Mas Habbada Shubhaashayagalu
  • Mizo: Nawam Sala Khusayamwala Hewe
  • Malayalam: Christmas inte Mangalaashamsakal
  • Punjabi: karisama te nawāṃ sāla khušayāṃwālā hewe
  • Telugu: Christmas Subhakankshalu
  • Shindi: Christmas Jun  Wabhayun

Since pine trees aren’t common in India, locals decorate mango or banana trees.


Palestine is, of course, known to some as the capital of religious clashes. But it is also host of the town of Bethlehem, where Jesus is said to have been born.

Though most of the West Bank is relatively free of hints of tourism, Bethlehem sees thousands of visitors during the festive season who flock to the area to celebrate the birth of their saviour.

In Manger Square you will find the Church of the Nativity with an enormous tree towering over the square. The tree is almost 17 metres tall with 40 000 lights and 6 500 baubles. The church welcomes enormous crowds, pipers, drummers and marchers. In addition to the approximately 115 000 foreign tourists visiting the area during Christmas, a further 35 000 locals make their way to the town.


Africa is rather divided in its celebration of Christmas. The residents of these different countries follow widely divergent faiths, and Christmas is subsequently either a grand affair or banned completely.

African countries with predominant Christian populations:

  • Angola: 85% Christian
  • Botswana: 71.6% Christian
  • Burundi: 75% Christian
  • Cameroon: 69.2% Christian
  • Cape Verde: 85% Christian
  • Central African Republic: 80.3% Christian
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: 95.8% Christian
  • Equatorial Guinea: 93% Christian
  • Eritrea: 62.5% Christian
  • Ethiopia: 62.8% Christian
  • Gabon: 73% Christian
  • Ghana: 71.2% Christian
  • Lesotho: 90% Christian
  • Liberia: 85.5% Christian
  • Kenya: 78% Christian
  • Malawi: 79.9% Christian
  • Mozambique: 56.1% Christian
  • Namibia: 90% Christian
  • Nigeria: 58% Christian
  • Republic of the Congo: 85.9% Christian
  • Reunion: 84.9% Christian
  • Rwanda: 93.6% Christian
  • Sao Tome and Principe: 97% Christian
  • Seychelles: 93.1% Christian
  • South Africa: 79.9% Christian
  • South Sudan: 60.5% Christian
  • Swaziland: 90% Christian
  • Uganda: 84% Christian
  • Zambia: 87% Christian
  • Zimbabwe: 84% Christian

African countries with predominant Muslim or other populations:

  • Algeria: 1% Christian
  • Benin: 42.8% Christian
  • Burkina Faso: 23% Christian
  • Chad: 34% Christian
  • Comoros: 2% Christian
  • Côte d’Ivoire: 32.6% Christian
  • Djibouti: 6% Christian
  • Egypt: 10% Christian
  • Gambia: 9% Christian
  • Guinea: 10% Christian
  • Guinea-Bissau: 22% Christian
  • Libya: 2.7% Christian
  • Madagascar: 41% Christian
  • Mali: 5% Christian
  • Mauritania: 0% Christian
  • Mauritius: 32.2% Christian
  • Mayotte: 3% Christian
  • Morocco: 0% Christian
  • Niger: 10% Christian
  • Senegal: 5% Christian
  • Sierra Leone: 10% Christian
  • Somalia: 0% Christian
  • Sudan: 3% Christian
  • Tanzania: 30% Christian
  • Togo: 29% Christian
  • Tunisia: 1% Christian

It’s important to not, however, that although many of the residents of these countries are Christian – much of African religion combines traditional faiths with mainstream Christianity.

This enormous divide between religions is very clear throughout Africa. In fact, consider for instance that the traditional Christmas cake (made with fruit) is actually an Egyptian remnant adopted by the west in the Victorian era. These cakes were placed inside tombs to provide sustenance for the departed in the afterlife. Of course, Christmas is not really celebrated in Egypt, where clashes between Muslim and Christian communities are common. Tourists would probably only witness Christmas in the high-end shopping malls of Cairo. Just like Russia and Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on 7 January in Egypt.

Some facts about Christmas in Africa:

  • Ghanians celebrate Christmas from 20 December to the first week of January.
  • In Kenya, Santa usually arrives in a Land Rover, on a Camel or a bike.
  • In Zambia children usually celebrate Christmas in one house, while adults celebrate it in another house after the church service.
  • Ethiopia celebrates Christmas on 7 January (like Russia). Contrary to other nations, most Ethiopians fast during Christmas instead of eating copious amounts of food like other nations.
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t keen on gift-giving at Christmas. Instead, the main event is the Nativity Play which usually ends at 1:00 in the morning when Jesus is said to have been born.
  • Although Madagascar isn’t predominantly Christian, the country still celebrates this day. People will exchange small gifts and “Dadabe Noely” (Santa Claus) will walk around in the streets.


Most of Europe celebrates Christmas, even if just in a secular sense.

The breakdown of “Christmas celebrators” as a percentile of Christians by European country is as follows:

European countries with predominant Christian populations:

  • Andorra: 89.5% Christian
  • Austria: 80.4% Christian
  • Belarus: 71.2% Christian
  • Belgium: 64.2% Christian
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: 52.3% Christian
  • Bulgaria: 82.1% Christian
  • Channel Islands: 85.2% Christian
  • Croatia: 93.4% Christian
  • Denmark: 83.5% Christian
  • Faroe Islands: 98% Christian
  • Finland: 81.6% Christian
  • France: 63% Christian
  • Georgia: 88.5% Christian
  • Germany: 68.7% Christian
  • Gibraltar: 88.8% Christian
  • Greece: 88.1% Christian
  • Hungary: 81% Christian
  • Iceland: 95% Christian
  • Ireland: 92% Christian
  • Isle of Man: 84.1% Christian
  • Italy: 83.3% Christian
  • Latvia: 55.8% Christian
  • Liechtenstein: 91.9% Christian
  • Lithuania: 89.9% Christian
  • Luxembourg: 70.4% Christian
  • Macedonia: 59.30% Christian
  • Malta: 97% Christian
  • Moldova: 97.4% Christian
  • Monaco: 86% Christian
  • Montenegro: 71% Christian
  • Netherlands 50.6% Christian
  • Norway: 84.7% Christian
  • Poland: 94.3% Christian
  • Portugal: 93.8% Christian
  • Romania: 99.5% Christian
  • Russia: 73.3% Christian
  • San Marino: 91.6% Christian
  • Serbia: 92.5% Christian
  • Slovakia: 85.3% Christian
  • Slovenia: 78.40% Christian
  • Spain: 78.6% Christian
  • Sweden: 67.2% Christian
  • Switzerland: 81.30% Christian
  • Ukraine: 83.3% Christian
  • United Kingdom: 71.7% Christian
  • Vatican City: 100% Christian

European countries which aren’t predominantly Christian:

  • Albania: 18% Christian
  • Czech Republic: 23.3% Christian
  • Estonia: 39.9% Christian
  • Kosovo: 11.4% Christian


Christmas is a huge deal in the UK, where families get together to celebrate and open presents together.

The traditional decorations of holly, ivy and mistletoe are also used in homes. The most famous street for Christmas decorations is Oxford Street in London, where light displays become more extravagant every year. The UK, of course, has all the traditional Christmas items like stockings by the fireplace and mince pies.


If you like your Christmas markets, then Austria is the place for you. The Christkindlmarkt runs throughout the country from November to December and you’ll be sure to find some Gluhwein and gingerbread. Each town has a Christmas Tree and homes are decorated with dozens of ornaments.

The main meal is “Gebackener Karpfen” (fried carp) as many Catholics believe Christmas is a fasting day and no red meat should be consumed. You will find some roast goose or turkey in some homes though.


In Sweden, Christmas celebrations are usually centred on St. Lucia’s Day on 13 December. St. Lucia was a Christian martyr who was killed for her faith in 304.

St. Lucia’s day buns, much like hot cross buns, are often eaten on this celebration. It is flavoured with saffron and raisins.

On Christmas Eve, Swedish Christians celebrate with a feast buffet which includes cold fish, cold meats, “julskinka” (Christmas ham), pates, cheese, salads, pickles, bread, sausages, jellied pigs’ feet, pork ribs and mayonnaise. The Swedes love watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve – which airs ever year at 15:00 (since 1959).


In Portugal many people believe that it’s Baby Jesus and not Father Christmas who delivers gifts. During the “Missa do Galo” service attendees queue to kiss an image of Baby Jesus.

Children are surprised each Christmas after mass when Baby Jesus “miraculously” appears in his manger under the Christmas Tree (placed there in secret by their parents). Traditional Christmas dishes are regional and include eggs, turkey, rice pudding, French Toast, cinnamon filhos, carrots, King Cake and candied fruit.

If you don’t open your door to carol singers or if you’re treats aren’t up to scratch the singers may mock you.


Australians and New Zealanders celebrate Christmas much like South Africans. Within these two countries combined approximately 65.61% of the population follows a Christian faith, which means most of the countries celebrate Christmas. Overall across Oceania, most of the population is Christian, with the greatest density of Christian believers found in Papua New Guinea and American Samoa which have approximately 99.2% and 98.3% Christians respectively.


Australian Christmases are much like South African Christmases, although many Australians will head to the bush to fight wild fires during this time of year.

The green leaves and cream flowers of the native Australian “Christmas Bush” can often be seen adorning homes in the country. The country usually hosts as Carols by Candlelight service in each of the State capitals. The country is known for editing traditional Christmas songs mentioning cold and snow to include Australian words. You will, for instance, not necessarily hear about Santa’s reindeer – instead, he visits the country on his “six white boomers” (kangaroos).

Christmas dinners in Australia usually consist of cold dinners or barbecues (or braais).

New Zealand

As New Zealand is also in the Southern hemisphere, kiwis tend to congregate on beaches on Christmas day. Some towns see decorated floats and marching bands and Santa can be seen wandering the streets in his “jandals” (kiwi sandals – appropriated from Japanese sandals) and All Black rugby shirt.

If you see someone on Christmas day in New Zealand, wish them a “Meri Kirihimete”.

Traditional New Zealand Christmas carols include “Te Haranui” and their Christmas tree is the Pohutukawa which has bright red flowers.