Festive traditions from around the world

Posted Date: 18 November 2016
World traditional practices

Nothing says Christmas like a roast dinner, reindeer on the roof and a stocking full of presents. For the residents of Caracas in Venezuela, however, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without closing the streets to make way for roller-skaters.

Festive traditions around the world are far more diverse than decorating a tree and stuffing the stocking. Even New Year’s Eve celebrations come in all shapes and sizes, like banging the walls of your house with bread to ward off bad luck.

Below we dive into eight unique end-of-year celebrations found around the world, and outline how travellers can prepare for a Christmas and New Year period with a twist.

Christmas traditions around the world

Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan means long queues, but not for the ice skating rink or the shopping mall. Every Christmas, Japanese families line up to buy their Christmas feast… at KFC.

Every year, Japanese families flock to KFC restaurants to buy their Christmas dinners, consisting of chicken, cake, wine and champagne. Japan’s Kentucky Fried Christmas tradition is believed to have started in the 1970s when a group of foreign travellers tried to find turkey, but had to settle for chicken from KFC instead. A successful ’Kentucky for Christmas’ marketing campaign in 1974 got the Japanese public in a fried chicken frenzy, and now it’s the go-to Christmas dinner for millions of Japanese families.

Christmas in Venezuela

Christmas celebrations don’t come much more unique than in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. They mark the occasion with Christmas trees and fireworks, yet also have a roller-skating procession that is a sight to behold.

Streets are closed to vehicles until 8am from 16 December to 24 December to allow for churchgoers to roller-skate to church. Children are expected to wake up early in the morning to attend religious services, so they tie long pieces of string to their big toes and dangle these out the window into the streets below. Passing roller-skaters then tug at the string to wake the children, who then get their skates on and join the procession to church.

While a city-wide roller-skating parade may appeal to curious travellers, it’s important to note that Caracas is reported to be the most dangerous city in the world. Violent crimes, gang violence and gang-related crimes are becoming increasingly commonplace in Caracas, and broader Venezuela is experiencing political and economic turmoil.

Smartraveller.gov.au currently urges travellers to Venezuela to reconsider their need to travel, and urges travellers to avoid areas bordering Colombia due to extremely high risk.

Remember, if your destination has been given a risk rating of ‘Reconsider your need to travel’ or ‘Do not travel’ by Smartraveller before you depart, our policy won’t cover you for any events that relate to that travel advisory.

Christmas in Finland

Christmas celebrations are mostly held on 24 December in Finland, with the traditional Santa decorations, wreaths, reindeers and presents.

However, after the Christmas Eve lunch is enjoyed, just about everyone in Finland will head to the sauna.

Warming up with a Christmas sauna is an age-old custom in Finland, where it’s believed that the spirits of dead ancestors come to warm themselves after sunset. Saunas are considered holy places of purity with the power to heal sickness.

Travellers to Finland will also enjoy a picturesque ‘White Christmas’ with the chance of snow almost guaranteed. While it may be stunningly beautiful, Christmas in Finland (and Europe in general) can be bitterly cold. Make sure you pack appropriate clothing for the weather and don’t go overboard with the snowball fights!

Christmas in Spain

For most children around the world, Christmas means sweets, treats and toys. For the children of Spain, these sweets and treats come pooped out of a small log with a smiley face.

The Caga Tio, translating to ‘Poo Log’, is just that - a small hollowed out log filled with sweets and toys. The Caga Tio is set up in houses on 8 December, and children look after him until Christmas Eve by keeping him warm with blankets and well-fed with sweets. After a large dinner on Christmas Eve, the kids sing a song threatening to beat the Poo Log with a stick unless he gives them their sweets and toys, and dessert is served out of the Log’s hollowed out bottom.

The song translates to ‘Poo Log, poo hazelnuts and turron, if you don’t want to poo we will hit you with a stick!’

Christmas in Ukraine

A well-decorated tree is often the first sign that Christmas is just around the corner. In the Ukraine, they ditch the tinsel and baubles for spider webs.

Decorating Christmas trees with spider webs stems from a Ukrainian folktale. The story goes that a poor woman who couldn’t afford to decorate her tree woke on Christmas morning to find a spider had covered it with webs. When the first light of the morning hit the spider webs, they turned into gold and silver and the lady and her family became rich.

New Year traditions around the world

New Year in Japan

Once the presents have been exchanged and the Christmas KFC consumed, Japanese families prepare for their New Year traditions - which are in fact reflective and sombre occasions.

Japanese adorn the entrances of their houses with bamboo and pine branches, which are thought to attract the gods. They also eat soba to ward off evil spirits, burn incense, eat citrus cakes, give money and spend time with their families.

Joya no Kane is one of the better known New Year celebrations in Japan, whereby Buddhist priests ring bells 108 times in elaborate ceremonies. Buddhists believe that humans suffer 108 evil desires, and that each toll of the bell defeats one of these desires.

If you’re heading to Japan for New Year celebrations, don’t expect the same festive atmosphere we enjoy at home and be respectful of these reflective traditions.

New Year in Ecuador

You may be accustomed to the New Year’s Eve night sky illuminated by fireworks, but in Ecuador you’ll see lights of a different kind.

Ecuadorians burn effigies on New Year’s Eve to cleanse themselves from any misfortune they’ve suffered in the past 12 months. These can be painted sculptures of politicians, pop culture characters, celebrities and everyday citizens.

It’s said that the tradition dates back to a severe yellow fever epidemic that hit the country in 1895. People would burn the clothes of the dead in coffins, setting them alight to kill disease, which became a sort of purification ceremony. Yellow fever remains a risk in Ecuador, and all visiting travellers are advised to be vaccinated for the disease before arrival. Some airlines also demand to see a yellow fever vaccination certificate before allowing you to depart.

New Year in Ireland

The Irish are proudly traditional in their celebrations, and New Year festivities are no different. Whether it be honouring deceased ancestors by setting them a place at the dinner table, or warding off bad luck by banging bread on the walls of the house, the Irish take their ceremonies seriously.

They also follow a peculiar ritual called ‘first footing’, where the fortune of the new year is determined by who enters the house first. If a young and handsome brown-haired man enters first, the house will enjoy good luck for the year. On the other hand, blonde and red-haired women entering first is a sign of bad times to come.

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