If you’re looking for some Christmas inspiration, why not look around the world? There are so many lovely traditions and delicious dishes you can borrow for your Christmas!
Christmas is a REALLY big deal for Poles. We grew up with some amazing traditions that we hope to pass onto our own families one day.
It all starts with cleaning. Yes, cleaning. The obsessive chore starts at Advent and by Christmas Eve your house is perfectly presentable and ready to accept guests - whether they are family or total strangers. In fact, it’s a Christmas tradition to leave a spare empty setting at the table, just in case a lonely person drops by.
As with so many cultures around the world, Poles show their true sense of hospitality by over-feeding on Christmas Eve - which is the most important meal. There must always be exactly 12 dishes, to represent the 12 apostles. It’s a meat-free meal, originally intended to be a form of fasting, but has evolved in modern times to include lavish and very specific dishes which happen to be vegetarian or seafood based.
On the night, Polish people exchange gifts (Saint Nicholas always makes a cameo), but most importantly we exchange well wishes with the “oplatek”, or Christmas wafer.
Some important dishes to try are:
- Barszcz, a clear beetroot broth served with wild mushroom tortellini or crepes filled with wild mushrooms
- Karp, a fresh water fish which can be prepared in many different ways, including jewish style (with raisins, onion and almonds), fried, or poached and served cold with aspic.
- Sledzie, pickled herrings which can be served classically with oil and finely chopped onions, or 'w smietanie' with sour cream and apple, or 'po kaszubsku' in a tomato based sauce.
- Pierogi (pictured below), little dumplings that are the national dish of Poland. Vegetarian flavours include sauerkraut & wild mushroom, or farmers cheese & potato
- Salatka jazrynowa, a classic root vegetable salad with lashings of mayo
- Kutia, a sweet thick porridge eaten in the most eastern parts of Poland. It is made with grains, poppy seeds, raisins and nuts, and served with a splash of cream. Great for brekky the next day too!
- Piernik, a must at my table, this is a heavily spiced gingerbread cake filled with a layer of plum jam.
- Pierniczki, little decorated gingerbread cookies which are hung on the tree as decorations and also given as edible gifts.
- Sernik, a baked cheese cake that’s perfect with black tea! Try our mum's recipe here.
- Makowiec, a poppyseed roulade cake in brioche dough. Always worth saving room for!
- Kompot, a traditional hot drink made from dried fruit and spices. Add some vodka for a cheeky cocktail!
Italians are as passionate about food as they are about religion, and each region has their own customs and traditional dishes.
Nativity crib scenes are very popular, and neighbours often compete for the most beautiful display (which are famously produced in Naples and sold all over Italy). They are made by true artists, and can depict food, animals and even waterfalls!
One thing’s for sure, Christmas Eve is a fasting day (meat is the only food not consumed), which has gradually turned into an extravagant seafood feast, and some people also don’t eat dairy.
The southern Italian Christmas Eve is characterised by 'festa di sette pesci', or 'feast of seven fish'. Fish dishes often include salt cod, clams, eel, calamari and sardines.
The seven dishes represent the seven sacraments, but some people like to mix it up and have 13 dishes (for the 12 apostles plus Jesus) or 11 dishes (the apostles minus Judas).
Classic Northern Italian dishes to try:
- Brodo (broth with cheese tortellini), from Parma
- Toasted poultry with mostarda sauce
- Panettone (pictured), a yeasted fruit cake
- Torrone, a special kind of nougat
Classic Southern Italian dishes to try:
- Capitone, eel which is fried then braised with aromats
- Zeppole, fried doughnuts
- Cannoli, pastry filled with ricotta and chocolate
- Tuna carpaccio, from Sicily
One of my best friends claims Brazilians know how to party better than anyone else on earth - and Christmas time is no exception! Brazilian Christmas is less a formal, sit-down affair, and more a big buffet with a huge group of friends and family. It’s not uncommon to have at least 50 people attend a Christmas party!
'Amigo secreto' is the Brazilian version of Secret Santa. Friends and family gather on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts, and it's basically another excuse to have a party.
Because of the wide array of immigrants to Brazil over the years, there are loads of international influences, including Portuguese, German, Italian, and South African. Despite the heat (they are, after all, in the southern hemisphere), Brazilians love to eat a big, meaty lunch.
Some classic dishes are:
- Turkey, served with exotic tropical Brazilian fruits such as kiwi, guava, and star fruit. Most importantly, the sauce for the turkey is made from the turkey giblets and farinha de mandioca (a type of flour), hard-boiled eggs, peaches, and plenty of dried fruits.
- Rice, white rice cooked with raisins and walnuts is a traditional accompaniment to turkey
- Bacalhau, Portuguese style salt cod fritters
- Couve a Mineira, kale with loads and loads of garlic
- Maionese, a potato salad prepared with apples and raisins
- Stollen, a dessert of German origin, this cake is made from dried fruits and marzipan
- Panettone, another dessert, this time of Italian origin. It’s a yeast risen sweet bread that’s full of yummy dried fruit
- Rabanda, a dessert similar to French toast and soaked in a syrup of port, honey and cinnamon
- Drinks include lots of cold beer, caipirinha cocktails and sugar cane juice
Often, the British Christmas begins on Christmas Eve – at the pub! Friends and communities gather at the local watering hole to celebrate together with a few pints, before heading to midnight mass.
Christmas morning is sometimes a little bit hungover, so a traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (plus Champagne!) is a go-to for my friend Chris’ family, accompanied by a preliminary gift-giving in pyjamas with your immediate family.
By the time late lunch rolls around, everyone is smartly dressed and ready for the formal Christmas gift exchange with extended family or friends, and a traditional meal.
Nowadays, a roast turkey with all the trimmings is a must, but did you know that before the 18th century Brits used to roast wild boar or goose?
Everyone stops to watch the Queen’s speech and Christmas movies (Love Actually, anyone?) but my favourite British tradition is the leftover turkey sandwich, often eaten late in the night after a full day of festivities and drinking!
Some traditional meals include:
- Starters such as 'pigs in blankets' and 'devils on horseback'
- Roast turkey with all the trimmings, including bread sauce, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, and roast potatoes.
- Christmas pudding with brandy butter (keep your eye out for the lucky penny hidden inside!)
Venezuelan Christmas is all about the music.
There are many traditional instruments played to create beautiful folk music, including the Cuatro, Tamborra, Furro, and Charrasca.
But the most important (and surprising) tradition is rollerskating! Yes, you read correctly. In the capital city, Caracas, roads are closed by 8am on Christmas Eve so people can skate the streets
Traditional foods include:
- Hallacas, similar to tamales, these are filled with beef, pork, chicken, capers, raisins, and olives
- Pan de Jamon, a puff pastry filled with ham, olives, and raisins and rolled into a Swiss roll shape
- Pernil, roast pork
- Dulce de Lechoza, a dessert made by slow cooking green papaya and brown sugar
Norway is said to be the home of Santa Claus (aka Julienissen), so it’s the best place to look for Christmas traditions!
Christianity didn’t arrive in Norway until about 1100AD, so this time of year is also a pagan celebration of the ancient Jul harvest festival, which is a celebration of the middle of winter the harvest gone, and the coming of Spring.
It’s characterised by the drinking of lots of 'juleol', a kind of beer.
For a Norwegian Christmas feast, try:
- Julkake, a bread spiked with raisins, cardamom and candied peel
- Risengrynsgrøt, rice porridge with cinnamon, butter and sugar
- Pinnekjøtt, roasted lambs ribs
- Ribbe, pork ribs or pork belly roasted with bones in
- Surkal, braised cabbage with caraway seed
- Gløgg, mulled wine (pictured)
Although Greeks often have Christmas trees, an older tradition is also very common. To keep away the 'Killantzaroi', bad spirits who break into your house via the chimney, a shallow wooden bowl filled with Holy Water and a cross with basil attached to it is prepared. Each day, from Christmas to Epiphany, the woman of the house sprinkles each room with some of the water to prevent the entrance of these unwanted guests.
Special Greek dishes:
- Spit roasted lamb or pork
- Baklava (especially sesame baklava from Evros) and other pastries such as Kataifi and Theeples
- Christopsomo, a sweet bread flavoured with cinnamon, orange and cloves
- Lahanodolmades, stuffed cabbage with pork
- Kourabiethes, almond shortbread cookies
- Eptanisa, spiced walnut cake
- Kalitsounia Kritis, cheese pastries from Crete
8. South Korea
There are more Christians in South Korea than most Asian countries, making up about 25 per cent of the population - so this holiday is definitely a big deal! The light displays in Seoul are second to none and a real treat for both tourists and locals. Although Christianity is technically allowed in North Korea, it is much more difficult to be openly Christian, so Christmas mass is often done in secret.
In South Korea, gifts are exchanged, and money is a very popular gift. It’s not uncommon to celebrate Christmas by going out to eat, with big groups of family and friends, keeping restaurants full on one of the busiest days of trade in the year.
Korean dishes to try include:
- Sponge cake covered in loads of cream (it’s fabulously over-the-top and purchased from the local bakery. The bigger the better!)
- Traditional western Christmas dishes are served in restaurants, and pre-cooked turkeys are readily available for anyone who’s entertaining at home.
There is a huge Catholic population in Lebanon thanks to its historic French roots. There is a turbulent history between religions in Lebanon, but Christmas seems to be a time where people put their differences aside and come together in celebration.
A nativity scene is the preferred decoration, as opposed to a tree, and it’s adorned with sprouting seeds (which are grown weeks prior on window sills on damp cotton wool), such as chickpeas, lentils, broad beans, lentils, oats and wheat.
Try these Lebanese dishes:
- Kibbeh, the baked pie version served with warm yoghurt sauce
- Turkey with spiced nutty rice pilaf
- Beetroot and tahini salad
- Buche de noel, the traditional French Christmas cake that never left the Lebanese table
- Meghli, a pudding made from flour, anise and caraway
10. The Philippines
As with so many countries, the history of the Philippines has shaped their Christmas traditions.
The nation's Spanish past means that many Catholic traditions are upheld, and because it was an American colony there are also a lot of western traditions. As with the Koreans, the Filipinos also love to give money as gifts.
The Philippines has earned the title for the world's longest Christmas - with carols and other festivities starting in September and lasting until Epiphany in January. Novena is a series of nine crack-of-dawn masses held from December 16, which marks the official start of the season.
Of course, each of these masses is followed by a lavish breakfast held with family and friends. At these breakfasts they drink salabat (ginger tea) and eat bibingka (rice pancakes with coconut and butter).
Christmas Eve is very important, with festivities often lasting all night long! In fact, there is a huge feast called 'noche buena', which happens after midnight mass and lasts until morning. Many of the traditional dishes for noche buena have pre-hispanic origins, as the feast has roots as a pagan harvest festival.
Try some delicious Filipino traditions:
- Puto bumbong, a sweet made with glutinous purple rice
- Arroz caldo, rice pudding
- Queso de bola, literally a ball of edam cheese!
- Tsokoláte, a thick hot chocolate drink
- Hamon, Christmas ham
- Pan de sal, a yeast risen bread made with egg yolks
- Lechon, roasted rolled pork belly
- Pancit, a sweet spicy spaghetti
Advent in Croatia is littered with celebrations, including St Catherine’s Day, St Barbara's Day, St Nicholas’ Day and St Lucia’s day. Interestingly, it’s not Santa Claus who distributes gifts to children, but various saints, depending in which part of the country you live in.
The Christmas tree is decorated on Christmas Eve. Nowadays, most ornaments depict fruits but traditionally fresh fruits, nuts and candied fruits were used (apples, oranges, plums, pears, walnuts and hazelnuts). In fact, it is a tradition that men give their girlfriend or partner a gift of a decorated apple as a Christmas gift, called a 'bozicnica'.
Christmas eve is meat-free, so plenty of fresh fish and seafood is devoured.
Some yummy Croatian dishes to try are:
- Bakalar, salt cod
- Salane srdele, salted sardines
- Fritule, doughnuts filled with lemon
- Sarma, stuffed cabbage rolls
- Turkey with zagorje noodles
- Bozic pletenica, a sweet braided bread
- Kotonjata, a quince candy
- Walnut and poppy seed cakes
- Lots of cookies and sweets
This is the Christmas we are so familiar with. Nothing is spared and Americans love to celebrate with gusto. However, the celebrations are less religious, and more commercialised than in some other countries. Think Christmas carols, Santa, snowmen, and reindeer!
Lights and decorations are very popular, with pretty much every town and city going crazy with huge trees and lit-up homes. Americans love edible Christmas decorations, popcorn on strings and decorated cookies.
Christmas menu is not that dissimilar to the British menu, with Roast Turkey, cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes all making an appearance.
A few other American dishes to try are: