The Atlas of Christmas

The Merriest, Tastiest, Quirkiest Holiday Traditions from Around the World


By Alex Palmer

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Discover the fascinating (and sometimes downright odd!) ways that people and nations celebrate the holiday season and share this festive compendium’s unique traditions together with family and friends.

Do you know that in Guatemala there’s a “Burn the Devil” tradition to kick off the Christmas season, where revelers gather to set fire to devil-piñatas? In Sweden, a popular figure in Christmas traditions is the Yule Goat, a rowdy, menacing character who demands gifts. And in Japan, a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken has become the classic Christmas Day feast. These and many other global Christmas traditions are featured here in this delightful book. From decorations and activities to feasts and special treats, there’s a wide range of both lovely and unusual traditions from around the globe.




The story of Christ’s birth remains the central focus of Christmas celebrations throughout Latin America and Spanish-speaking parts of the world. But while nativity scenes and tributes to the Virgin Mary and Wise Men are widespread, the people of Mexico take a slightly different path in honoring the tale. A man and woman dress up as Joseph and Mary and reenact the search for lodging on the night when Jesus was born. The couple, often played by adolescents, leads a procession of children costumed in silver and gold robes as well as musicians and other parishioners to a predesignated house. This is the posada, or inn, and the residents take on the role of skeptical innkeepers of Bethlehem. They greet the visitors at the door, listen as the couple explains their plight, and reluctantly refuse them entry. But after some further back-and-forth, typically in song or verse, the innkeepers finally recognize the holy couple and warmly allow them inside.

The whole procession moves indoors, where participants gather around the nativity scene to pray, read scripture, and sing carols before moving on to the next posada—often visiting three or four homes in a night. From the last posada, everyone heads to Mass, after which they cut loose with a more relaxed party that usually includes feasting on tamales, pan dulce, and champurrado (a corn-based hot chocolate popular in Mexico) while the children take shots at a clay piñata full of candy and fruit.

While some celebrate las posadas only on Christmas Eve, many perform the ritual every night from December 16 to December 24—nine nights, representing the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. The specific songs may vary and for some performances, Joseph and Mary may even ride atop donkeys or incorporate other dramatic elements. The tradition dates back to at least the seventeenth century, introduced by Augustinian missionaries as a Christian alternative to the Aztec custom of celebrating the god Huitzilopochtli at about the same time of year. The practice grew more popular over time and spread throughout Latin America. The performance of requesting and being granted shelter—after several denials—has particular resonance for Mexican American immigrant communities of the United States.



While the Holy Family is the center of any nativity scene, another trio gets their day a little later in the Christmas season. For Christians in many countries, the official end to the Christmas season is January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, known as Epiphany. This day recognizes the tale of the three Wise Men, collectively known as the Magi, arriving in Bethlehem to pay tribute to baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Upon seeing him, they had the epiphany that he was indeed the son of God.

The event is celebrated in different ways throughout the world (see box) but one of the most prevalent celebrations is el Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, in Spain and Latin American countries. This is often a bigger day of feasting and gift giving than Christmas itself (which tends to be more focused on attending Mass and church services). The evening before, children will write letters to the Magi and leave their shoes out at night—usually with some hay to feed the Wise Men’s hungry camels—in hopes they will be filled with treats the next day. On the day of Epiphany itself, extravagant parades accompany the Magi as they roll via camel, boat, or even helicopter, grabbing letters written by children in the streets and bringing gifts with them to pass along to the kids.

Wherever it’s celebrated, the party always includes some kind of showstopping cake, from the fruit-bejeweled roscón de reyes in Spain to the flaky galette des rois frangipane-filled pastry of Belgium. The forms and flavors of “king cake” vary significantly, but all include some kind of hidden prize—an almond, dried bean, or ceramic baby—that when found earns the recipient the honor of “king for a day” or some other similar distinction. (For more about king cake, see here.)



While the big day of gift giving for much of Latin America falls on Epiphany, for many Europeans, it’s one month earlier, during the celebration of a different religious figure. Saint Nicholas of Myra was venerated for centuries for his generosity, and reputed to leave surprise gifts for the youth (read more about him in chapter 4, here). The day in his honor is recognized throughout mainland Europe on December 6—or December 16 for those following the Gregorian calendar. Few places celebrate the figure who would become known as Sinterklaas with more gusto than the Netherlands and Belgium.

Over time, the celebration shifted from a religious and public one where those in need were treated to a feast, to a more private, family-focused, increasingly secular affair. As the celebration has evolved, so has its namesake. While the name of the American Santa Claus is a corruption of Sinterklaas and the two characters now share a number of traits (red-and-white wardrobes, white beards, and a habit of popping down chimneys to deliver gifts), the two figures are distinct. In Dutch, Santa is known as de Kerstman or “the Christmas man,” and he is a secondary figure compared to his forebear. It is certainly tough to compete with Sinterklaas’s theatrical flair.

In the Netherlands and Belgium today, festivities officially begin on the first Saturday following November 11. Sinterklaas arrives “from Spain” by steamboat into the designated seaside town (which varies from one year to the next in Holland, and is always Antwerp in Belgium). His assistant, Zwarte Piet (see page 130 for more on him), tosses sweets to the waiting crowd. Sinterklaas then disembarks, hops onto a white horse, and parades through the street. Over the following days, other towns will have their own Sinterklaas arrival celebrations, and the gift bringer will pop into schools, hospitals, and community gathering areas—all leading up to Saint Nicholas’s Day.

On the night before the big day, the character is said to travel from rooftop to rooftop on his horse (no sleigh or reindeer for this guy), leaving gifts, chocolate coins, or other sweets in the shoes of the boys and girls who have left their footwear by the fireplace, usually with a carrot or some hay and water for Sinterklaas’s horse to munch on (though naughty children might get a switch or a stick for bad behavior). The good bishop might leave a note or poem, and sometimes wraps the gift in an elaborate style known as a surprise (see here).

In much of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’s Day is the predominant gift-giving occasion, with more than half the Dutch people exchanging gifts on December 6, and 36 percent doing so only that day and not on Christmas. But in Belgium and Southern Netherlands, it’s an occasion set aside for children, and adults will exchange gifts later in the month, on Christmas.

Parts of Germany also celebrate Saint Nicholas’s Day with fervor. The bishop will appear on horseback and may ask how children have behaved that year or quiz them on church doctrine and request that they sing a hymn, in exchange for a gift, of course. Instead of Zwarte Piet, in Germany he’s likely accompanied by a more sinister sidekick, such as Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus (read more about them in chapter 5, “Devils and Troublemakers”).



Germany has been celebrating Christmas going back to at least the eighth century, when Winfrid, Saint Boniface, introduced the Germanic tribes to Christianity. And it has brought the world a number of Christmas customs that have been widely adopted, including Christmas trees, Christmas ornaments, Advent calendars, and Advent wreaths, to name a few. But few practices embody Germany’s influence on how we now celebrate the holiday more than the Weihnachtsmärkte—Christmas markets.

Seemingly every German town square is taken over by buzzing booths selling baked goods, Christmas decorations, handmade wooden toys, and all manner of other merchandise ideal for celebrating the holidays. Brass bands play while visitors sip on cups of glühwein or snack on gingerbread hearts as they view the goods on offer, stopping by the nativity scene (featuring either wooden figures or real people) reliably set in the center of the market.

Today, such activity might not sound all that remarkable; such Christmas markets can be found in practically every Western city of more than a few dozen people. But none of these places, however charming they may be, exude the history and legacy of the Weihnachtsmärkte. From at least as far back as the fourteenth century until as late as the mid-twentieth century, these were the primary places for locals to pick up their Christmas decorations. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, travelers from around the world would visit Germany and, struck by the geniality and kindness on display, even in a place of public commerce, return with sentimental descriptions of the holiday magic they’d seen. These impressions would shape how the rest of the Western world practiced Christmas.

As other markets and street fairs died away in the face of industrialization and mass production, the Christmas market persisted. While the oldest still-operating market is in Munich (where it has been in operation for about six hundred years), the largest and most famous is Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt. In the shadow of the sixty-foot-tall Schöner Brunnen (“Beautiful Fountain”) and six-century-old Frauenkirche (“Church of Our Lady”), more than one hundred booths offer up gifts and treats. The name of the market, which has been in operation since 1697, translates to Christ Child Market, in reference to the angelic gift-bringing figure of the Christkindl (see here), who appears each year during the market’s opening day at the top of the church before descending to greet the thousands of visitors who are there ready to shop.

Travelers can now arrange for weeklong “Christmas market tours” and Germany boasts more than two thousand Weihnachtsmärkte sprinkled across the country.



Nicholas is not the only saint to be celebrated during the Christmas season. On December 13, the feast day of Saint Lucia is recognized as an opportunity to honor Lucia of Syracuse, who was martyred during persecutions of Christians in the early fourth century. While she’s a venerated figure in the Roman Catholic Church, in Sweden, the celebration of Saint Lucia has little to do with that story, beyond the fact that the Italian folk song “Santa Lucia” can usually be heard during the various gatherings. Just as jolly old Saint Nick bears only the slightest resemblance to Saint Nicholas of Myra, Sweden’s Saint Lucia is a gift-bearing character with little similarity to her Catholic namesake. Portrayed as a young blond (it is Sweden, after all) girl dressed in white with a red sash and crown of lingonberry sprigs, she is meant to symbolize innocence and light in the midst of midwinter darkness—especially important in a place where the night can stretch as long as eighteen hours.

On Saint Lucia’s Day, kids dressed in long white gowns parade through shopping malls, government buildings, and nearly every other place where people gather. In each parade, one girl represents Sankta Lucia, leading the procession wearing her Advent wreath crown, complete with glowing candles (usually electric ones these days), followed by a number of stjärngossar (“star boys”) wearing cone-shaped hats made of silver paper and decorated with stars.

Every city crowns its own Lucia “Queen of Light,” all the way up to a national Lucia, crowned in Stockholm. Thanks to some miraculously good timing, Saint Lucia’s Day falls just three days after the Nobel Prize award ceremony, held each year on December 10 in Sweden’s capital. Since many of the winners remain in the city for various events, the national procession has for years begun the day with “wake-up calls” for the Nobel laureates staying at Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel. Beginning at about 7 a.m., the procession of white-clad kids (who have been given the laureates’ room keys, with their permission) make their way from room to room, singing the scientists, academics, and authors awake like some kind of angelic Christmas alarm clock.

While many cultures celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, Sweden celebrates Twenty Days of Christmas—from December 26 to January 13, Saint Knut’s Day. The closing day of the Swedish holiday season is treated as a party for children, in which decorations are taken down, the Christmas tree is lit one last time before being “plundered” of its ornaments and sweets, and there are plenty of games and singing.

Though celebrated in Sweden, the day is named after Danish king Canute IV, who was assassinated by his cousin and rival in the eleventh century, sparking a civil war. It may end with “throwing out” the Christmas tree, which in previous decades could literally mean tossing the tree out the window but now is more likely to mean it’s picked up by local volunteer organizations or chopped up and used as firewood. In some regions, the trees are burned in a bonfire.



The holiday season is not only about celebrating peace and goodwill. Just as often, it is a time to symbolically recognize, and exorcise, the darker forces of the world. Like much of Central America, Guatemala is predominantly Roman Catholic and the Christmas season there is focused on the veneration of the Holy Family. But this country also makes time for an incendiary exercise each year meant to burn away bad spirits. On the evening of December 7, at exactly 6 p.m., locals take part in La Quema del Diablo—the “Burning of the Devil” (sometimes called La Quema del Mal Humor). Guatemalans clear out trash from their homes, piling it in the front yard or some other designated area, and then set it on fire. It is viewed as a way to purify the house, while also preparing it for the next day’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Lately, the trash burning has come under fire, so to speak, because so much modern trash consists of plastic and rubber, with mattresses, tires, and more ending up in the pyres, releasing toxic chemicals into the air and darkening the clear sky. When approximately half a million fires are being lit in Guatemala City alone, it can cause some serious air quality issues.

There has been some success in encouraging Guatemalans to stick with burning old newspapers or wood. Instead of approaching the tradition as a literal house cleaning, Guatemalans are urged to view it as a more spiritual cleansing, tossing into the flames papier-mâché effigies of the devil rather than their household garbage. In the Guatemalan city of Antigua, local artists make a human-size devil figure every year, and the whole town comes together to watch it burn. This can create controversy of its own: In 2016, the (topless female) devil that was created was arrested for indecency, and community leaders had to put a corset on the figure to get police to release it in time for the ceremony. Despite the controversies, it’s clear that Guatemalans will be burning bad stuff in some form for many years to come.


On Sale
Oct 6, 2020
Page Count
256 pages
Running Press

Alex Palmer

About the Author

Alex Palmer is a freelance journalist and author living in New York City. He covers business, travel, culture and pop culture for publications like The New York Post, Time Out New York, Publishers Weekly, Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times’ The Local, Huffington Post, and Editor & Publisher. The son of two teachers, he loves learning and writing about odd, funny, or surprising stories behind familiar subjects.

His second book, Weird-o-pedia: The Ultimate Collection of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things, was published in July 2012. His first book, Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature, takes a look at some of the more colorful aspects of great writers and their works, and was published in October 2010 by Skyhorse Publishing.

Learn more about this author