holiday traditions around the world

Cultural Insights: Holiday Traditions Around the World

December 22, 2021

Holiday traditions around the world vary considerably. Many of our destinations, especially those in Asia, do not historically celebrate Christmas. Without a traditionally Christian foundation to society, the religious significance of the holiday season is therefore absent. As such, there is no public holiday for Christmas in Thailand, Vietnam, and most other Asian countries.  

However, the ever-increasing global commercialisation of Christmas is inescapable. Any visit to a mall in an Asian city will inevitably include holiday sales, Christmas lights, and the sound of jingle-bell laden tunes over the speaker system.

Then, of course, in the Americas, a deeply-entrenched Catholic faith blends with indigenous Mesoamerican culture to create Christmas celebrations with a twist.

Let’s take a snapshot look at four of the more intriguing ways the holiday season is celebrated across our destinations.

Holiday traditions around the world posada pinata
A star-shaped pinata in Mexico

Holiday Traditions Around the World

Kentucky Fried Christmas

Every 25th December in Japan, almost 5 million families gather around a bucket of fried chicken to savour that secret blend of herbs and spices. This has been a strange tradition in Japan for decades and stems from nothing more than an inspired marketing campaign from 1974.

The story goes that the owner of the first franchise of the famous American fast-food chain overheard foreigners talking about how much they missed turkey at Christmastime.

He wondered if he could foster a connection between fried chicken and Christmas in the minds of Japanese people, akin to the image of the ever-present turkey on our Christmas dinner plates.

He introduced discounted party barrels of chicken with the tagline ‘Kentucky for Christmas’. The campaign went national and the rest, as they say, is history. An ingenious marketing campaign transformed a floundering franchise into Japan’s most popular fast-food chain – a Christmas miracle for the colonel.

Cut to today, and December is far and away the busiest month for the red-and-white chicken-slingers in Japan, with many people pre-booking their meal weeks in advance.

KFC in Japan
A Santa-clad colonel in Japan

Peaceful Pingguo

Much like in Japan, Christmas is not widely celebrated in China, but there is growing adoption of the Christmas aesthetic around December, especially in more cosmopolitan cities.

In Beijing, Shanghai, or Nanjing, Christmas is a time to shop. It’s also a time for young couples to go out and enjoy a romantic dinner, treating it almost akin to Valentine’s Day.

A growing practice among Chinese people is to gift apples on Christmas Eve. They come in exquisitely decorated individual boxes, and some can be extremely expensive. This is not some kind of new-fangled shunning of the decadent feasting we so often associate with the holiday season but is, in fact, due to the Chinese custom of appreciating homophones.

People give apples on Christmas Eve because the day is called ‘Ping’an Ye’, meaning quiet or peaceful night, itself a translation from the popular carol ‘Silent Night’. The Mandarin word for apple is ‘Píngguǒ’, bearing a passing resemblance to the Mandarin word for peace. From such pleasant quasi-homophones, whole traditions can be born, as is the case here.

In celebrations throughout the year in China, there are homophonous cultural customs. Eating fish during the new year celebrations, the lucky numbers 8 and 6, and eating dumplings during the lantern festival are all cultural phenomena based on homophones.

Party Season

The holiday season is often an excuse for everybody to let their hair down and indulge in a little festive cheer. It’s a time for holiday-themed parties with friends, family, and colleagues.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a country known for always bringing that fiesta spirit to any occasion should go above and beyond over the Christmas period.

In Mexico, Christmas celebrations typically last from 12th December to 6th January. A significant part of these festivities is ‘Las Posadas’, lasting 9 days from 16th December to Christmas Eve. These organised celebrations are centred around Christian traditions, but have spread to a Mexican carnival atmosphere of food, music, and partying with friends and family.

The festival focuses on the journey of Mary and Joseph as they look to seek refuge in Bethlehem – ‘posadas’ translates to shelter in English. To commemorate this, each night, a procession is led through towns by young children representing angels, shepherds, and other characters from the nativity scene, followed by adults.

pinata posada
Smashing the star-shaped piñata is a highlight of 'Las Posadas'

Each night for nine consecutive nights, the procession stops by different households, singing a traditional song asking to be let in. Resembling the nativity story, they are rejected numerous times before arriving at the hosts for that night – who let them in! Then, the party commences, often with a star-shaped pinata, various other games, music, and, of course, a Mexican feast!

Rodrigo Garcia, our Discova designer and Cancun resident, reflects, “We Mexicans never need much of an excuse to party! The whole Christmas season is a time to eat, drink, and share a great time together with friends and family. While ‘Las Posadas’ is a Catholic tradition, it is a festival that many enjoy regardless of their faith as the emphasis is on the spirit of getting together.”

Kastengel - Indonesian Christmas cookies

O, Chicken-Feather Christmas Tree

Indonesia has a vast population of various faiths and backgrounds, with large groups of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. This melting pot of cultures leads to a fascinating blending of festivals, where different groups tend to influence others.

Christmas, therefore, is a hodge-podge of different traditions depending on where you are in Indonesia. Christmas Day is, in fact, a public holiday, thanks to the country’s some 30 million Christians, and state tv broadcasts Christmas-themed performances and pageants on Christmas Day. The Home Alone movies are also apparently very popular!

In Bali, there is a focus on the image of the Christmas tree, with residents making homemade trees from chicken feathers. However, the giant chocolate Christmas trees are much more enticing, expertly crafted by the island’s master chocolatiers.

However, Christmas here has unfamiliar elements to the western eye. It is common at Christmas to wear traditional Balinese clothes and decorate the streets with penjor – bamboo-like yellow coconut leaves.

The decorations are said to represent Anantaboga, a mythical Balinese dragon. This is one example of how the Christmas celebrations blend with local influences.

Sinterklaas
Sinterklaas

In Indonesia, more broadly, cookies are a big thing over the festive period. Popular types include nastar – a butter cookie with pineapple jam filling, and Kastengel and Putra Salju – butter cookies covered with sugar and cheese.

Santa Claus makes an appearance in Indonesian Christmas tradition, too, though he is often referred to as Sinterklaas. This is due to the historic Dutch influence in Indonesia. Sinterklaas is well known in the Netherlands and other European countries, known in English-speaking countries as St. Nicholas. 

He is one of the major influences, along with the movie industry in Hollywood, melding together to form the modern, red-suit wearing, round-bellied jolly fellow we know and love as Santa Claus today.

In malls in Indonesia around Christmas, you’ll find Sinterklaas handing out gifts to children and generally wishing people well, distinct from the Americanised Santa Claus by his tall pointed hat.

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Subscribe to Discova's Monthly B2B Newsletter

and stay at the forefront of new product offerings, Discova behind-the-scenes, destination news, travel trends and thought leadership articles from our on-the-ground experts