Lady choosing Christmas tree

Christmas around the world

PUBLISHED: 16 December 2019 | LAST UPDATED: 4 December 2023

In many parts of the world, December descends into a flurry of festivities filled with gift exchanges, visits to see friends and family, tables of food and homes transformed by decorations. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah or Eid al-Fitr you celebrate as a strictly religious celebration, or take it as an opportunity to spend quality time together to reflect on the year just passed, expats are experiencing the holidays in very different ways to those they remember from their childhoods. 

This festive season, we’re taking a look at some of the celebrations around the world – so you’ll know what to expect if you’re going to be somewhere new this year.

The Christmas culture shock 

The most notable holiday in December for many is Christmas, but there are a number of countries where Christmas isn’t widely celebrated, and that can take some getting used to if Christmas is big back home. Equally, if you’re visiting somewhere for the first time where Christmas takes over, it can be a quite a surprise. 

We spoke to expats in different parts of the world, and 13% said local holidays were what they missed most about home1

Being in a different country over the festive period, whatever you’re celebrating, can mean bringing together your personal family traditions and the traditions from your home country with those from where you’re now living, too. One Hungarian expat living in Canada said her family celebrated Christmas and started putting their Christmas tree up on 12 December because it’s halfway between the 1 December, when the Canadians do it, and the 24 December when they’d do it in Hungary. She also said, ‘It seems that, Christmas in Canada means the whole family wears matching pyjamas.’ 

One Brazilian expat told us, ‘In Brazil, we take Christmas very seriously; with very elaborate decoration, and even if it’s 35°C we have fake snow and there’s a Nordic ambiance. But last year I spent Christmas in Stockholm and that was the real deal! They’re Christmas pros! There’s a natural Christmas feeling everywhere, there’s snow and the Nordic deco is real! I think it was one of the best Christmases of my life. Just like in Brazil, the main celebration in Sweden is on the 24 December, but curiously, it involves watching a Donald Duck cartoon!’

An expat from Pakistan told us, ‘My preconceptions about Christmas in the West were fairly basic, I had no idea about three kings riding on camels, and I’d never experienced anything like a yule log cake before!’

Traditions around the world

Whilst Christmas isn’t celebrated by everyone, in many countries it tends to bring with it a whole host of traditions, such as music, events, decorations and food, and those are things embraced by many.  

Whether a turkey with all the trimmings or festive fried chicken is your thing, Christmas dinner is just one of the traditions that the expats we spoke to missed most from their home countries over the holiday season. Depending on where you are, some of the things you’re used to might not be as easy to get hold of. There will, however, be lots of new traditions and experiences that you can embrace, and could even be the start of a new tradition for you and your family. We’ve taken a look at some of the most popular expat destinations to see how they celebrate the holidays:

Joyeux Noël 

In France, families celebrate Christmas on 24 December. They usually have a large feast late in the evening and the traditional dessert is La bûche de Noël, or a yule log, made with chocolate and chestnuts. There’s also a Provençal French Christmas tradition where 13 desserts are made, and everyone has to taste each one in order to have good luck for the upcoming year. The desserts usually include dried fruit and nuts, or a traditional cake called Pompe à l’huile

Those with young children will know that in some areas of France, St Nicolas delivers the presents rather than Father Christmas. He is sometimes accompanied by Le Père Fouettard, or ‘Father Spanker’, who decides whether children have been good or bad.

Hari Krismas 

The average daily temperature at Christmas time is around 30°C, but that doesn’t stop the whole island of Singapore embracing the festive spirit – you can even hire a Christmas tree. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are public holidays, usually spent shopping and dining at the malls and enjoying the bustling atmosphere. Singapore’s busiest shopping street, Orchard Road, is completely transformed by Christmas light displays during the holidays. 

The Christmas Wonderland in the Gardens by the Bay is the ultimate Christmas party for all the family, with carol singers, an outdoor artificial ice rink and even ‘snow’ sessions. And be sure to visit the magical Christmas market in Supertree Grove to pick up all sorts of food, drink, crafts and gifts.   

Going out for Christmas brunch is very popular in Singapore, often washed down with a celebratory glass of festive fizz. And many hotels and restaurants also have a Christmas dinner menu for later in the day. 

Because Singapore is so diverse with residents from all around the world, there’s a variety of festivals to look forward to that are celebrated throughout the year such as Chinese New Year, MoonFest, Eid al-Fitr and Diwali. 

Feliz Navidad

Most Spanish families eat their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, the meal includes turkey and truffles, but more modern Christmas dinners, particularly in Northern Spain, include a lot of seafood. Popular desserts include marzipan turrón, which is similar to nougat, and polvorones biscuits. 

Many Christian families will celebrate another festival on 6 January called Epiphany, which is a celebration of the Christmas story. Presents are delivered by the Three Kings, and in exchange, children leave a glass of Cognac, a satsuma and some walnuts for each king. 

In Catalonia, there's a Christmas character called Caga Tio (the pooping log). He has a smiley face, a red cap and legs to prop him up. Catalan families give Caga Tio small amounts of sweet food to 'eat' and a blanket to keep him warm. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, families sing a special song and hit Caga Tio with sticks to help his digestion and he ‘gives out' sweets, dried fruits and small gifts! 

shèng dàn kuài lè 
聖誕快樂 (圣诞快乐)

Despite only 1% of people in China identifying as Christian, you’ll still be able to find Christmas trees, lights and other decorations in the big cities. Christmas isn’t an official holiday, but if you have young children, they can still visit Santa Claus, or Shen Dan Lao Ren, who has grottos in the shops. You might even see postal workers dress up as Santa when out delivering letters before Christmas.

The Winter Solstice Dongzhi Festival is a big celebration in China. It takes place on the shortest day of the year, usually the 22 December and is more celebrated than Christmas. At this time, families come together, and dumplings are served. 

The biggest event in the Chinese calendar is Chinese New Year, when hundreds of thousands of people will be travelling across the country to be with their families. It usually falls between the last week of January and the first week of February. 

United Arab Emirates UAE 
Eid Milad Majid  
عيد ميلاد مجيد 

Whilst it’s far from cold in the UAE, it can still feel festive. In Dubai, the Madinat Jumeirah transforms into a winter wonderland with a Christmas market, North Pole train ride, giant snow zone and daily appearances from Santa. 

In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Christmas Day isn’t an official holiday, but many people celebrate in some extravagant ways - such as sharing a fondue with friends at Après overlooking Ski Dubai. Most people go out for Christmas brunch, but if you choose to stay in, many of the five-star restaurants and hotels provide a takeaway service where you can collect a full dinner and bring it home to enjoy with family. 

If you’re going to be spending the holiday period in the UAE, you won’t be short of reasons to celebrate. Also in December is the National Day Festival, which celebrates the creation of United Arab Emirates on 2 December and national monuments are decorated and open for public viewing. 

One of the most important festivals in the UAE, though not necessarily in December, is Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. It’s a time for feasting, giving gifts and being with family. 

‘Experiencing and embracing all the new traditions with my local friends has brought so much joy to my heart.’ Syrian expat living in Canada

For families with children, it can be nice to build a tradition around speaking to loved ones who live far away over the holidays. Video calls can be a great way to do this. For more ideas on how to help children adapt to expat life, check out some of our articles here.

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.

1. Research commissioned by AXA – global healthcare, conducted in February 2019 by Vitreous World. A total of 1,352 working expats aged 24-50  were surveyed (250 in the UK, France, UAE, Canada and China, and 100 in Hong Kong)