Popular International Christmas Traditions

When we think of holiday traditions, childhood memories, and nostalgia from long ago come to mind. For all the wonderful decorations, traditions, and holiday treats were influenced and inspired by many cultures and customs from all over the world. In this article I explore many interesting and unique traditions our world has to offer.

Winter Solstice

Sunrise at Stonehenge in southern England on the winter solstice.

Many plants, such as trees, holly, miseletoe, and wreaths, we see as decorations during Christmas come from faraway countries and ancient customs we may not know about or understand. Thousands of years ago we celebrated the winter solstice and a lot of holiday decorations we use today come from these ancient customs.

The winter solstice comes on the 21st of December. It has been celebrated all over the world for thousands of years. It is the first day of winter, when the sun is farthest from earth. Ancient people used to mark the solstice for winter by building temples that showed light on a wall with pictures of a small and large sun. There are two temples, one in Mexico and one in England far across the oceans, both built as the same sun temples. This shows how important keeping a calendar and tracking the stars was to our ancestors for agriculture and religious rituals of rebirth and fertility. Now we just call the day the first day of winter in our calendar. But the ancient traditions are still around, you see them everywhere in December and you decorate with them in your own home. The holidays just wouldn’t be the same without them.

The Christmas Tree


1840s England

The Norse culture had many legends about pine trees and evergreens, they stayed green in the winter and were considered sacred. So, during their most popular and important holidays they would decorate the pine trees in the forest with fruit, nuts, and cookies shaped as stars as an offering to their gods to bring warmth and light back into the world. The forest animals would eat the offerings and it would be accepted that the offering was favorable to the gods. It would bring protection and good luck to the people. They hoped to have many blessings in the year to come.

To early people and cultures, the day it is coldest and darkest is the day to pray that the light of the sun comes back to warm the world. This belief has remained the true spirit of Christmas. To be kind and loving to each other, to be generous to people and wish for the light and warmth of the world. Out of all the traditions and customs that seems to be the most important tradition that we can learn from this holiday season. There is a reason all cultures find this holiday the most important one of the year.

The Yule tree or Christmas tree is usually cut down for the family home in the modern day. Pine, fir, cedar, or spruce are the traditional choices for the holidays. The tradition originated in Norse culture, but Celtic, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries have records of celebrating this custom to decorate pine trees in December. All with different customs of course relating to their traditions and beliefs. One thing is true, they all felt this time of year was sacred to the light of the world and humanity. Now in current times we have a Christmas tree in many homes all over the world with bright colored ornaments, garland, and handmade items of all kinds. The celestial star on the top of the tree is an important symbol of the season. Our ancestors believed that the stars had a special connection to God. That through the stars the gods showed us signs we should follow in the cosmic calendar.


The tradition of decorating with holly came from the Druids. It was a sacred plant to them and held an important meaning relating to the sun. They believed that the light of the sun would come back to the world if they made holly as an offering to their gods. The fact it stayed green and red in winter and did not die like all other plants held an important meaning to why they thought it was a sacred plant. In Ireland they made wreaths with holly for good luck to hang on their front door, a custom we still practice to this day. Now we decorate it in our homes in Christmas wreaths, decorations, and garland. Holly with green and bright red is very beautiful and alive at this time of the year. Our ancestors decorated it for protection and good luck in the home for the coming year. Now we decorate it because the holidays wouldn’t be the same without them.

The Wreath


We find that the Christmas wreath originally came from ancient Greece and Rome. In Rome it was believed that the circle was sacred and used wreaths in festivals honoring their ancestors and fallen soldiers. The most important symbol to their gods, representing eternal life and the cycles of life and the universe. It became a popular custom and we still decorate it to this day. In England the word wreath means to twist, its branches symbolize everlasting life on earth like the ancient Greeks and Romans.



Mistletoe has ancient ties in many cultures around this holiday season. From the ancient Greek, Druid, Celtic, and Norse cultures long have thought of this plant as sacred. Many legends and stories have mistletoe as a healing plant. To some it is poisonous and grows almost everywhere. But to the ancient people it brought protection and healing to their home when they decorated it during December.

The Yule Log


The Yule log was burned in the hearth, or fireplace, as a tradition during Christmas and the month of December. Yule or Winter Solstice festivals still practice this custom. In tradition a whole tree or the largest log would be taken inside to be cut and to burn throughout the night of Yule. Our ancestors thought it would bring prosperity and good luck for the coming year. The burning Yule log was a symbol of Divine Light and the return of the sun from winter. Oak was the preferred wood burned in European countries and this is a popular custom. Once again, we see the Druid mythology in these traditions for Oak is thought to be sacred as a symbol of ferility to them and had a large influence in this tradition. In modern times, making a Yule log cake has become very popular. There are many recipes available online or in cookbooks.


Melissa Horn
Melissa Horn
Melissa Horn is a commercial artist in the Metro Detroit area. Melissa produces fine art, drawings, painting, graphics, design, crafts, jewelry, fashion, Native American crafts, book illustrations, and music album covers. Her studio is named Vintage Noir Art and her arts and craft store is named Sleeping Earth. Melissa studied graphic design at Macomb Community College and studied fine arts at the Ray-Vogue College of Design in Chicago. She lives with her family of three children in a suburb of Detroit.

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