Around the world... Christmas traditions

| December 2, 2014

With the festive season soon to be upon us, are you curious about how destinations in Latin America, Africa and the Indian Subcontinent celebrate Christmas?

Argentina. Photo credit: Thinkstock/ iStock

Discovering and exploring cultural differences is one of the true joys of travel. For many people, it's precisely this that drives them to visit one country after another, searching for fresh perspectives, new stories and different ways of life.

While you can dive into cultural discovery at any time of year, it's particularly interesting to do so when you can easily compare and contrast one place with another - such as during shared periods of celebration. Christmas, which is nearly upon us, is one such time. Seeing how other cultures celebrate this much-loved Christian holiday provides a fascinating window into how different - and yet similar – other countries can be compared to home.

In this spirit of discovery, we have outlined how some of our favourite destinations mark the birth of Christ. Why not explore them for yourself in the new year?


Approximately two per cent of the Indian population is Christian; while that might not sound like a lot, it still means over 20 million residents follow the religion and, as such, celebrate Christmas. However, you will definitely see it celebrated more in some areas than others. Mumbai, for instance, has one of the larger Christian communities, but to see Christmas celebrated with particular fervour, travel to Goa.

Having been a Portuguese colony for centuries, Goa has a large Christian population – not to mention a unique culture that blends Indian and European traditions. Christmas is marked on December 25th here, as it is in most of the world, and as in Europe is seen as a time of gift-giving, fun and feasting.

Also mirroring European traditions, the festive spirit goes far beyond the church and homes, with public spaces and shops being decked out with Christmas trees, tinsel and lights. The festivities tend to start approximately ten days before December 25th, with families going out carol singing together to raise money for the needy.

Families then come together on Christmas Eve for a celebratory meal, before going to church to attend midnight mass. Christmas Day itself is usually a quieter affair, devoted to spending quality time with the family and exchanging gifts.

Alternatively, travel a little further south to Kerala –  a region that is home to 6 million Christians alone, Christmas is one of the most popular celebrations of the year.


Ethiopia is an absolutely fascinating destination. This African, orthodox Christian country is not only blessed with a host of Unesco World Heritage sites, but a splendid schedule of annual festivals – including the famous Timkat festival – of which Christmas is an important one.

It is celebrated rather differently to Europe and India, however. The first difference comes in the date, it being marked on January 7th rather than December 25th. Known as Ganna here, Christmas is an utterly non-commercial holiday, with attentions being focused firmly on honouring the birth of Christ and spending time with the family, as opposed to gift giving.

Visit Ethiopia at Christmas time and you will see many churchgoers in traditional dress, with the shamma – a white toga-like garment hemmed with bright colours – being the most popular choice. Upon arriving at church for mass, each worshipper is given a candle and joins a procession that walks around the building three times.

Outside of church services, Ganna is a time for playing games and eating traditional Christmas food, which in Ethiopia includes wat – a thick meat and vegetable stew.

The Christmas proceedings continue on January 19th with the celebration of Timkat, which marks the baptism of Jesus. If you're in Ethiopia on this date, expect to see processions of children and adults, complete with music and prayer sticks, on their way to church.


Argentina has a significant Catholic population, which means Christmas is an important time of year. Many traditions, such as the decorating of trees, mirror those in Europe – but with key differences. For instance, in Argentina trees of all kinds can be decorated for the season, while they are often put up by December 8th, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Globos are also a common sight around Christmas. Very similar to Chinese lanterns, these paper decorations are sent off into the sky on Christmas Eve – a beautiful spectacle that's well worth looking out for if you happen to be in Argentina on Christmas Eve. Indeed, celebrations are actually more focused on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day, with the former being the time for large family meals, fireworks and midnight mass.

Following on from Christmas, 6 January also plays an important part as it is the Day of the 3 Kings (Dia de los Reyes Magos), when the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem. The night before, on 5 January, children leave their shoes by the door of the house along with some grass and water for the camels. They awake to find that the Magi have left a present atop their shoes, and everyone celebrates with rosca  – a sweet cake, topped with cherries and sugar, baked in the form of a ring to symbolise the crown of the three kings.

If you're interested in seeing how traditional Argentine cultures celebrate Christmas, pay a visit to Humahuaca Ravine, which has Unesco heritage status. Having an incredible 10,000 years of cultural history to its name, this destination blends Catholic traditions with the worship of ancestral deities. When Christmas arrives, it's typical to see children dancing with coloured strips all over the ravine.

Cox & Kings runs holidays to all the above destinations. If you are interested in a holiday during the Christmas period, please browse the website, or call a tour consultant on 020 7873 5000 to discuss details.

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