Gifts From a Witch, Mouths Full of Grapes, Cakes on Cakes—And Other Holiday Traditions Around the World
Don your coziest sweater, put on your jolliest playlist, and come along as EF Ultimate Break’s Tour Directors walk you through their favorite—and sometimes bizarre—holiday traditions from their home countries around the world, from feasts to festivities!
Spoiler: there’s more than one way to celebrate the holidays. Some people decorate a tree, some light the menorah, and others simply sit back and listen to nothing but Mariah Carey for six weeks straight.
But what do they do in Germany? What about Costa Rica? Don’t they stuff grapes in their mouths on New Year’s in Spain? All of these questions, and more, are about to be answered. And not just by us. We had a little help from our friends—EF Ultimate Break Tour Directors. Not only do these experts know their stuff, they freaking love the holidays.
So, follow along as we stop by seven different countries to learn what the locals celebrate, how they decorate, what food they enjoy during the holidays, and which place is lucky enough to have something called Second Christmas Day.
In Greece, they'll sometimes decorate a wooden boat instead of a tree. | © Pit Stock/Shutterstock
Caroling, boat decorating, and superstitions
Tour Director Kyriakos knows a thing or two about Greece (and being Greek) around the holidays.
“One of the best parts about the holidays in Greece is the children going around the neighborhood singing Christmas carols. People used to give out sweets to the singers, but these days, they tend to give out money to thank them for spreading the Christmas spirit. Lucky kids!
Before Christmas trees became popular in the 1950s, Greeks used to decorate small model boats with lights, a tradition that comes from Greece’s long maritime heritage. In some places around Greece, they still decorate boats in the main squares.
We Greeks are historically superstitious. There’s proof of this on New Year’s Day—the person who first steps foot in the house after midnight will be responsible for the household’s luck throughout the year. Therefore, people may invite a friend over who they believe to be exceptionally lucky.”
In Italy, you better be a good child if you want La Befana to bring you treats. | © DARRAY/Shutterstock
A gift-wielding witch on a broomstick and a lucky New Year's meal of sausage and lentils (yes, in Italy)
You’re in luck. Not one, but two of our Italian Tour Directors weighed in on what makes the holiday season so magical in Italy.
From Tour Director Dario:
“To me, Christmas in Italy is about local markets, all of the nativity scenes around the towns (the biggest and most famous of which is in Naples), the sounds of the Zampognari bagpipe players, the bingo-like Tombola game, and the famous witch called Befana.
Ahh yes, the tradition of La Befana, the witch who brings sweets to children on January 6th. How did a witch come to be part of the celebrations? Well, legend says that the Three Wise Men came to her house and invited her to join their search for Christ but she was too busy with housework so declined. But later she changed her mind, and to this day is still searching for the child.
Another entertaining folkloristic tradition that I love to see—and hear!—is the so called Zampognari sounds. The eight days before Christmas, also known as the Novena, are filled with carolers singing traditional songs around the neighborhoods. The Zampognaro is the ancient mythical figure linked to that of shepherds and their nomadic pastoral way of life, spent looking after herd of sheep and goats away from home. It was customary that each of them brought along an instrument: one would bring a bagpipe, another the tambourine or the flute and every young shepherd learned from the older ones. The ‘sound of the zampogna’ comforted them and made them feel at home.”
From our Tour Director Gia:
"With so many choices of delicious food during Italy’s holiday season, being on a diet is simply not an option! On December 24th, we have Cena della Vigilia di Natale, a Christmas dinner of seafood. Then, dessert: panettone, a sweet bread. Then it’s off to bed for the kids because Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) is coming to town. Christmas day is spent opening gifts and spending more time with family.
Up next on the holiday calendar is New Year’s (or Capodanno, as we call it). And while Christmas is usually spent with family, December 31st is the one spent with friends—partying, dancing, and waiting for the countdown to midnight. Oh, and if you want good luck in the new year, you must eat sausage and lentils."
The first printed advent calendar originated in Germany. | © juerginho/Shutterstock
Shoes filled with treats, calendars filled with treats, and something called Second Christmas Day
German Tour Director and expert on all things Germany, Ingo, has a few things to say about the holidays in Deutschland.
“The celebrations in Germany start on December 6th, St. Nikolaus Day. The night before, children brush their boots (they must be clean!) and leave them in front of their door so that St. Nikolaus can come and fill them with gifts.
In the beginning of December, children (and some adults) receive a calendar with little boxes for each day leading up the 24th. Each box or door contains gifts or sweets for the day. Some may know this as an Advent calendar, which actually originated in Germany in the 19th century. In addition to the Advent calendar, many families have Advent wreaths, a tradition that also began in Germany during the 16th century.
The main celebration takes place on December 24th, Weihnacht (Holy Night). This is a time for close family to come together and eat a meat-free dinner. After eating, kids are taken on a walk, and it is during this time that Der Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) comes and leaves presents under the tree.
December 25th is known as First Christmas Day, and it’s a day of feasting. The whole family is invited for a lunch of roasted goose, potato dumplings, red cabbage, and more. And just when you think it’s over, Second Christmas Day comes along (December 26th). This day is an opportunity to visit more family members or just to rest and recover from the big feast the day before. From the 24th to the 26th, there’s lots of food, lots of gifts, and most of all, lots of family time.”
In France, if you find the bean or charm inside your piece of Galette des Rois cake, you're the King or Queen for the day! | © Angelique clic/Shutterstock
A three-hour dinner and a bean hidden inside a cake
Tour Director Fabrice loves the holiday season in France.
“Instead of having a big lunch on Christmas Day, we French celebrate Le réveillon, a long feast with friends and family sometimes lasting up until Midnight Mass. Then, on Christmas morning, we open gifts before enjoying a lighter lunch as we recover from the Christmas Eve feast. In some parts of northern and eastern France, families celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, so some lucky kids get to open their presents a few weeks before Christmas.
One unique tradition we have in southern France is burning a log on Christmas Eve so the Virgin Mary and Jesus can stay warm should they decide to visit the house. Speaking of logs, it’s important to note that a Christmas feast wouldn’t be complete without La Buche de Noel (Christmas log), a delicious chocolate sponge cake.
Another tradition of the food variety is La Galette des Rois. This is the King’s Cake, and is eaten on January 6th, Epiphany. A bean is hidden inside the cake, and whoever finds it is crowned King or Queen for the day!”
In the UK, they'll leave minced pies out on Christmas Eve for Santa. | © Carol Badkin/Shutterstock
New jumpers, chocolate, and mince pie for Santa