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Publié le by NmNomador

Christmas Traditions in 7 House-Sitting Countries Around the World

This article is the twelfth in Nomador’s Cultural Differences & House-sitting series. You can learn more about the series in the introduction, and dive into guides about popular house-sitting countries, including France, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Australia. We’ve also created four regional guides for house-sitters headed to Asia, Latin America, Northern Europe, and Eastern Europe.


One of the benefits of housesitting is getting the chance to gain deeper insights into cultures and ways of life around the world. Experiencing different cultures during major celebrations, such as Easter and Christmas, creates a unique opportunity to see something totally different to the everyday.

While house-sitting during Christmas is a great opportunity to get to know your host country, it also requires a bit of planning. You don’t want to miss-out seeing and trying some of the best local traditions. And you certainly don’t want to be caught unaware when the grocery store, post office or bank is unexpectedly closed.

In this guide, we introduce Christmas traditions and need-to-know info in seven popular house-sitting countries. We hope it helps to enrich your experience as a house-sitter this season.

Christmas Traditions in Spain

The Spanish Christmas season begins December 8, with the weeklong Feast of the Immaculate  Conception. Around the country, massive nativity scenes, called nacimientos or Beléns, pop-up in public places, along with Christmas markets.

While Spanish families get together for a Christmas Eve meal followed by midnight mass, Spanish children don’t wait up for Santa Claus on December 24. In Spain, it’s the Three Kings (Reyes Magos) who bring children gifts, delivering them on the eve of Three King’s Day/Epiphany (January 6).

In Spain, some of the most interesting Christmas traditions are regional ones. In Catalonia, for example, Caga Tió and Caganers attract considerable attention.

Caga Tió (Poop Log) is a log that Catalan families buy before Christmas. Vendors transform ordinary logs into Caga Tió by adding legs, a face, a blanket to keep it warm, and a Catalan hat known as a barretina.

In the lead up to Christmas, children feed Caga Tió pieces of orange peel and bread to fatten it up. When Christmas finally arrives, they sing a special Caga Tió song while beating the log with a stick or whip, and asking it to poop out treats, such as nougat candy known as turrón.

Poop, log,
Poop nougats (turrón),
Hazelnuts and mató cheese,
If you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
Poop, log!

The Catalan caganer is another fascinating regional Christmas tradition. Caganers are figurines used in Catalan nativity scenes, immediately noticeable given their unique stance: squatting, with their trousers around their ankles, often with a small pile of poop on the ground beneath them.

Caganer means “the shitter” in Catalan. While no one seems to be entirely sure how or why the caganer became a Catalan Christmas tradition, scholars theorize it has to do with the role of dung as agricultural fertilizer, or perhaps as a symbol of one of the most base aspects of humanity, as compared to God.

Other Christmas Traditions in Spain

  • Spanish families enjoy a meal together on Christmas Eve before going to a special midnight mass, known as La Misa Del Gallo (The Mass of the Rooster).
  • The Spanish enjoy playing the lottery at Christmas - so much so that the Christmas edition of the national lottery is colloquially known as El Gordo (the fat one).
  • Spain’s Basque region has its own version of Santa Claus, known as Olentzero. If you find yourself in Bilbao at Christmas, be sure to enjoy Olentzero’s December 23 parade, when he travels along the city’s Gran Via.
  • Similar to in Mexico, the Spanish celebrate Epiphany with a special cake: Roscón de Reyes. Sometimes, the cake has a figurine hidden within. Whoever finds the figure is responsible for buying next year’s cake.

Need to Know

  • Expect most shops and restaurants to be closed on December 25, with many businesses also closing early on Christmas Eve. Because Christmas Eve is the main family meal, many restaurants and bars will be closed on December 24.
  • On January 5 and 6, you’re likely to come across the Three Kings parade in cities throughout Spain. Expect large crowds and disruptions to public transportation during parade days.

Christmas Traditions in France

The Christmas season usually kicks off at the beginning of December in France. Starting December 1, children count the days to Christmas with chocolate-filled advent calendars. Many French families also have advent wreaths, lighting one candle each on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.

 

On December 6, St. Nicholas arrives, leaving small gifts in children’s shoes. His counterpart, Père Fouettard (Father Spanker) also arrives, leaving lumps of coal for naughty children, and maybe even whipping or spanking them.

Being France, food is an integral part of Christmas celebrations, and Le Réveillon - the main Christmas Eve meal - is the most important. The meal involves regional specialities along with national favorites like foie gras, escargot, goose, turkey, vegetables, smoked salmon, oysters and French wine and Champagne. And the table is always beautifully decorated!

Traditionally, Le Réveillon takes place on December 24, and families head to midnight mass after their meal. However, with modern lifestyles, schedules, and work life, some families have shifted this meal to December 25.

Other Christmas Traditions in France

  • In Provence, Le Réveillon is capped off with no less than 13 desserts, each representing one of the 12 Apostles and Jesus. Yes, you’re expected to eat all 13!
  • Whereas the Anglophone countries tend to send Christmas Cards, the French send New Years cards. If you’re house-sitting in France and want to offer new friends seasons greetings with a card, wait until the New Year and wish them Bonne année instead.

Need to Know

  • Christmas is a major holiday in France, so expect things to be closed on December 25, nationwide. In the regions of Alsace and Moselle, December 26 is also a holiday (St. Stephen’s Day).
  • Christmas markets are popular in France over the holiday season. They typically open mid- to late-November.

Christmas Traditions in the USA and Canada

Students in the USA and Canada enjoy a short winter break from school over the holidays. Before school ends for the year, elementary-aged children participate in Christmas concerts at their schools, or join Christmas choirs to sing carols and holiday songs in shopping malls.

Many shopping malls also host actors dressed up as Santa Claus. These “mall Santas” visit with children in front of elaborate Christmas sets, listen to their gift wish lists, and pose for staged photos which families can purchase. For many American and Canadian families, an annual photo of their child with a mall Santa is a fun, not-to-be-missed tradition.

In the USA and Canada, children believe Santa visits their homes on Christmas Eve while they’re asleep. Santa flies around the world with the help of his magic flying reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolf), delivering toys made by elves in his North Pole workshop. Many families leave out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, along with something for the reindeer to eat.

In Canada and the USA, Christmas dinner is the main holiday meal, and involves turkey or ham, vegetables, and starches like mashed potatoes. For the many Canadians and Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas, Chinese food is a popular alternative to a traditional Christmas dinner.

Other Christmas Traditions in the USA and Canada

  • Canadian and American children enjoy tracking Santa’s movement on Christmas Eve, following along with NORAD’s Santa Tracker, which is reported by news broadcasts as well as being available online.

Need to Know

  • Many businesses in Canada and the USA close early on Christmas Eve, so get any shopping done before 3pm or so. Most businesses are closed on Christmas Day, but you’re likely to find some national chains, such as Starbucks, open in larger cities.
  • Shopping malls offer extended hours in December, staying open daily until 9pm or so.
  • In Canada, Boxing Day (December 26) has typically been known as a day for great shopping discounts. Boxing Day in Canada is similar to Black Friday in the USA.

Christmas Traditions in Australia

In Australia, Christmas takes place over the summer holidays. The end of the school year often involves Nativity plays and Christmas concerts, unofficially kicking off the start of the season.  

While Christmas carols are popular in Australia, many of the English carols popular in the UK and North America are changed to reflect the fact that Christmas is a summertime holiday.

The lyrics to Aussie Jingle Bells, for example, have Santa dashing through the bush, not the snow, in a rusty Holden Ute, instead of a sleigh.

Australians seem to recognize that Christmas Down Under is a special and sometimes confusing affair. Aussies embrace both the wintry decor of their European and North American cousins, and their own unique Aussie way of celebrating. In Australia, it’s not uncommon to see holly, snow and sleigh decor next to a surfing Santa!

Other Christmas Traditions in Australia

  • Christmas lunch is the main family meal in Australia, although traditions vary from family to family. While some families stick with a formal lunch with typically English Christmas foods, others treat it as an opportunity for a more casual, low-key family BBQ and chance to get outside - often to the beach.
  • Christmas Bush is a popular decoration in Australia. An endemic plant that normally has cream-coloured flowers, the flowers turn red right around the holidays!
  • The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and the ‘Boxing Day Test’ cricket match between Australia and a visiting international team are popular Boxing Day traditions.
  • Carols by Candlelight is one of the most popular national Christmas events of the season. Held in each state capital, people come together to light candles and sing carols. If you’re not in a state capital, don’t worry - the events are televised.

Need to Know

  • Expect businesses to close early on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is a national holiday, as is Boxing Day in most parts of the country.
  • Boxing Day (December 26) is a popular shopping day with steep discounts.

Christmas Traditions in Mexico

As Mexico is predominantly Catholic, Christmas is a big deal. Characteristically, Mexicans combine the religiousness of the holiday with their love of a good fiesta, making Mexico a fascinating and fun place to spend Christmas.

Las Posadas kicks off the season on December 16. During the nine days leading up to Christmas, Mexican families reenact the holy family’s search for an inn. Today, the celebration involves a candlelit procession of friends, family, and neighbors, getting turned away at every house until they finally find an “inn” to accept them. Children often lead the procession, and when they arrive at the “inn”  (someone’s house), there’s a pre-arranged fiesta to enjoy, often with piñatas!

Buena Noche, or Christmas Eve, is another important day. Children again lead a procession, this time to church to place a Christ Child figurine into the nativity scene (nacimiento) and attend midnight mass.

While gifts for children traditionally took place on Epiphany, this is changing - some families now give gifts on December 25, not January 6. Mexican families enjoy a special Twelfth Night supper on Epiphany, involving hot chocolate and a special cake with a baby Jesus figure hidden inside. Whoever finds the figure in their piece of cake must host a tamale party on February 2, Candlemas Day.

Other Christmas Traditions in Mexico

  • On December 23, Oaxaca hosts Night of the Radishes. Locals carve intricate patterns and shapes into radishes and compete for prizes in different categories.

Need to Know

  • Businesses close on December 25 throughout Mexico, although you’re likely to find some bars and restaurants open in tourist areas.
  • Mexico celebrates most holidays with fireworks. If you’re house-sitting animals, check with the homeowners to see if anything special needs to be done for nervous pets.

Christmas Traditions in Costa Rica

Noche Bueno - Christmas Eve - is focal point of Costa Rican Christmas celebrations. Families and friends enjoy a traditional dinner of tamales, pork, Tres Leches cake, and eggnog. Gifts are exchanged before heading to church for midnight Mass.

December 25 tends to be a fairly relaxed affair after the celebrations of Christmas Eve. Families and friends relax and enjoy each other’s company.

If you find yourself house-sitting in Costa Rica at Christmas, you’re likely to see plenty of Christmas trees, decorations and color. Nativity scenes, known as Portal, are found in almost everyone’s homes, and are often decorated with flowers and fruit.

Other Christmas Traditions in Costa Rica

  • Bullfights are a popular activity in Costa Rica during Christmas, and don’t involve injury to the bulls. Rather, these events are more like a bull run - participants run from the bulls and try not to get knocked over or hurt.
  • If you find yourself in the capital in the lead-up to Christmas, the Festival de la Luz is a popular tradition. Almost 1500 musicians join an illuminated parade through the city, attracting roughly one million spectators!

Need to Know

  • Christmas holidays are a popular time for Costa Ricans to travel and enjoy the beach. If you’re house-sitting in a popular beach destination, expect crowds.
  • December 25th is a national holiday, so expect most businesses and services to be closed.

Christmas Traditions in the UK

Many Christmas traditions that are celebrated in other Anglophone countries, such as sending Christmas cards, making mince pies, and signing Christmas carols, are also popular in the UK.

These days, however, many families combine long-standing Christmas traditions with more modern additions, such as wearing Christmas jumpers (sweaters), watching the Dr. Who Christmas TV special, and going to German-style Christmas markets.

One long-standing Christmas tradition across much of the UK is watching the Queen’s annual Christmas speech. First delivered by Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, in 1932, it was King George VI who really popularized the annual broadcast following the 1939 outbreak of  WWII. The Christmas Broadcast, as it’s officially known, has been televised since 1957, and its popularity reaches beyond the UK to many of the Commonwealth countries.

Other Christmas Traditions in the UK

  • Christmas was banned in Scotland in the 1500s, and wasn’t recognized as a public holiday again until 1958.
  • Wales has its own unique Christmas traditions, such as eating toffee on Christmas Eve and Mari Lwyd, a “battle of rhyming insults” from a man wearing a scary horse costume. Yes, really!
  • Attending a pantomime - silly plays with purposely terrible jokes and audience participation - are a popular Christmas activity throughout the UK.

Need to Know

  • Most business will be closed on Christmas Day, although some pubs will open for Christmas lunch. Christmas Eve is also a popular time to go to the pub, and generally there’s quite a celebratory atmosphere on December 23!

Katie Matthews
GreenActiveFamily.com

Katie and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, and now live in Budapest with their daughter. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communication and experience.

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