Gifts From a Witch! And Other Holiday Traditions Around the World | EF Ultimate Break
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UK holiday tradition of leaving minced pies out for Santa on Christmas Eve

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!

by Kevin McGraw
December 11, 2020

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.

Greece holiday Christmas tradition decorating boats

In Greece, they'll sometimes decorate a wooden boat instead of a tree. | © Pit Stock/Shutterstock

Greece

Caroling, boat decorating, and superstitions

Kyriakos
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
Greece

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

Italy

A gift-wielding witch on a broomstick and a lucky New Year's meal of sausage and lentils (yes, in Italy)

Dario
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
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:

Gia
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
Italy

"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

Germany

Shoes filled with treats, calendars filled with treats, and something called Second Christmas Day

Ingo
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
Germany

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

France

A three-hour dinner and a bean hidden inside a cake

Fabrice
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
France

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

The UK

New jumpers, chocolate, and mince pie for Santa

Mike
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
UK

Tour Director Mike, who runs our trips to England, the UK and beyond, believes that Christmas is not just the most exciting day of December, but straight up the best day of the year. Well put, Mike.

“The lead-up to Christmas is particularly special. We wander around shops, picking out our new Christmas jumper (sweater) and listening to the holiday songs of the past and present.

As kids, we’re given an Advent calendar on December 1st, marking the beginning of the Christmas celebration. It sits prominently next to your bed, allowing you to get your hands on the chocolate treat inside as soon as you wake each morning. And of course, you look forward to the biggest chocolate on December 25th. Funny thing is, most years I forgot to eat my chocolate on the 25th because I was busy racing down the stairs to my presents.

It’s a tradition in the UK to leave a mince pie, filled with dried fruits and spices, for Santa on Christmas Eve. He’ll be hungry from all the traveling, so it’s greatly appreciated. As I bounded down the stairs each year, I always checked to make sure he had taken a bite out of the pie, confirming his existence year after year."

In Spain, they'll stuff twelve "lucky" grapes into their mouths on New Year's Eve before the clock strikes midnight—then hug and kiss each other with a mouthful! | © 5PH/Shutterstock

Spain

Christmas hangovers, a day of pranks, and a mouth full of grapes

Alejandro
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
Spain

Spain doesn’t mess around when it comes to December holidays. And neither does Spanish Tour Director Alejandro.

“It all starts on December 6th, Constitution Day, celebrating the day the democratic constitution was restored in 1978 after 40 years of dictatorship. Two days later is the Day of the Immaculate Conception, which is considered by many to be the first day of the Christmas celebration. Depending on the year, these two holidays may fall near a weekend, resulting in what’s called La puente de diciembre (the December bridge), a five-day vacation!

December 24th is called Nochebuena, and it literally means “the good night.” Families gather for dinner, listen to carols, and children go to bed so Papa Noel can bring presents in the night. For adults, it’s common to go out after dinner to party on Christmas Eve. There is a famous song that goes: "Esta noche es Nochebuena y mañana Navidad, dame la bota María que me voy a emborrachar!" This translates to: "Tonight is Christmas Eve and tomorrow's Christmas Day, get me a bottle Mary because I'm gonna get drunk!" Very educational indeed.

December 28th is known as el Día de los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Holy Innocents). It’s essentially the April Fools’ Day of Spain, with a much more sinister origin. According to the Bible, King Herod ordered all baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed in an effort to kill baby Jesus. Jesus was far away from Bethlehem at the time, making King Herod’s effort a huge failure. I suppose the ‘joke’ was on Herod, and now we trick friends because of it on December 28th. That’s some dark humor we Spaniards enjoy.

New Year’s Eve is called Nochevieja (the old evening), and it’s the most celebrated night across the country. There’s no time for a massive countdown, because we’re busy eating the 12 lucky grapes! People around Spain tune in live to watch the clock in Madrid’s central square, Sol, strike midnight. And once it does, we put a grape in our mouth with each chime. By the 12th and final chime, our cheeks are filled with grapes as we hug and kiss each other, excited for the year to come.”

In Costa Rica, tamales are a popular holiday dish. | © Julia Bagdanova/Shutterstock

Costa Rica

Family time, tamales, horse parades, and letters to Baby Jesus

Gustavo
EF Ultimate Break Tour Director
Costa Rica

The one thing Tour Director Gustavo might like more than Costa Rica is Costa Rica in December.

“Christmas is one of the most anticipated times of the year by many, if not all, Costa Ricans. It’s the time to be with your family, your friends, and your loved ones. It’s the time to be grateful, celebrate, eat, and drink. Christmas in Costa Rica is a blend of different influences—from Catholicism and Christianity to traditions brought forth by indigenous people.

Christmas Eve is celebrated by gathering for a family feast. The meal is well-thought-out and includes roasted pork leg, tamales made with banana leaves, eggnog, and agua dulce (sweet water).

One tradition that sets us apart from many places around the world is that Costa Rican children don’t write letters to Santa, but to Niño Dios (Baby Jesus). But, as is the case in other countries, the burly man in red is becoming more popular, so some children may write to Colacho (Santa) instead.

On December 26th, we celebrate the annual Tope (Horse Parade) in San Jose. Around 10,000 horses from all over Costa Rica parade down the streets of the capital city. Beginning in colonial times, this tradition started as a way for people to come and see horses from different farms. Over 500,000 people come to the event each year!"

Celebrating the holidays

Wow, that’s a lot of holiday information. Yet somehow, we barely scratched the surface! The world is a big place, and every culture observes the holiday season a bit differently. As travelers, not only do we embrace these differences, but we celebrate them.

Feel like you need to experience some of these holiday traditions yourself? Check out our European Christmas market trips or ring in the new year in style on any of our New Year's trips. And the best part is, we’ll handle everything. You just travel.

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by Kevin McGraw

Kevin is a copywriter at EF Ultimate Break. He loves drinking chocolate milk, looking at photos of his parents’ dog, and, for some reason, running for hours at a time. His favorite place in the world is Mürren, Switzerland.

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