Not everyone celebrates the Christmas depicted on Hallmark cards, but almost the entire globe celebrates the holiday season in some way. Early winter celebrations date back millennia, so it is inevitable that myriad customs will have derived from traditions all over the world. Therefore, any Christmas celebration would be "traditional" for only a small subset of those enjoying the holiday.
When to begin celebrating
There are some common themes in the rites of Christmas around the world. Even though the main event is usually on or near December 25, some traditions start early and others stay late.
In Belgium, the Santa Claus figure for speakers of the Walloon language, known as Pere Noel, arrives for the first time on December 4 to see which children have been good or bad. He returns on December 6, and if you've been bad, you get sticks in your shoes.
Christians in Iran start fasting on December 1. They go without meat, eggs, milk or cheese until Christmas Day, when they feast.
The first event of the Christmas season in Norway is the celebration of St. Lucia at the dawning of the day on December 13. At first light, the youngest daughter of each family dons a white robe and a crown made of evergreens and, accompanied by siblings, wakes up the parents and serves them coffee and sweet buns.
Christmas events begin on December 6 in Nicaragua. On December 16, there are reenactments of the difficulty Joseph and Mary had getting lodging at the inn, and Mass is celebrated every night from then until Christmas.
Many traditions honor the 12 days of Christmas, which run until January 5, which is then followed by Epiphany, and it has its own set of traditions. Ethiopia celebrates Christmas on January 7 because they are on a different calendar.
Regardless of the timing of the celebrations, most celebrants decorate trees. People in China use ornaments made of paper shaped like flowers and lanterns. People in Liberia use oil palms for Christmas trees, and adorn them with bells. Christians in India decorate mango and banana trees.
In Greece, Christmas trees are uncommon, and the families will instead have a small wooden bowl with a wire across it which supports a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. There will be a bit of water in the bowl for the basil, and every day a family member will dip the basil in the water and sprinkle the water around the house to keep away the goblins which, tradition says, appear during the 12 days of Christmas.
In Greenland, Christmas trees have to be imported.
Food and feasting have been a part of the winter celebrations since before the Druids. In Argentina, Christmas means barbecue followed by fireworks.
In Denmark, Christmas Eve is the biggest celebrations of the year. Danes will party all night while enjoying prune-stuffed roast goose and red cabbage. Danes always set out dishes of seeds for the birds on Christmas.
Commoners in Finland will not eat their Christmas feast until the birds have been served a special dinner of grain, nuts and seeds.
In Romania, there is a longstanding tradition which begins on December 20 called Ignatius, after St. Ignatius. Ignatius begins when the family gathers with a very sharp knife and a pig. After much ceremony and incense, the pig is roasted and neighbors drop by on Christmas with plum brandy.
In Greenland, the locals visit each other and drink coffee, share pastries, and dance the night away. At some point, however, it is typical for everyone to be given a piece of mattak, which is whale skin with a piece of blubber attached. Tastes like coconut. And that's not all! Another holiday treat is kiviak, which is the raw flesh of an auk which for several months has been buried in sealskin and has seriously decomposed. Suddenly, fruitcake sounds delicious.
In Bulgaria, they might tell Christmas tales as they sit around the fire and eat special Christmas blood sausage.
And in modern-day Japan, a new tradition is to have Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas. It is so popular, one might need reservations to get a bucket or two of original recipe.
Music is a part of celebrations all over the world, as well. In Greece, children go from house to house singing carols accompanied by the tinkling of triangles, as they do in Romania and the Ukraine.
Poland has carols dating back to the 15th century, and carolers there wander through villages and neighborhoods and even perform puppet shows. In Guatemala, paraders carry religious statues and are accompanied by marimba bands.
The Welsh take their love of caroling to the next level. In Wales, caroling is often accompanied by a harp. On Christmas Day, townspeople gather in public places to see who will win the prize for the best new carol of the year, and the winning carol is distributed throughout the land for all to sing.
Other little-known traditions
In the alpine countries of Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Bulgaria, Santa Claus has an evil twin. Stories there tell of Krampus, a hideously scary-looking creature who beats and punishes children who have been bad. On the night of December 6, men will put on grotesque masks and demonic costumes and wander around, likely fueled by alcoholic libations, hitting people with sticks. The tradition is spreading into Italy and as far north as Finland.
Legends in Norway tell of witches and spirits who come looking for brooms to ride on Christmas Eve night, so the women hide the brooms and men go outside and fire shotguns into the air to scare away the spirits. Does that sound like Arkansas?
In Caracas, the faithful who go to early morning Mass for the nine days before Christmas go there on roller skates.
In Holland, farmers blow long horns every evening during the holiday season. They blow them over wells which greatly amplify the sound.
In Finland, Christmas festivities are preceded by trips to steam baths.
For Christian families in Iraq, one family member will read the Christmas story while the others hold candles, after which they light a bonfire in their courtyard. The fire is made of dried thorns. After the fire burns down to ashes, the family will jump over the ashes three times and make a wish.
In Micronesia, it is considered appropriate to applaud yourself as you receive the traditional Christmas gift of two bars of soap.
In some Middle European countries, families put a few blades of straw on the main table as a reminder of the Nativity scene.
As for the Nativity scene, in Spain and Portugal and nearby areas, it has been customary since before the 19th century for Nativity scenes to include a person off to the side caught in the act of defecating. To include a pooper has been considered good luck and not doing so is considered unlucky. This tradition must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and the idea caught on and continues strongly today, but it's hard to imagine what the first person was thinking when he or she looked at a Nativity scene and thought, "I know what is missing!"
We're all different in how we celebrate Christmas. Not every family is going to eat whale blubber with a side of decomposed auk. Not every Nativity will have a pooper. The point is that there is something to celebrate and countless ways to do it. It is never too late to start your own nontraditional tradition.