Christmas’ in 3 countries and the biggest differences between them

What is Christmas to you? To many, it’s family-time filled with different customs and traditions.

For me? Well, it depends if I’m in Finland or somewhere else. So far, I’ve spent five Christmas’ outside of Finland, in Australia and Serbia. The traditions are pretty different when I look back on those holidays. Most of them are beautiful but some quite bizarre.

What’s a Finnish Christmas like?

Many have asked me this question overseas.

The first major difference to most countries (except other Nordics) is that we celebrate it on the evening on the 24th of December. Why? Even most Finns don’t know. Apparently, it’s to do with an ancient tradition regarding time coming from over 300 years ago. Back then, it was believed that the day changed in the evening and not at midnight as it does now.

Christmas, for us, is a family celebration together with the immediate family members. Beginning of the day, it’s common to visit the cemetery and take candles to the graves of the loved ones. 

Then the Christmas tree. We always pick it up from my grandparents’ forest and decorate it way before the actual day. Allthough some decorate it on the actual day.

On the 24th we have a Christmas porridge for lunch. The cook hides an almond inside. The one who happens to find it will have a prosperous year ahead.

We watch the same Christmas-themed TV shows every year. Every-singe-year. One of these shows is ‘Joulupukin kuumalinja’ (Santa’s phone line) which has been aired since the year I was born.

Then it’s time to get ready for the dinner, the main event of the day! We always wear our best clothes which is funny coz we are at home and won’t leave the house at any point.

Just before the dinner, we would go to and enjoy Christmas sauna and relax.

The dinner is the culmination of all – there’s no Christmas if there is no dinner. Thus, it has to be eaten very slowly so it lasts for a good few hours. The main dish is the leg ham that is cooked for hours. There would also be gingerbread cookies, buns, lots of fish (salmon and herring), casseroles from potato, liver and carrot. We always drink glögi, sort of like mulled wine without the wine. 

After dinner, Santa will visit and bring the presents (if you have kids in the family).

Most importantly for me, there would always be snow. Being cosy inside in candlelight while it’s snowing outside is something else.

Serbian Christmas times two (or three?)

This is my second Christmas in Serbia. Or should I say the third? Serbs celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January because the majority of them are Orthodox. However, some families are also Catholic which means two celebrations, one in December and one in January. This is also why our Christmas tree was up for two months last year, way too long!

If you’ve never spent two Christmas’ in one year, what usually happens is that you’re over the ‘jingle bells’ before it’s even January, but you have to try to keep up the Xmas spirit for another month! All the way up to the Serbian (Orthodox) NYE (the old New Year) which is on the 14th of January. Yes, there are also two NYE.

Another difference – the Christmas trees usually come with roots. That’s something I was surprised of as we usually just cut it with a saw. They are sold in the marketplaces around the city. This way, you can return them back to nature and you don’t need to waste a tree!

On the 24th my boyfriend and I started our own tradition by cooking some dishes and inviting a few friends and family over just to make it a bit more Christmassy for me.

On the 7th there are a bunch of traditions! When you wake up, you say ‘hristos se rodi’ (the Christ is born) to everyone present and kiss 3 times on the cheeks. The other replies ‘vaistinu se rodi’. You repeat this with everyone present or everyone you see that day. 3 x 20 cheek kisses a day can be quite daunting for a Finn who’s not used to such contact…

When everyone’s at the lunch table, you will be served bread that has a coin inside. Similarly, to our almond hidden in the Christmas porridge, Serbs hide a small coin inside the bread. The one who finds it will have a prosperous year ahead.

The Christmas lunch includes everything you have. It’s meant to resemble how well your family is doing. There are a lot of traditional dishes that are hard to pronounce but mostly meat, lots of meat… tons of meat.

The celebrations begin very early compared to Finland. After lunch you would open up the presents under the tree. Later on, other family members visit your house or vice versa.

Outside Belgrade, in the south, there is always lots and lots of snow, just how I like it.

Chrissy in Aussie style

No Christmas sauna but there’s always sun, sand and sea. Really don’t resemble Christmas to me. It’s hot, way over 30C, the hottest time of the year, there are Christmas lights and decorations, artificial Christmas trees for obvious reasons. Just bizarre! Nevertheless, I enjoyed all three of my Aussie Xmas’ so far.

Aussies celebrate it on the morning of the 25th just like most of the world. Kids believe that Santa brings them gifts during the night, so they appear in the morning.

You wake up and prepare for a huge lunch. There could be a turkey or a leg ham, sometimes both. Lots of grilled meat and roast vegetables and salads. There is a lot of seafood (For a seafood lover that is the ultimate heaven)! Prawns, scallops, oysters, mussels, fish… For dessert, there is always pavlova – a fluffy meringue with fresh fruit on top. Delish!

I would say the food is the most modern out of all three countries. You could throw in anything you like really. In addition, everything is fresh which is because fruit and vegetables are attainable this time of the year unlike anywhere North of the globe.

After lunch, it’s time to go to the beach and spend time with your friends, not necessarily with your family but it’s also possible. Have a swim, tan, enjoy the day and relax.

My favourite Christmas? Well, they’ve all been different but if I need to pick a few elements it would be a combination of family, snow, sauna, seafood, and glögi.

What does your Christmas sound like or have you spent it outside of your home country?

Leave a comment, I’d love to know! 🙂

2 thoughts on “Christmas’ in 3 countries and the biggest differences between them

  1. Laura says:

    I just spent my Christmas in Rio de Janeiro, BR. Much like Xmas in Australia, it had a lot of sun, over 30c heat and way too much daylight compared to what I’m used to. Still, the basic elements are there: family, good food, gifts, even a cute Christmas tree and lots of Christmas lights. Christmas is celebrated on 25th and many Catholic traditions apply, such as religious decorations and going to church. After 25th it’s business as usual again although many people take holidays up until New Year.
    To my surprise the food was very similar to an everyday meal (in high contrast to Finland), but maybe this is individual. The whole Christmas was also much less formal than in Finland.
    One fun fact is that Brazilians get crazy about fireworks very early and they start shooting even before Christmas, but that’s only for the ones making lots of noise. The proper light shows (and much much more noise) are naturally reserved for New Year.
    New Year will be lots of eating (and you must eat lentils for some reason) and most people go to the beach for the main event.

  2. PassportGoals says:

    Hi Laura! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Yes, it really does sound similar to the Aussie Xmas I’ve celebrated. Regarding food, it’s quite interesting that there are no specific dishes served only on that day like we have up North. It’s important to have lots of food tho. It would be fun to know why lentils are important on NYE, have to look it up 😀

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