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Christmas Around the World: Traditions and Gifts

Christmas traditions vary from country to country and the customary gifts in one country may appear quite unusual in another. Yet many customs have crossed boundaries, including the Dutch word for St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas which became the American Santa Claus.

Globally, friends and family swap gifts around the holidays. The  gift bringer is fairly universal, but has different names. In Germany they call this present bringer Christkind, in Spain it’s the Wise Men and in Italy Befana.

Here we look at some of the world’s Christmas customs and at gifts in the regions, which may give you some ideas when looking for Christmas gifts.

Australia and South Africa

Australians and South Africans generally spend Christmas outdoors in the sun and while some traditions exported from Britain such as mince pies, plum puddings, turkey and roast beef have been retained in some places, barbecues are much more common.  Books, music or films are usually released in time for the Christmas season, so check out what’s available from their favorite author, actor, band.


In Britain and the United States gifts are traditionally left in stockings hung by a fireplace or a pillowcase is placed under the Christmas tree. When Santa Claus leaves his gifts, he usually eats some food and beverage left out for him so the children know he’s been. Rudolph the reindeer will enjoy the carrot left for him too. Presents are usually opened on Christmas morning before a big celebratory meal.


Like most European countries, Italian kids open their presents on Christmas Eve, a day when families celebrate with the Feast of the Seven Fishes and eat lentils during the holiday season to ensure luck and wealth for the following year.

Small gifts come from Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) on Christmas Day, but the main day for present giving is January 5, being Epiphany Eve. Gifts are small and not obviously expensive.  Gift ideas include a photo frame or a fine pen.   A good vintage wine would be well received too.

Flowers are universally well received. Always gift in odd numbers and do not gift chrysanthemums as these are funeral flowers. Handkerchiefs and brooches are also associated with funerals.  When gift wrapping, do not use black, gold or purple colours.  Black and gold are the colours of mourning. Purple is the colour of bad luck.  Sharp objects such as knives can also be interpreted as a severing of a friendship or close bond.


Only a tiny proportion of the Chinese population celebrate Christmas, but there are several traditional gifts given in China including decorative handicraft known as Chinese knotting, embroidery, money in red envelopes, chopsticks, paintings and tea.

When gift-giving in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, there are some gifts that should be avoided, though they may well be well received elsewhere.  Clocks of any type should be avoided since they symbolize the truth that time is running out and are therefore seen as a reminder that relationships and life have an end.

Handkerchiefs are also not to be gifted as they signify endings, whether of life or of relationships. If you want to gift a set, for example of glassware, do not gift in sets of four because this is an unlucky number, in the same way that 13 is an unlucky number elsewhere in the world. Shoes, even from the fashion houses of Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik send the message that you want to end your friendship. Also, avoid towels and anything in white or black, all associated with funerals.


A lot of European countries have their main gift opening day on December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day. This includes Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic and more. Presents are delivered by the Christkind after the children have put their decorated Christmas wish list on the windowsill the previous night. Small gifts, including coins, chocolate, oranges and toys are left in the shoes of good children. Children can also be visited at school by St. Nicholas. If they want sweets or a small present from him, they must draw a picture, recite a poem or sing a song.