For many, Christmas is a time of gift exchanges, log cakes and turkey dinners.
But that’s not the case everywhere.
In a yearly series, CNBC Travel highlights diverse Christmas celebrations around the world.
Christmas comes with a spooky twist in Austria, Germany and other Alpine countries that celebrate St. Nicholas Day during the first week of December.
“Krampuslauf,” which translates to “Krampus run” in German, is an annual parade typically held on Dec. 5 or 6 where participants dress up as the half-goat, half-demon Krampus to frighten onlookers.
As legend has it, Krampus accompanies St. Nick on his journey to give well-behaved children gifts, according to Helen Bitschnau, a representative of the Austrian National Tourist Office.
Children who have been bad, however, face Krampus’ wrath. “The function of the Krampus is to punish everything bad by means of a rod or a horse’s tail,” Bitschnau said.
A mix of anticipation, excitement and some nervousness fills the air on Krampuslauf, Bitschnau said.
“If you have been good throughout the year — there is really nothing to be worried about,” she said.
Bitschnau added that she has “always been terrified of Krampus.”
“Now I like to go to the Krampuslauf in my hometown, because I know all the people behind the Krampus costumes [which] makes it a little less scary for me.”
Every year on Dec. 23, participants gather in Oaxaca’s main square to enter delicately carved radishes into the “Night of the Radishes” competition.
These are no bite-sized radishes — they can be as large as a child’s leg.
“Artists spend entire days carving the radishes for the competition, soaking them constantly so they won’t dry out,” said Ileana Jimenez, who was born and raised in Oaxaca.
“There are queues of people patiently waiting for their turn to go in and admire the splendid job [of] the Oaxacan artisans,” she said.
The atmosphere at the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s town square, is jubilant with live music, fireworks and swarms of locals and tourists, said Jimenez.
“It’s a party that keeps people’s spirits up.”
Standing 42 feet tall and weighing more than 7,000 pounds, a massive handmade straw goat is an annual Christmas spectacle in the Swedish city of Gavle.
This year’s goat took more than 1,000 hours to build, said Anna-Karin Niemann, a spokesperson for the special committee that protects the goat.
Though it’s a crime to burn or destroy it, the goat of Gavle has been subjected to numerous arson attacks since the first one was built in 1966.
The arsonist who broke the last goat’s four-year survival streak was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay 109,000 Swedish kronor ($10,450) in damages, according to a Swedish news outlet.
Sweden’s treasured goat figure is built with straw despite its flammability, because “it’s tradition,” Niemann said.
“He means a lot for us in Gavle, and he’s a big part of the Christmas spirit,” she said.
Miniature versions of the goat make for fun souvenirs or Christmas ornaments for travelers, said Mark Wolters, the creator of the popular travel YouTube channel Wolters World.
Those interested in how this year’s goat is doing can observe it through a live webcam.
Ukraine via Krakow, Poland
In a show of resilience among Christmas celebrants, 40 Ukrainian refugees in Krakow, Poland, sold handmade items such as candles, tree ornaments and gingerbread cookies at a Christmas craft fair organized with the help of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Sales from the Christmas market provided the refugees, most of whom were female, with income to make ends meet, said Tarik Argaz, a representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
The market was attended by locals, tourists, and the Ukrainian community, he said.
It was an opportunity to showcase the “great talent within the refugee community,” Argaz said, adding that the idea for the event was born when U.N. staff members were given an “intricately painted” rock by one of the residents at a collective center, which is an accommodation that houses large numbers of refugees.
Parols were originally used to light the way for the tradition of Simbang Gabi, a nine-day period of pre-dawn masses held from Dec. 16 to 24 — as well as midnight mass on Christmas Eve, called Misa de Gallo, Umandap said.
“Now, the lanterns are used as decorations,” Umandap said. “Parol symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and hope.”
Some 90% of people living in the Philippines identify as Christians — mostly Catholic — according to Harvard Divinity School. The Philippines remains the only Asian country where Christianity is the national religion.
Many Filipinos use materials like shells, glass and LED lights to make parols brighter and more colorful, she said.
Umandap, who now lives in Europe, said the lanterns remind her of home.
“When I see them, they [give] me hope that whatever struggles I encounter, they can be conquered,” she said.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Brazilians love their parties, said Bruna Venturinelli, author of the Brazilian blog I Heart Brazil. That’s why their Christmas parades are “contagiously fun” with “lots of laughter and joy,” she said.
Dressed-up characters dance alongside Santa and his elves, while interacting with children in the crowds, she said.
“There are multiple Christmas parades throughout the districts, which are organized by the city council or a private institution to promote the beginning of their festive season, like the shopping mall parade depicted in the picture,” she said.
“If I’m in Brazil during Christmas, I take my nephew and niece to a Christmas parade, and we have a blast! … They also take the opportunity to say they wrote Santa a letter and behaved well through the year, although the last part is not 100% true.”
Many people in Brazil will celebrate Christmas Eve with their family by sharing a Chester chicken, she said.
On Christmas Day, people gather again to have leftovers for lunch while listening to Brazilian music, she said.
The ‘North Pole’
But in the beginning, it was Santa who wrote to the children, rather than the other way around.
Longfellow wrote letters to her three children about their behavior during the past year, according to the magazine.
In one of Longfellow’s letters, dating to 1853, “Santa” said: “[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” according to the article.
As the practice caught on, parents began leaving letters from Santa by the fireplace or in a stocking, where their children would pen replies in return, it said.
Today, the tradition of writing to Santa has expanded beyond the home.
In the United States, the U.S Postal Service runs an annual program called Operation Santa where children and families in need can write anonymous letters to Santa about what they would like for Christmas. These letters are “adopted” by people around the country, who buy and ship the requested gifts to the families, according to the USPS.
The United Kingdom’s postal service, Royal Mail, provides personalized replies to children who write to “Father Christmas.”
But some parents are using other avenues to contact Santa, including apps and even balloons.
In 2021, a pair of four-year-old twins in Kansas, United States, released balloons that contained letters to Santa. A couple living in Louisiana found one, and through the help of donations, fulfilled the twin’s Christmas wish lists, which included giving them a puppy.