Christmas is an important holiday that is celebrated in Eastern Europe according to the religious calendar observed in each country—while some countries celebrate Christmas on December 25, Orthodox countries observe Christmas on January 7. As a result, if you're hoping to travel through Eastern Europe for the holiday season, you should understand when these traditions take place in each of the following 15 Eastern European Countries.
In addition to the Christmas customs experienced in American culture, many of these countries also celebrate the Pagan tradition of celebrating the winter solstice, also called Yule, which was meant to symbolize an appreciation of the sun.
From Latvia to Belarus, each of the following countries celebrate the Christmas and winter solstice holidays with their own unique traditions, customs, and special events perfect for a family vacation during the holiday season—just make sure you know when the country you plan to visit celebrates their Christmas. In the following list, click each heading to learn more about each country.
Latvia offers a combination of Christian and Pagan traditions to celebrate both Christmas (December 25) and the winter solstice (a few days before) holidays, and many Latvians mark the holiday season by offering 12 days of gifts leading up to the 25th—much like in the American song "The 12 Days of Christmas."
Latvian Christmas traditions are quite similar to those of the United States, with children across the country believing in a Santa Claus who brings presents to good boys and girls families preparing elaborate dinners to share with friends. In fact, the country is thought by many to be one of the origins of the decorating of evergreen trees; the first mention of a Christmas tree was one decorated in Old Town Riga's Town Hall Square in 1510.
During the holidays, Lithuanians are influenced by Lithuania's Roman Catholic heritage, and as a result, the country celebrates Christmas on December 25; however, the origins of many of these customs come from those of the winter solstice, which predates Christian influence in Lithuania.
In particular, Lithuanians are known for decorating their homes with handmade straw ornaments—made with either real hay or plastic straws—as well as serving 12 meatless dishes for a Christmas Eve feast. The tradition of decorating evergreen trees is relatively new to the country, though in Lithuania they break religious wafers before the meal and sometimes serve fish as an exception to the vegetarian rule.
Estonians celebrate Christmas on December 25, but the festivities associated with the winter solstice, called Jõulud in Estonia, begin as early as St. Thomas' Day, the first day of the solstice (December 21). Christmas traditions in Estonia on this day start with a period of rest followed by a long day of brewing beer, butchering animals, and preparing food for feasts throughout the week.
Jouluvana is the Estonian Santa Claus, accompanied by Pakapikk, a Christmas elf that helps distribute gifts to good boys and girls, and although traditions saw a decline in the early 20th century, there has been a resurgence in the celebration of Christmas customs across the country.
Christmas in Poland is celebrated on December 25th with a Christmas Eve feast served on December 24th. Consider planning a trip to Krakow for the holidays and you're sure to find a wide array of traditions old and new in this bustling city and you can even purchase a few unique Christmas Gifts at the annual Christmas Market.
Poland comes alive with color and lights during the holidays despite the thick blanket of snow that covers much of the country.
Christmas in the Czech Republic is celebrated December 25, but visitors will most likely enjoy the Christmas tree lighting in Old Town Prague and the famous Prague Christmas Market.
The Christmas carp is an important Christmas tradition in this country and is usually purchased the day before the Christmas Eve feast and kept alive in a bathtub until it is ready to be cooked and served.
Slovakia's Christmas traditions vary by region but share some similarities with Czech Christmas traditions, including that Christmas Day is observed on December 25. Tourists visiting Slovakia can travel to its capital city of Bratislava and peruse the huge Christmas Market there.
Unlike Americans, Slovakians don't decorate their trees until the night before Christmas, which they call Generous Evening, where they all gather to hang ornaments and eat a traditional feast.
Christmas in Hungary is celebrated over a three-day period, from Christmas Eve (December 24) to December 26, and while visitors might enjoy the Budapest Christmas Market and buying some of the best Christmas gifts in Eastern Europe, understanding the tradition of gift giving in Hungary is equally important.
Children in Hungary receive gifts not once but twice during the holiday season. The first time is on the Day of Saint Nicholas (Mikulas), celebrated on December 6 when Mikulas leaves small gifts in shoes left overnight on windowsills; the second is on Christmas Eve when gift-giving traditions like those in America are observed.
Christmas is most widely celebrated on January 7 in Russia when Ded Moroz brings presents to children to celebrate the New Year. However, much of Russia in the 20th century wasn't allowed to celebrate this religious holiday, so traditional Christian customs aren't a huge part of the annual celebration.
Ded Moz, the Russian Santa Claus, is actually more of a Father Frost (as it literally translates) than the jolly old man of American customs, and he is often accompanied by the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) to bring presents to put under the New Year's tree.
Christmas celebrations also last a lot longer in Russia as the holiday is immediately followed by Svyatki, Russian Christmastide, which lasts until January 19, the day Epiphany is celebrated.
Ukraine celebrates Christmas on January 7, but Sviaty Vechir, or "Holy Evening," is the most important day associated with the Christmas celebrations in the country. On this night, Ukrainians place candles in their windows to welcome visitors to join in the celebration, and dinner is not served until the first star appears in the night sky.
One interesting element of Ukranian Christmas traditions is that they bring a bushel of wheat into the house to honor the customs and heritage of their ancestors. This wheat sheaf called didukh is meant to celebrate the agricultural history of the country.
The Catholic influence over Croatian culture has largely effected its Christmas traditions. Celebrated on December 25, Croatian Christmas is much like other Catholic holidays around the world, but you should check out the Zagreb Christmas market in the nation's capital if you have the time during the holiday season.
Like the Ukraine, Croatia celebrates its agriculture heritage with wheat sheafs wrapped in ribbons and decorated on Christmas Eve as well as caroling to celebrate the special time of year. If you're visiting the country during the holidays, make sure to say "Sretan Bozic," which basically means "Merry Christmas."
Although Bulgaria is largely considered an Eastern Orthodox country, it still celebrates its Christmas on December 25 because its church follows the Gregorian calendar like the United States does.
Customs for Christmas in Bulgaria are quite different, though. Traditionalists only invite an odd number of people to Christmas Eve dinner where they serve an odd number of dishes in a meal that immediately follows the Orthodox 40-day Advent fast.
Romanian Christmas is closely tied to pagan traditions and involve a Christmas pig slaughter and the singing of Christmas carols. Pork is a huge part of holiday feasts in Romania, and in the countryside, a fresh pig is slaughtered by each family on December 20, St. Ignat's Day.
The Romanian Santa Claus is known as Mos Nicolae and also appears, like in Hungary, on both December 6 and 24 to deliver presents to good boys and girls.
Christmas in Serbia, which is defined by the Julian calendar, is celebrated on January 7, but there are a plethora of holiday events in December related to this annual tradition. Preceded by a 40-day fast like in Bulgaria, the Feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 19 instead. Here, children receive presents and families celebrate slava, or patron saint's day.
Still, no meat, dairy, or eggs are allowed at this feast or anytime during the 40-day fast until the meal on Badnje Vece, or Christmas Eve night, on January 6.
Albania's relationship with Christmas is unique due to historical precedent as well as the religious demographics of the country, and as a result, many Albanians don't celebrate Christmas, instead opting to celebrate the New Year as their major holiday.
The reason for this is that Albania once banned religion across the country, outlawing celebrations of religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. Still, Albanians say “Gëzuar Krishtlindjet!” to greet one another on Christmas.
Though Belarus acknowledges its pagan heritage with the solstice celebrations predating Christmas observances, New Year's traditions often take precedence over both.
Featuring Christmas markets in Minsk and carolers on most streets throughout the period between Christmas and New Years', Belarus offers visitors a holiday full of cheer—even if the latter is the more celebrated tradition.