In Eastern Europe, Christmas is an important holiday that is celebrated according to the religious calendar honored in each country. While some countries make merry on December 25, Orthodox countries observe Christmas on January 7.
In addition to the Christmas customs experienced in the U.S., many of these countries also follow the Pagan tradition of commemorating 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 recognize the Christmas and winter solstice holidays with their own unique rituals 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 Christmas and what the local traditions are.
Latvia offers a combination of Christian and Pagan traditions to celebrate both Christmas (December 25) and the winter solstice (a few days before) holidays. Many Latvians mark the holiday season by offering 12 days of gifts leading up to the big day—much like in the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
Christmas traditions in Latvia are quite similar to those of the U.S., with children across the country believing in a Santa Claus who brings presents to good boys and girls, and families preparing elaborate dinners to share with friends. In fact, the country is thought by many to be one of the first places to adorn 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 their country's Roman Catholic heritage, and as a result, they celebrate 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.
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 butchering animals, brewing beer, and making food for feasts throughout the week.
Jouluvana is the Estonian Santa Claus, accompanied by Pakapikk, a Christmas elf that helps distribute gifts to well-behaved children. Although traditions such as Christmas "crowns" saw a decline in the early 20th century, there has been a resurgence in the celebration of some holiday customs across the country.
Christmas in Poland is celebrated on December 25 with a Christmas Eve feast served on December 24. Consider planning a trip to Krakow for the holidays and you'll find a wide array of traditions old and new in this bustling city; you can even purchase a few unique holiday gifts at the annual Christmas Market in Main Market Square, which runs from November 29, 2019, through January 7, 2020.
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, open from November 30, 2019, through January 6, 2020, with the main locations being Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
The Christmas carp is an important tradition in this country; the fish is usually purchased prior to 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's annual rituals, 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: In 2019 it runs from November 22 through December 22 at the Main Square and Hviezdoslav Square.
Unlike Americans, Slovakians don't decorate their trees until the night before Christmas, which they call Generous Evening, when 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. While visitors might enjoy the Budapest Christmas Market held on Vorosmarty Square from November 8, 2019, through January 1, 2020, and buying some of the best Christmas presents in Eastern Europe, understanding the tradition of gift giving in Hungary is equally important.
Children in Hungary receive presents twice during the holiday season. The first time is on the Day of Saint Nicholas (Mikulas) 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 the U.S. are observed.
Christmas is most widely celebrated on January 7 when Ded Moroz—the Russian Santa Claus, actually more of a Father Frost (as it literally translates) than the jolly old Santa Claus of U.S. fame—brings presents to put under the New Year's tree. He's often accompanied by the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). However, much of Russia in the 20th century wasn't allowed to honor this religious holiday, so traditional Christian customs aren't a huge part of the annual celebration.
Christmas festivities 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 recognizes Christmas on January 7, but Sviaty Vechir (Holy Evening), the country's Christmas Eve, is the most important day associated with the holiday. 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 residents bring a bushel of wheat called didukh into the house to honor the customs and agricultural heritage of their ancestors.
The Catholic influence over Croatian culture has largely affected its Christmas traditions. Celebrated on December 25, Croatian Christmas is much like other Catholic holidays around the world, as evidenced by the highly-ranked Zagreb Christmas market in the main square of the nation's capital between November 30, 2019, and January 7, 2020.
Like the Ukraine, Croatia honors 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 U.S. does.
Customs for Christmas in Bulgaria are quite different, though. Traditionalists only invite an odd number of people to a vegetarian Christmas Eve dinner where they serve an odd number of dishes in a meal that immediately follows the Orthodox 40-day Advent fast. Walnuts are often cracked to predict success or failure for the coming year.
Romanian Christmas is closely tied to Pagan traditions and involves 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, like in Hungary, appears on both December 6 and 24 to deliver presents to good kids.
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 veče—or Christmas Eve night—January 6.
Albania's relationship with Christmas is unique due to historical precedent as well as the religious demographics of the country, and many Albanians don't recognize Christmas, instead opting to honor the New Year as their major holiday. 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, and Christians usually attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, mail out Christmas cards, open gifts from Santa Claus (Babagjyshi i Vitit te Ri), and go to festive markets.
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 the capital of Minsk on Kastrychnitskaya Square and near the Palace of Sports, and carolers on most streets throughout the period between Christmas and New Year's, Belarus offers visitors a holiday full of cheer—even if the latter is the more celebrated tradition.