Christmas Traditions Throughout the World

With Christmas nearly upon us and the school year ending, there’s not long left for the traditional rituals to begin - decorating the tree, singing carols, indulging far too much with family and friends and seeing what presents Santa Claus has left under the tree. These traditions are well known to us in the UK, but how is Christmas celebrated (if at all) elsewhere? Below we look at some of the lesser known Christmas traditions in Discover the World Education destinations.


In Iceland, the Christmas period is an intriguing mixture of religious practice and traditional folklore beginning on the 23rd December and ending on Epiphany, 6th January. Iceland celebrates Christmas with good food, gifts and loved ones. Gryla

From a young age, Icelandic children are told the story of Gryla, part animal and part troll. She is an ogress who lives in the Icelandic mountains. Legend says that every Christmas, Gryla comes down from
the mountains in search of naughty children to boil in her cauldron.                                                                                                                              

Yule ladsGryla is also the mother of 13 Yule Lads who venture down from the mountains with her in search of mischief. For each of the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, a Yule Lad will visit Icelandic children leaving sweets and small gifts for well behaved children and rotten potatoes for those who have been naughty.  

Old Icelandic folklore states that every Icelander must receive a new piece of clothing for Christmas or they will find themselves in danger. This danger comes in the form of an enormous black cat who prowls Iceland on Christmas Eve and eats anyone who doesn’t follow this simple rule. This cat is known as the Christmas Cat.


Christmas is the most important religious holiday in the Azores and traditions of the nine islands fuse from both Portuguese and American influences.

Typically a large dinner is prepared on Christmas Eve (usually salted and dried codfish) before Azoreans head to church for midnight mass. After the mass, it is customary for families to visit relatives and friends. These visits often start at the house closest to the church and visits go on until the early morning hours. At each house, visitors are served typical seasonal drinks, such as milk and tangerine liqueurs before families return home to open their gifts.

Santa Claus is a new concept to the islands and has replaced the Child Jesus as the distributor of Christmas gifts. In the past, it was believed that it was Jesus who placed toys in socks hanging from the fireplace while everyone was asleep.

Costa Rica

With Roman Catholicism being the dominant religion in Costa Rica, it is not surprising that religion plays a prominent role in festive celebrations. It’s not unusual for families to have a model of Christ’s birthplace in a stable so big that it often occupies the majority of the living room. On Christmas Eve, “Noche Buena”, the Christ Child is placed in the manger just before the family attends the Midnight Mass. The night before Christmas children will place their shoes out for the Christ Child to fill with treats and small gifts. On Christmas morning, the children are asked by their parents “What did the Baby bring you?”

The most anticipated activity of the Christmas season are the Toros a laTica bullfights. Dozens of young men will hop into the arena and attempt to frighten the bull into charging! The bulls are never harmed, however occasionally a young man will be gored!


The Christmas season lasts 3 weeks, starting eight days before Christmas lasting until the Feast of Epiphany. A strict fast is observed 24 hours before Christmas Eve and is followed by a celebration meal, in which a light Milanese cake called ‘panettone’ features as well as chocolate. Small gifts are also given.

Traditionally, children wait until Epiphany, January 6th for their presents. According to tradition, the presents are delivered by a witch called Befana who flies around on Christmas Eve night delivering toys and gifts. The legend is that the three wise men stopped at Befana’s hut to ask directions on their way to Bethlehem and for her to join them. She refused as she was too busy. She now delivers presents to every child in the hope of reaching the baby Jesus.


At 4.00pm all work comes to a halt on Christmas Eve. Everyone bathes and puts on new clothes to greet the season and a large sheaf of grain is hung out for the birds. Christmas dinner begins with rice pudding with almond hidden in it for one lucky recipient. A bowl is set out for the barn elf so that he will continue to watch over the animals and not turn mischievous.

Julebukking is a Christmas tradition and closely resembles the Halloween’s trick-or-treating. People wear masks and costumes (Julebukkers) and go door to door where neighbours attempt to identify who is under the disguise. Julebukkers will often disguise their voices and body language to further the masquerade. Offering people holiday treats and drink is customary. Once identified and the food eaten, the Julebukkers continue to the next home.


Since the vast majority of Chinese people are not Christian, the main winter festival in China is the Chinese New Year, which takes place towards the end of January. Now officially called the ‘Spring Festival’, it is a time when children receive new clothing, eat luxurious meals, receive new toys, and enjoy firecracker displays. An important aspect of the New Year celebration is the worship of ancestors. Portraits and paintings of ancestors are brought out and hung in the main room of the home.

Christians in China celebrate by lighting their houses with beautiful paper lanterns and decorating their Christmas trees, which they call “Trees of light”, with paper chains, paper flowers and paper lanterns. Children hang stockings and await a visit from Santa Claus, whom they call Dun Che Lao Ren (dwyn-chuh-lau-oh-run) which means “Christmas Old Man”.

Posted on December 11, 2014 in Azores , Bay of Naples , China , Costa Rica , Iceland , Norway | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Interview with a member of the Icelandic Association for Search & Rescue

By David Rogers 

Suggested Classroom use:

With rising numbers of tourists visiting Iceland, there has been increased demand on the volunteer services of ICE SAR. You could use this article to introduce the service as part of a wider unit on tourism, with increased demands on the rescue services considered as an impact of tourism. Another idea would be to get students to investigate advice that tourists should heed when travelling in the country, and create an information leaflet, weblog post or webpage.



Almost a million tourists visit Iceland each year, taking part in adventurous activities such as hiking on glaciers to exploring the highlands by four-wheel drive.  

The Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue (ICE SAR) ensure the safety of these tourists as well as taking part in emergency hazard management and helping to educate native Icelanders and tourists about staying safe in the land of fire and ice.

To find out more about the organisation, we interviewed ICE SAR member and CEO of Vatnshellir Cave tours - Thor Magnusson:

What made you get involved in ICE SAR?
I started as a volunteer rescuer when I was 18 years old. At that time, I was a fisherman on small boats and trawlers around Iceland but my interests were the mountains and the wilderness all over the country. Anytime I heard of an emergency or people lost somewhere, I felt a strong urge to help those in need. I started in one of the teams in Reykjavík and trained with them for a few years until I moved to Akranes, a small fishing town in west Iceland, I was involved with this team for 8 years, (6 of them as the team leader). In Late 1987, the Association of Search and Rescue teams (Slysavarnafélag Íslands) invited me to become a supervisor and I was in service for 25 years. I started as a superintendent and later as the head of the rescue department.

What are the best things about the job?
To get the opportunity to become a member and spend your life as a rescuer was a dream come true for me. To work with so many great people, all determined to go as far as possible and risk their own life in search and rescue. Also, the warm and genuine greetings and thanks from victims and their relatives who were in need of help.

And the worst?
Sometimes it’s quite stressful, especially those moments when in charge of complicated rescue operations. It can also have a huge effect having lots of intrusion from the press or others. Then there are often complications which arise when decisions are made on very little information. These are often criticised afterwards.

What qualifications and training do members receive?
All members have to finish first level courses in multiple fields. This includes first aid, mountaineering, wilderness travel, navigation, safety on and around the ocean and white-water areas.

Do you mainly help tourists or Icelanders?
There are both tourists and Icelanders who get into problems. One of the most frequent call outs we receive are from tourists who get stuck in a car on a 4x4 mountain road, either in snow or dirt. We also get a few extreme adventurous tourists going up to the mountains without proper local knowledge.

How many incidents are ICE SAR involved in each year?
The organisation has a very good website where most general information is available. However, coordinates and rescue details are not available for the general public. Reports are sometimes published in coordination with the local police and a short summary of each rescue is published in the annual year book from the Association of Search and Rescue

Are Icelandic children taught how to deal with Iceland’s hazards in school?
Teaching of the risk of the environment is not compulsory in the Icelandic school system. I think the potential risks in Iceland are very much common sense to Icelandic people. For example, you don’t go out if you’re not dressed adequately. And you don’t swim in the ocean if the waves are big. We somehow really learn to appreciate and respect the Icelandic nature without knowing it, since it’s so natural to us.


Posted on December 10, 2014 in Iceland | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Free Classroom Poster - Volcanic Case Studies

At the beginning of October, with the help of geography teachers David Rogers and Simon Ross, we sent every secondary school in the UK a free classroom poster providing a cross section of an active volcano, as well as featuring two volcanic case studies: Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland and Capelinhos in the Azores.

Front of free classroom poster

Capelinhos in the Azores was a submarine eruption that was one of the most intensely observed and documented eruptions of the 20th century. In 1957, scientists from all over the world flocked to the island of Faial, with the nearby lighthouse providing the perfect viewing spot. Over a period of 13 months, the resulting ash and lava had added 2.5km² of new land to the island.

The case study on the poster looks at how the Capelinhos eruption impacted the Azores on a local and global scale, highlighting in particular the impacts the eruption has had on the tourism industry.

The second case study on the poster looks at the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland, which famously resulted in the cancellation of 90,000 flights. Although Iceland briefly experienced reduced tourism numbers shortly after the eruption, the media exposure helped to put the country on the map. With Iceland's beauty finally being unveilled to the world, tourism figures boomed.

The poster highlights the effects the eruption has had on Iceland and the rest of the world; from local settlements to international tourism and the aviation industry.

Further resources on these eruptions can be found at
If you have not received this poster and would like a copy then please email


Posted on October 24, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Visit the Holuhraun Eruption & Experience a Glacier from Within

Ever wanted to see a live volcanic eruption? Or experience a glacier from the inside?

Well now you can take your students to see either with the Discover the World Education new Holuhraun suggested itinerary and Ice Cave Experience.

As experts say that the Holuhraun fissure eruption at Bardarbunga could last for several years, a new itinerary has been created enabling students to experience and see first-hand one of the most geographically awe inspiring events on the planet – a volcanic eruption. In the event that the volcanic activity ceases, then students will still be able to explore the magnificent North Iceland whilst seeing new lava flow and learning about the affects the recent volcanic activity has had on the local area. The suggested itinerary also includes visits to Dettifoss, (Europe’s most powerful waterfall) the stunning volcanic region of Lake Myvatn, the Blue Lagoon of the North as well as many of South Iceland’s top attractions. To see the suggested itinerary please click here.


From May 2015, students and groups will be able to experience a truly unique insight into how a glacier is formed with Iceland’s newest and most significant attraction – The Ice Cave.

The Ice Cave project and concept began five years ago with extensive study, planning, modelling and careful preparation by top engineers, as well as expert advice from renowned geo physicist – Ari Trausti Gudmundsson.


The Ice Cave is a truly remarkable destination and offers the opportunity for students to become part of a very select few to experience the inside of a glacier. Students will also benefit from first-hand experience of the following curriculum links:

• Glacial landscapes and processes
• The consequences of global warming
• Glacial erosion landforms
• Tourism
• Human activity in glaciated areas

For more information about the Ice Cave, click here

Posted on October 20, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Using Technology to Keep Track of Events

By David Rogers

Twitter and Google provide more than copy and paste shrapnel and celebrity selfies. Used effectively, they both offer features that can enhance the geography classroom. It’s even possible to track events in real time whilst providing several points of view, something that is often holding back young people from achieving well in our subject. In this article, we explore two uses of technology: Twitter and Google Alerts.

Twitter has been described by many as excellent teacher CPD, and I’m not going to disagree. With careful use it’s possible to avoid most of the irrelevant stuff and home in on useful advice and ideas. What many people don’t use Twitter for though is within the classroom and many more schools have unblocked the site for staff. There’s no need to worry about internet safety either, as these tips don’t require any young person to have their own account. I’ve been using Twitter in lessons for around six years now and it has won me several awards, including Microsoft’s Innovative Teacher.

If you have a Twitter account, visit this list. I’ve included a dozen accounts that talk about Iceland, including fantastic images and information. This alone can spark new pedagogic ideas and provide starter images for lessons. However, we can go further. By using the search function, it’s possible to investigate a country through Tweets. You’ll end up with something like this:


The search will be updated in real-time and will be a mix of images and anything related to the country. I’ve used this to provide an overview of a place, especially when looking for different perspectives and points of view. A word of warning is that the Tweets could be about anything so sometimes it’s worth checking beforehand!

It’s possible to delve deeper here by using specific terms. It’s worth experimenting here. Here we use ‘Katla’ as an example. A simple search reveals some interesting Tweets:


Although these aren’t necessarily from credible sources (although they often are) this serves as a useful overview and perspective for students to start exploring the issues. Why not start a lesson with an Icelandic Tweet and ask students to hypothesise about its meaning?

Of course, we aren’t all lucky enough to be in Iceland when a volcano erupts and this is where Twitter comes in even more useful. You can read a more detailed account of how to use the website to track real time events here. The 2010 eruption demonstrated the power of social media (for example see this news article) in providing information about events. Hashtags can be used to explore such events (for example #ashcloud or #ashtag during the 2010 eruption). This is where we can develop young peoples’ digital literacy, getting them to critically assess information. Whether used live in the classroom, or to curate a collection of tweets, I’ve used this method many times for investigating far flung places. Couple with translation tools and it’s possible to really explore local peoples’ views of a country and compare them with tourist ideas.

I’ve also used this visualisation tool that creates simple graphics to explore a country. For example, are tweets about Iceland more, or less, positive than ones from the UK?


The second tool I’m going to write about is under used in classrooms by geography teachers. It’s very good at providing concise summaries of information about a topic that is taken from the web. Once you set up a Google Alert, an email is sent when new information is published online. You can further specify whether you are interested in news, blogs. I would recommend that you opt for weekly emails though to save your inbox filling up!

I’ve used this to keep track of importanty events, case studies and places of interest. It’s well worth setting up these alerts for any places that are included in your curriculum. And helps stop geography from being fossilised and keeps it dynamic.


Posted on October 17, 2014 in Geography | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Azores - leading the world in sustainable tourism

The Azores have become the first ever destination to be awarded the Quality Coast Platinum Award, retaining their title as the world’s number 1 sustainable tourism destination.

Since joining the largest international certification programme for sustainable tourism destinations, Quality Coast, in 2009 the Azores had received four consecutive Gold Awards, thrusting it to the forefront of the sustainable tourism field and culminating in being named the world’s No.1 sustainable tourism destination for 2013-2014. However, the islands have gone one better for 2014-15 in becoming the first recipients of Quality Coast’s highest possible honour, the Platinum Award.

An international panel of coastal and marine management experts examined the islands across a wide range of criteria including nature, marine life and coastal areas, landscape, clean water, blue flags, culture, hotels, environment, socio-economic factors and identity/ community in reaching a unanimous decision to recognise the islands with the Platinum Award. 

Sete Cidades Trail

The archipelago of the Azores is composed of nine volcanic islands situated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean and is renowned for its volcanic features including craters, beautiful lakes, mountain vistas, cones and domes, caverns, grottoes and thermal springs plus its stunning sea, phenomenal biodiversity and huge variety of marine life.

Less than 5% of the islands' landmass is taken by urban areas and such low levels of development help define the Azores. Its main industries include agriculture, dairy farming, livestock ranching, fishing and tourism, which is becoming a major service activity, whilst around 28% of the islands’ energy currently comes from renewable sources (the target is 75% by 2018).

The islands are autonomous and the local government has been proactive in promoting the sustainability of the islands via a strong focus on the environment throughout the educational system and by introducing a number of regulations and protected areas within the region, including an ’eco school’, and a variety of natural heritage sites and protected marine life, some of which are UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. 

The Azores were certified as a UNESCO European Geopark in 2013.

To find out more about the study, visit

To find out more about educational programmes in the Azores, visit 

Capelinhos Volcano, Faial

Posted on October 8, 2014 in Azores , Conservation , CPD , Geography , Geology , Science , Study Trips , Travel Stories , Volcanoes , Volcanos , Waterfalls , Wildlife | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

© Discover the World. 2013. For any queries concerning this site, please contact our Webmaster.