As the weather gets colder here in Nova Scotia and Santa pops up in every mall, it’s easy to forget that everyone has different ways to celebrate during the winter months. Not everyone is into sitting around a crackling fire listening to Michael Bublé. Check out these 17 great traditions and holidays from around the world during this wonderful time of the year.
Celebrated on the shortest day of the year (December 21) this pagan festival has been around for thousands of years and has to do with the idea of rebirth. In England, people flock to Stonehenge early in the morning to watch the sunrise. Some Christmas traditions—such as mistletoe and Christmas trees—can be traced back to the pagan rituals of winter solstice.
This year the Jewish festival of light started at sundown on December 2, and ends on the evening of December 10. Much of the celebration centres around a candelabra—the menorah. At sundown on each of the eight days, families gather to light a candle until the entire menorah is burning bright on the final night. Children usually receive a small present on each day—often Hannukah Gelt (often a few pennies or chocolate money). Another tradition is eating plenty of oily foods like suganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes).
This is an important cultural festival celebrated in China. It started originally to celebrate the harvest and the beginning of winter for farmers and their families. It takes place on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. In western countries the date of the winter solstice is set, but the Chinese calendar is based on 24 seasonal division points causing the winter solstice to fall on either December 21 or 22. During Dongzhi, sweet rice balls called Tāng Yuán are a main dish in Southern China whereas those living in Northern China celebrate by eating tangyuan, a stuffed dumpling ball. These foods are part of a larger feast that’s held at night.
This pre-Christmas tradition in Wales is thought to bring good luck. Throughout December different groups of people take a horse’s skull and attach it to a sheet to resemble the horse’s body. They then decorate this “horse” with ears, bells, and ribbons. The group carries its creation throughout the town, knocking on doors and challenging people to a verbal battle of rhyming insults. The true spirit of this tradition is the poetry competition that reflects the Welsh love for language and poetry.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of African and African American culture and history, taking place from December 26 to January 1. The name of the festival comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who wanted to bring African Americans together to celebrate their culture. A special candle holder called a kinara is used to hold three red candles on the left, three green ones on the right, and a black one in the middle. Each night a candle is lit, much like the lighting of the menorah in Hanukkah.
This festival was created in 1985, by an American man who converted to Hinduism, as a Hindu alternative to other December holidays like Christmas. It runs December 21 to 25 and celebrates the Hindu patron of arts and guardian of culture, Lord Ganesha. Families create a shrine in the main part of their homes with a large five-faced statue of Lord Ganesha in the middle. People also decorate with flashing lights, tinsel, and colourful ornaments. Each day, children prepare trays of fruits, incense, and sweets to offer to Ganesha, and receive gifts that they put in front of the shrine until the fifth day, when they open them.
Christmas at the Beach
In New Zealand, Christmas is during summer vacation. Most people like to enjoy their Christmas at the beach or at their Bach (cottage). Santa parades are a huge deal, and Santa himself can be found wearing sandals! Kiwis have their own Christmas tree called the Pōhutukawa, which is covered in bright red flowers. This tree has important significance to the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand, the Māori.
Night of the Radishes
On December 23, Oaxaca, Mexico has a giant carved-vegetable display. The nativity scene is usually shown with these vegetables along with other events from Mexican folktales. Radish carving was initially done by shopkeepers who wanted to intrigue people to enter their shops. Now this event lasts three days, and the vegetables are grown specifically for this event.
The Christmas Pickle
In some places it’s common to hide a pickle in the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Come morning, the first child to discover the pickle receives a gift. The origins of the tradition are unclear, and it’s believed that an ornament salesman invented the tale. Pickles do seem to be a common Christmas theme. Berrien Springs, Michigan (aka the Christmas Pickle Capital of the world) has a pickle festival every December.
This is what the Scottish call their New Year’s celebration. It’s filled with fireworks and many giant bonfires (and a set of bagpipes or two). A unique tradition in Scotland is the idea of the First-Footing. This is the first person to step into a person’s home in the new year. This person is supposed to bring good fortune for the rest of the year while also bringing many treats for the family. In certain places in Scotland dark-haired males are said to bring the most luck into a household, whereas a female or a fair-haired male is considered unlucky. Other places just prefer a male for good luck. Many Scottish people continue with this tradition today often selecting who will enter their house first.
In Catalonia in Spain there’s a special addition to their nativity scenes that has been present for at least two centuries. “The Caganer” translates roughly to “the defecator” and is posed squatting with his pants down. This figure is thought to represent fertilizing the earth and adding him to your nativity scenes ensures luck for the new year. However, there are rules for the Caganer. He’s not allowed to be at the front of the nativity scene—that would be disrespectful. Instead, he hides in the back or in a corner away from the activities.
Every year since 1966, the Swedish town of Gävle celebrates Christmas by placing a giant yule goat in the middle of the town square, representing the traditional Swedish Yule Goat. However, arsonists have managed to set the massive straw animal on fire so many times that lighting the temporary monument has almost become a tradition of its own. Officials thought they were going to prevent the practice last year by covering the goat in flame-retardant liquid. Alas, it was indeed burned down, continuing the infamous tradition.
Families in Newfoundland dress up in disguises and visit neighbouring homes during the 12 days of Christmas. It’s quite common for men to dress as women and vice versa. After entering the homes, the hosts try to guess the identities of their guests. Once their guests have been correctly identified, they’re offered drinks, food, and merriment. The custom started in England and Ireland, and was brought to Newfoundland about 200 years ago.
A Christmas Day tradition for many Japanese involves eating food from Kentucky Fried Chicken. This tradition is the result of the “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign in 1974. Christmas isn’t a mainstream holiday in Japan, with only around 1% of the population being Christian. However, this “Christmas Chicken” is the meal to eat on Christmas Day. It’s extremely hard to find any turkey in Japan and, as the story goes, some foreigners were unable to find any for their Christmas dinner. They opted for the next best choice: KFC. Through endless marketing, Christmas = Kentucky is now a mainstream thing in Japan. KFC’s Christmas chicken dinner goes for around $40 (U.S.), and many families wait in line for hours for their boxes!
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador
A big part of the New Year’s Eve traditions in Ecuador are los años viejos (the old years). People create and burn effigies of many politicians, pop culture celebrities, and sports icons. This burning symbolizes getting rid of all the bad of the previous year. The tradition is said to have started when the yellow fever epidemic hit Ecuador in the 1800s. During this time many people put all of the clothes of the dead into coffins and set them on fire. The effigies these days are much more light-hearted!
Iceland’s Yule Lads
In ancient Icelandic folklore there’s an ogress named Gryla who is the mother of 13 boys (the Yule Lads). Icelandic children place a shoe in their windows each night for the 13 days before Christmas. Every night one of the Yule Lads will visit their window and place either presents or rotten potatoes in their shoes. It all depends on how well behaved the child has been—quite an incentive for any child to behave!
The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival
This festival takes place in the city of Harbin in the Heilongjiang province in China. Harbin is known for its bitter cold winters with average temperatures ranging from -25° to -10° Celsius without wind chill! It’s a great spot to hold this spectacular festival. It officially goes on from January 5 until February 5, but it does start earlier and end later depending on the weather. Over 10,000 workers build this giant, intricate winter wonderland made from massive ice blocks lit up with LED lights. Many of the sculptures contain ice slides. That’s right, giant slides of ice. Race to the end of the Great Wall sculpture anyone?