‘Tis the season for eggnog lattes, evergreens glimmering with lights, and binge-watching Hallmark movies. Halls are decked, kids are caroling, and gifts are wrapped and under the tree. While we’re all doing things a little differently this year, the holiday season brings with it a coziness we look forward to year-round. It also represents a fantastic time to learn about the world through holiday traditions celebrated all over the globe.
Let’s take a mini trip around-the-world to explore international holiday traditions.
Diwali in India
Each October or November, Hindus in India and beyond celebrate Diwali. This time-honored holiday lasts for five days, with dates varying from year to year. A festival of lights, ancient Sanskrit texts describe the event as a celebration of light over dark and good over evil. As a result, light in every form, from firecrackers to candles, is used to celebrate. Gift exchanges, mainly of gold items, occur, and people savor delicious sweets like gulab jamun (fried dough balls soaked in rosewater syrup).
St. Nicholas Day in the Czech Republic
Santa Claus has deep roots, and nowhere are these better remembered than Europe. The jolly elf legend originated with the historical figure of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop. During his lifetime, St. Nicholas gained fame for protecting children, advocating for the poor, and giving gifts to the needy. Today, his selfless acts get remembered on December 6th, with traditions varying by country. St. Nicholas wears a bishop’s clothes in the Czech Republic, and people dressed as angels and devils accompany him. Nice kids receive treats from the angels, and naughty kids get a warning from the devils.
Christmas Boats in Greece
While we’re busy decorating Christmas trees stateside, Greeks busy themselves with stringing lights from their boats. Sure, trees are popular there, too, but nothing beats this glittering maritime tradition. How did Christmas boat decorating become so popular in Greece? Some believe it’s a reflection of the nation’s long-standing seafaring tradition. Others claim it’s related to St. Nicholas’s role as the patron saint of sailors. Either way, the tradition pre-dates tree decorating by centuries.
Las Posadas in Mexico
The celebration of Las Posadas (literally “the inns”) in Mexico involves processions during the nine days preceding Christmas Eve. These posadas depict Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter on the night of Jesus’s birth. Joyous singing and children dressed as angels announce the arrival of the posadas at pre-selected homes. Getting turned away after their first request, procession participants ask again and enjoy Christmas punch and tamales. Posadas culminate in smashing a seven-starred piñata filled with candy.
Dōngzhì Festival in Asia
On the winter solstice, people in China, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia celebrate the Dōngzhì Festival. During the festival, they pay homage to their ancestors. They also eat tangyuan, a sweet soup filled with multi-colored sticky rice balls. In recent years, Chinese New Year has come to overshadow this winter solstice observation in mainland China. Nevertheless, many families across Asia keep the tradition alive.
Yule Goat in Scandinavia
You’ve no doubt heard about the Yule Log. But people in Sweden, Norway, and Finland have put a twist on the tradition with the Yule Goat. According to Scandinavian legend, Santa Claus prefers riding a goat to leading a sleigh of reindeer. As a result, goat ornaments abound in these nations. But the Swedish town of Gävle takes the cake when it comes to commemorating the Yule Goat. Each year, locals erect a larger-than-life straw version in the town square. Due to its immense size, the goat has even attracted the Guinness Book of World Records’ attention.
Junkanoo in the Bahamas
Celebrated from December 26th through January 1st, Junkanoo is a popular street festival showcasing spectacular parades, elaborately costumed dance troupes, and energetic music featuring cowbells, drums, and whistles. How did this vibrant Carnival-esque holiday get started? While several origin stories exist, locals see it as an observance of the traditional three days off that slaves enjoyed following Christmas.
Hogmanay in Scotland
From December 31st through January 2nd, massive parties break out across Scotland, featuring fireworks, torchlight processions, and music provided by drummers and bagpipers. Known as Hogmanay, this nationwide, multi-day celebration evolved from pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. As a result, it incorporates elements from Samhain, an ancient Gaelic holiday similar to Halloween. The largest festival takes place in Edinburgh, featuring a vast torchlight procession on December 30th.
Ded Moroz in Russia
Unlike Europe and the United States, who embrace Santa, Russians have the tradition of Ded Moroz, an ancient figure from Slavic mythology. Ded Moroz is also known as “Father Frost.” He delivers gifts to kids on New Year’s Eve. He wears a full-length coat and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or the “Snow Maiden,” accompanies him. While an increasing number of Ded Moroz depictions now show him wearing red, he still carries a traditional staff and rides in a sleigh pulled by three snow-colored stallions.
Toji in Japan
Known as Japan’s winter solstice, Toji involves lighting bonfires on Mt. Fuji followed by soaking in citrus-scented baths. Locals prefer onsens, natural hot springs filled with yuzu, to celebrate Toji. Think of yuzu like lemons with a surprising lime flavor. How did the festival get started? It’s rooted in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, a harmonizing and balancing of the life force. What’s more, the winter solstice commemorates the moment when the yin begins to pass, giving way to the warmth and light of the spring and yang.
Christmas Markets in Germany
Christmas Markets in Germany date back to the Middle Ages, and to this day, no nation does them better. At these markets, you’ll find everything from towering Christmas trees adorned in ornaments to idyllic ice-skating rinks. The oldest of these markets, the Striezelmarkt, gets erected in Dresden every year. There, you’ll find a carousel, Ferris wheel, puppet shows, and dozens of vendors. The markets in Munich, Stuttgart, and Nuremberg are also worth checking out.
Learn About the World Through International Holiday Traditions
From joyful Las Posadas processions in Mexico to time spent luxuriating in onsens during Japan’s Toji, there are countless ways of celebrating the holidays during the winter months. Exploring these varied festivals is also an excellent way for your whole family to learn about the world. Are you interested in experiencing international holiday traditions firsthand in 2021 and beyond? Let’s discuss your family’s next trip and how to make it extra special.
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