December Is Here and It’s Time for the Holidays! — Jennifer Samaria
There are so many beautifully unique traditions worldwide when it comes to the holiday season in December. Countries around the globe celebrate in their own special (and sometimes VERY interesting) way. If you’re dreaming of a vacation in December in another country and want to learn how some of the world celebrates various traditions during this time…keep reading.
Kwanzaa – This is a seven-day celebration of life December 26th to January 1st by people of African descent to honor their heritage including songs, dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a feast on December 31, called a Karamu. A candle on the Kinara representing one of the seven principles upon which Kwanzaa is founded, called the Nguzo Saba, is lit each of the seven nights. Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle. There are also seven symbols associated with Kwanzaa. The principles and symbols reflect the values of African culture and promote community among African Americans.
Australians decorate a “Christmas Bush,” a native Australian tree with small green leaves and flowers that turn red during the summer. In each state capital, there is a “Carols by Candlelight” service where famous performers sing holiday favorites. About 4000 partygoers celebrate a summertime Christmas on the beach with DJs, bikini contests and an Aussie BBQ lunch.
Enter Santa’s Evil Twin also known as Krampus who scares bad children. There are parades in Austria with steamed spiced wine and during Advent, Sundays are reserved for sharing time with the family, traditionally singing carols or reading Christmas tales together. One of the lovliest Austrian Christmas traditions is the lighting of the Adventkranz, a wreath of fir branches holding four large candles, to be lit in turn on the Sundays to come. Every year on December 4th, the feast of St. Barbara, families head out to the nearest wood just before dawn to collect twigs of forsythia, apple or cherry. These are then placed in a vase so children and adults can wait for their buds to bloom. If the so-called Barbarazweige reveal their flowers before or on Christmas Eve, it means you’ll have a lucky year, and possibly a wedding in the family. Stille Nacht is sung on Christmas in churches across Austria.
Junkanoo is celebrated 12/26 through New Years. The Bahamas Junkanoo is held in Nassau, Bahamas. Junkanoo is an exciting four-day carnival celebration that showcases Bahamian culture and traditions. For Bahamian people Junkanoo is about joy and happiness. It’s a representation of the people and their culture, music and food that makes the Bahamas such a special place. They generally have two street parades held annually on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. So on these days you can expect large street celebrations full of music, dancing, costumes and spirited revellers. Expect an amazing display of local arts, crafts and delicious local cuisine for sale.
Performers sing Christmas carols, locally known as “kolyadki,” about 100 miles southwest of Minsk in the Belarussian village of Semezhevo. If you’re single, Christmastime in Belarus is the time to have your fortune told…by a rooster. Tradition is that the single women gather with a small pile of grains of corn in front of each of them. A rooster from a local farm is then set out among the women. Whoever’s corn the rooster eats first is said to be the next to get married.
Fireworks explode near a traditional Rio de Janeiro Christmas tree during the official lighting ceremony at Rodrigo de Freitas Lake. In Brazil, Santa Claus is called Papai Noel. Favorite holiday foods include chicken, turkey, ham, rice, pork, and fresh and dried fruits.
If you happen to be in Brazil for New Year’s Eve, don’t be surprised to find the oceans littered with white flowers and candles. In the South American country, it is commonplace for citizens to take to the shores on New Year’s Eve in order to make offerings to Yemoja, a major water deity who is said to control the seas, to elicit her blessings for the year to come.
Indulge in a “Taffy Pull” (a party for singles to meet) and “Sinck Tuck” (dancing and gift exchanges). Toronto has the Cavalcade of Lights, the kickoff to the holiday season in Toronto. They light the official Christmas tree, there are skating parties, live musical performances, and a fireworks display.
To welcome the New Year, families take time to clean their homes, perform rituals, and prepare feasts. Dumplings are bountiful and long noodles are eaten to symbolize a long life. Since the holiday is based on the lunar calendar, the date of celebration shifts from January to February. Each year features one of the 12 zodiac animals. February 1, 2022 marks the new year and it is the year of the Tiger. Dongzhi – is one of the most important Chinese festivals celebrated by the Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese during the Dongzhi solar term (winter solstice), some day between December 21 to December 23. The flour balls are occasionally pink or green. They are cooked in a sweet soup or savory broth with both the ball and the soup/broth served in one bowl. It is also often served with a mildly alcoholic unfiltered rice wine containing whole grains of glutinous rice (and often also Sweet Osmanthus flowers), called jiuniang.
Day of the Little Candles is celebrated every year beginning at sunset on December 7, and lasts all night long. It marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season. Everyone decorates their window sills with paper lanterns and candles, which you’ll also find on porches, balconies, sidewalks, parks, and streets. The lights are supposed to honor the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, so all homes fly white flags with the Virgin Mary’s picture.
Right here in our country, Christmas is celebrated with a whole fair of fiestas, parades, rodeos, bull runs, street parties and dance festivals. Festivities kick off with the vibrant, loud and dazzling Festival de la Luz in San Jose on the second week of December. A major parade strides from Paseo Colon to El Parque de la Democracia, with more than 1500 musicians and volunteers making the spectacle one to remember. Costa Ricans like to decorate their houses with stunning tropical flowers at Christmas time. They make wreaths using cypress branches and decorate them with red coffee berries and colourful ribbons. And, of course, they like to dress their houses, shops and towns with plenty of sparkling festive lights too. Most Costa Ricans also create a nativity scene, called the pasito or portal. These scenes are built by the whole family and include traditional figures – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, wise men – plus often houses and animals too. Offerings such as fresh fruits and small toys are placed in front of the nativity scene. In Costa Rica there is still excitement in the air for the arrival of gifts at Christmas. The difference here is that it’s usually Niño dios (Child God, meaning Jesus) or Colacho (another name for St. Nicholas) that brings presents to good boys and girls. Most families only place a baby Jesus figurine in their nativity scene on the night before Christmas. This is the time when he brings gifts to the children! Everyone puts on their best clothes and heads to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. In Costa Rica, the Misa de Gallo (mass of the rooster) is followed by the main Christmas feast. Expect an extravagant spread of delicious local dishes! Traditional Costa Rican Christmas food includes chicken and pork tamales cooked in plantain leaves, roast pork with rice or mashed potato and pastries. That’s followed by tres leches cake for dessert and plenty of eggnog and rum punch to wash it down. On December 26 the Tope Nacional de Caballos horseback parade is one of the most important Costa Rica Christmas traditions. Here skilled horsemen from across the country head to the capital to parade their majestic horses in this national event. Wearing specially designed cowboy outfits, riders lead their horses through fancy steps to impress big crowds. Keep an eye out for hand-painted traditional oxen carts too. The following day many towns and cities kick off Carnaval with huge colourful floats, costumed dancers, big rhythmic bands and parades. Stay in San Jose for the biggest fiesta where the parade runs along the main avenues of Avenida Segundo and Paseo Colón. Costa Ricans celebrate Christmas until January 6 with the feast of the three kings, the day it is said the wise men greeted baby Jesus.
Let’s have some fun and throw some shoes! On Christmas Day in the Czech Republic, unmarried women throw a show over their shoulders towards the front door. If the shoe lands with its toe towards the door, she will get married in the following year. However, if the heel points toward the door, she’ll remain single. The Czech prefer to predict their future fortunes on New Year’s Eve with the assistance of an apple. The night before the New Year begins, the fruit is cut in half, and the shape of the apple’s core is said to determine the fate of everyone surrounding it. If the apple’s core resembles a star, then everyone will soon meet again in happiness and health—but if it looks like a cross, then someone at the New Year’s Eve party should expect to fall ill.
‘Hyvää Joulua!’Rovaniemi, Finland is proud to be the official home of Santa Claus. Visit the Santa Claus Village in Lapland anytime of the year to meet Father Christmas and cross the magical Arctic Circle. After you meet Santa, take a sleigh ride with traditional Sami reindeer and learn more about Lapland’s native people. On Christmas, they have a porridge for lunch made with milk and topped with cinnamon, milk, or butter. There’s a hidden almond in the porridge, and whoever finds it in their bowl gets to sing a song and is thought of as the luckiest person at the table. Oh, and they also make a trip to the sauna to relax. Saunas are a way of life in Finland, so it’s no surprise that it’s also a part of Christmas. Many homes have their own saunas and on Christmas Eve it is a place to connect with long-dead ancestors. After this session, they head out to celebrate and the spirits of their ancestors take their place.
‘Joyeux Noël!’ – Burn a yule log made of cherry wood in your home.The log is carried inside on Christmas Eve and then sprinkled with wine so it smells good.It burns all night to welcome Mary and the baby Jesus.
‘Froehliche Weihnachten!’ Every year, on the night of December 5th, children prepare for St. Nicholas’ arrival by cleaning a pair of their boots and leaving them outside their bedroom door. In the morning, they wake up to find not presents, but boots stuffed with nuts, candy, and small gifts. Christmas trees can be found around the world but in Germany, families have an unusual addition to their ornaments. They hide a pickle ornament somewhere within the branches of the tree, and the first child to find it gets a special present. In Germany, all of the New Year’s Eve Festivities center around a rather unique activity known as Bleigießen, or lead pouring. Using the flames from a candle, each person melts a small piece of lead or tin and pours it into a container of cold water. The shape that the lead or tin forms is said to reveal a person’s fate for the upcoming year, not unlike tasseography.
‘Kala Christouyenna!’ Another old tradition is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire across the rim and hanging from the wire is a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Water is kept there and once a day, someone in the family dips the cross into the water to spring it in each room of the house. It’s believed to keep away “kallikantzaroi,” AKA bad spirits. These bad spirits are thought to come out during the 12 days of Christmas, and they get into a house through a chimney – so many families keep fires burning for 12 days to keep them away.
Lastly, many large cities display large masted sailing ships, and these decorated ships are a very old tradition. For New Years, onions are hung on the front door of your home symbolizing rebirth and to promote growth throughout the year. Just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, it is customary for Greeks to smash a pomegranate against the door of their house—and it is said that the number of pomegranate seeds that end up scattered is directly correlated with the amount of good luck to come.
Yule Lads aka 13 Santas/ One Santa arrives each night for 13 days before Christmas leaving small gifts in shoes left at window sills. Visit the Christmas Village in Hafnarfjordur or Reykjavik’s main Christmas Market in Ingolfstorg Square for unique holiday gifts and Yuletide music. Thorláksmessa (mass-day of St Þorlákur) is celebrated on December 23. Shops are open late and then close for three days during Christmas. Many attend midnight mass. The main Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve, including the gift exchange. On New Year’s Eve, many people attend community bonfires and exchange visits. At midnight there is a spectacle of fireworks when almost every home in Iceland will light its own fireworks. Icelandic children celebrate the 13 days of Christmas (instead of 12) each year. Each night, they’ll leave shoes out by the door to be filled with either candy (if they’re good) or rotten potatoes (if they’re naughty). The gifts are left by “Yule Lads,” mischievous Christmas troll-like characters. Iceland also celebrates the tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood.” Families and friends exchange books as a Christmas Eve gift, then settle in for a cozy evening of reading by the fire.
Diwali, or Deepawali, gets its name from the Sanskrit word deepavali, which means “row of clay lamps.” Many people in India will light these lamps outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness in tune with a holiday that is an ode to the triumph of good over evil. In India, Diwali is the largest traditional winter festival, celebrating the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Diwali is typically a five-day celebration. During Diwali, people decorate their homes with candles and other lights, share traditional feasts and exchange gifts. Traditions vary somewhat by region, but many families have specific traditions for each day of Diwali. Hindu celebrations center on the return of Rama and Sita, two deities, to Ayodhya, an ancient city in India, after being exiled. Sikhs, Jains and even Buddhists have their own lore surrounding the holiday. The course of the five days includes cleaning house, buying new furnishings and exchanging gifts with loved ones. It also centers on traditions such as buying new kitchen utensils to help bring good fortune, as well as other practices to attract the goodwill of spirits. In the northern Indian temple town of Ayodhya, authorities lit about a million such lamps along the banks of a river.
Yalda Night or Shab-e chelleh is held by Iranian people on the longest night of the year in different parts of Iran. The Yalda Night date is on December 21, the last night of fall, which is the Persian winter solstice to celebrate the coming of spring and the victory of the sun and light over darkness and evil powers. Traditionally, family and friends gather to eat, tell stories and read poetry. They’ll often stay up until dawn to celebrate the first light. Red foods (such as pomegranates, watermelon and so on) are often eaten as red traditionally symbolizes the color of the dawn. In the cold nights of winter, this traditional festival makes people’s hearts warm by gathering them together.
In Ireland, an old tradition says to leave a tall candle on the sill of the largest window of the house. The candle is lit after sunset on Christmas Eve and is supposed to burn all night long representing a welcoming light for Mary and Joseph. It’s customary for single gals to sleep with a mistletoe under their pillow on New Year’s Eve. Supposedly, sleeping with the plant helps women to find their future husbands—in their dreams, at least.
‘Buon Natale!’ In Italy, many families display the cribs in their homes and place a baby Jesus in it on the night of Dec. 24. One of their most unique traditions is La Befana, which dates back to the 13th century. It’s actually celebrated after Christmas, on January 6, but is still important. The night before, on the 5th, La Befana (an old witch) travels on a magic broom to each house in Italy bringing gifts to the children. Like Santa, she climbs down chimneys and gives candy to good kids and black coal to naughty kids. Children leave our Christmas stockings for her and they even write notes to her. She’s basically the Italian version of Santa Claus! Italians have a tradition of wearing red underwear to ring in the new year. In Italian culture, the color red is associated with fertility, and so people wear it under their clothes in the hopes that it will help them conceive in the coming year.
Omisoka – Last day of the year. But it’s not ōmisoka without watching the Kohaku Uta Gassen song contest. The show pits teams of performers against each other in an epic battle that’s timed to end just before midnight. Buddhist temple bells ring 108 times, slurp a homemade batch of toshikoshi soba and indulge in this unusual Christmas Eve dinner. Thanks to a festive Kentucky Fried Chicken marketing campaign in the 1970s, Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii (or “Kentucky for Christmas”) has become a firmly established holiday tradition. Families from all over the country head to their local KFC for some festive fried chicken.
Mummers (or street actors) disguise themselves as animals or macabre characters in Latvia going from house to house to drive away the evil spirits with music and traditional songs. In return, families offer them food and drink and the mummers are expected to stay disguised, and in addition to the masks, they hide their voices to avoid being recognized.
‘Feliz Navidad!’ “Three Kings Day” is a Christian holiday in Mexico that celebrates the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to the baby Christ. Mexicans celebrate Christmas from December 12 through January 6. A popular tradition is a Posada, which is a procession performed by children during the holiday season. They hold candles and a board with painted clay figures of Mary and Joseph and sing a song at the homes of their friends. At each house, they are told there is no room, until they get to a home that offers them a room. Once inside, they pray and have a party complete with food, games, and fireworks. A different house hosts one of these parties each night. There are nine of them, and they tell the story of when Joseph and Mary were looking for a place to stay. Families decorate the outside of their homes with evergreens, moss, and paper lanterns.
Mongolians celebrate the New Year the whole week before December 31 as most Mongolians do not celebrate Christmas but “Grandpa of Winter” usually makes an appearance at New Year’s parties, and Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, are up everywhere.
Sinterklaas travels to a city or town in The Netherlands and brings along his servants, called “Zwarte Pieten,” and when they come off the boat they traveled on, all the local church bells ring. Then Sinterklaas leads a parade down the street riding a white horse. Kids leave a shoe out by the fireplace or windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs, hoping that he will visit them during the night with presents. They also leave hay and carrots in the shoes for his white horse to get more presents. Oliebollen are enjoyed on New Year’s Eve, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Dutch food vendor in the winter months who isn’t selling these doughnut-like balls.
‘Gledelig Jul!’ Traditional Norwegian foods, like seasoned pork belly and sauerkraut are served and after the meal, most have late-night parties. Everyone gets dressed up in formalwear and eats a lot! Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. “Yule” came from the Norse word hweol, meaning wheel. The Norse believed that the sun was a great wheel of fire that rolled towards and then away from the earth. According to Norwegian folklore, witches and evil spirits come out on Christmas Eve to do mischief. So families hide their brooms to stop them from being stolen for a midnight ride. Sometimes they even burn spruce logs in the fireplace to stop them from coming down the chimney.
Every December, the Giant Lantern Festival is held in the city of San Fernando in the Philippines. Light is highly symbolic for Filipinos, who think of the star as a sign of hope and the most important symbol of the Christmas season. Giant lights are formed into kaleidoscopic images for everyone to admire, and it’s a beautiful festival that symbolizes love and hope through the holiday season.
Traditionally, the celebration of Christmas in Poland begins on the evening of December 24th. This day is called Wigilia. Wigilia is the traditional Christmas Eve vigil supper in Poland. People are convinced in the fact that in the way they spend Christmas Eve the whole year will pass. Therefore, they try to make this day really fabulous and warm. There are 12 dishes meant to bring good luck for the next 12 months, and they’re traditionally meat-free. Barszcz, beetroot soup, is the most important dish and nearly everyone eats it.
Long-standing Russian Christmas customs include caroling, fortune-telling , and following a strict Nativity Fast for forty days leading up to Christmas Eve. This fast is to be broken at the appearance of the first star in the sky on Christmas Eve. January 7th is the most widely recognized day that Christmas is celebrated. People dressed as Father Frost, the equivalent of Santa Claus, and Snow Maiden greet passers-by during a New Year’s parade in Bishkek, Russia. In Russia, New Year’s celebrations are very important (sometimes more than Christmas). Father Frost brings presents to children. The traditional greeting on New Year’s is “S Novym Godom.” It is also not uncommon for Russians to observe two Christmases and even two New Year’s celebrations; the first Christmas is observed on December 25, and the second New Year’s is observed on January 14. The Russian Santa Claus is named Ded Moroz, or Father Frost. On New Year’s Eve, he places presents for children under the New Year tree (as opposed to a Christmas tree). He is accompanied by Snegurochka, a snow maiden said to be his granddaughter. He carries a staff; dons a red, blue, silver, or gold coat lined with white fur; and wears valenki, traditional felt boots made of wool. Unlike Santa, Ded Moroz is tall and thin—and instead of traveling via sleigh, he gets around Russia by taking a troika, a vehicle led by three horses. In Russian culture, it is a New Year’s Eve tradition for folks to write their wishes down on a piece of paper, burn them with a candle, and drink the subsequent ashes in a glass of champagne.
The Christmas time festivities kick-start in Spain on 22nd December with the National Christmas Lottery. The first prize is popularly known as “El Gordo”. Participation is massive and the draw is closely followed throughout the morning. It has a peculiarity that makes it very special with the winning numbers sung by children in a chant. The prize money is very well spread out and the winners usually celebrate their glory in the street. In the Catalan region of Spain, nativity scenes frequently have an unusual addition. The Caganer can be found tucked away into a small corner and is traditionally a man with his pants rolled down and caught in the act of defecation. Though his origins have been lost in time, he started to appear in the 18th century and can often be found wearing traditional clothing and hats. Now, you can even find Caganer versions of popular celebrities. At the stroke of midnight, Spaniards enjoy eating one grape for each of the first 12 bell strikes after midnight in the hopes that this will bring about a year of good fortune and prosperity.
‘God Jul!’ The Gävle Goat, which has been around since 1966, is a giant version of a traditional Swedish Christmas straw goat, and was originally meant to attract people to shops and restaurants. It’s always placed in the center of Castle Square and is the world’s largest straw goat. Swedish Christmases are planned around an unusual television special. In the afternoon, people gather around to watch Donald Duck. This dates back to the 1960s when televisions were new and played only two channels (one of which played Disney cartoons). One of the most popular is a 1958 Christmas special called Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul or “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas”. Traditionally, the oldest daughter in each family rises early and wakes each of her family members, dressed in a long, white gown with a red sash, and wearing a crown made of twigs with nine lighted candles. For the day, she is called “Lussi” or “Lussibruden” (Lucy bride). The family then eats breakfast in a room lit with candles.
‘Srozhdestvom Kristovym!’ According to Ukrainian legend, a poor widow and her children grew a Christmas tree from a pine cone, then realized they did not have anything to decorate it with. When spiders heard the children crying, they decorated their tree with beautiful webs. The spider symbolizes good luck for the new year, so Ukrainians decorate their trees with them (fake ones, thankfully). Most Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on January 7. Another one of their unique holiday traditions is making kutya, a grain dish with honey and nuts and throwing a spoonful of the dish at the ceiling. If it sticks, tradition says there will be a good harvest in the new year.
Instead of leaving milk and cookies like the US, the UK children leave mince pies and brandy for Father Christmas. At dinner, everyone pulls a cracker open, and they get small gifts, a paper hat they wear all night, and a riddle to read to everyone. Plum pudding is usually served, and there is a silver charm inside – whoever finds it has good luck for the upcoming new year. Boxing Day takes place on December 26 and was the day when the alms box, collection boxes for the poor often kept in churches, were opened and their content distributed, a tradition that still happens in some areas. It was also the day servants were traditionally given the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families. Boxing Day has now become a public holiday in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among other countries. In England, soccer matches and horse races often take place on Boxing Day.
Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December. The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a menorah. One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. Each night, one additional candle is lit until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the holiday. Other Hanukkah festivities include singing Hanukkah songs, playing the game of dreidel and eating oil-based foods, such as latkes and sufganiyot, doughnuts tradition sufganiyot, pillowy, yeasted doughnuts filled with jam or vanilla cream.and dairy foods. Christmas in the US is usually celebrated all month long with holiday decorations both inside and outside of houses (holly, mistletoes, lights, ornaments, trinkets, and twines of popcorn and candy canes) put up and Christmas tree decorating parties occur. December 24th is generally celebrated by friends and family gathering to enjoy the night before Christmas with feasts, drinks, music and much more. Some may also attend a Midnight Mass. Usually, the morning of Christmas you will wake up and find presents under your tree that were delivered by Santa Claus and his reindeer from the North Pole. It’s believed that Santa rode on his sled powered by the 8 reindeer plus the well known red nosed reindeer Rudolph. You will find houses decorated both inside and out and many parties are attended during the month including the fabulously fun Ugly Sweater Party. For many Americans, it is also a period of general goodwill and an occasion for charitable and volunteer work. The famous Ball Drop at the stroke of midnight in Times Square on New Year’s Eve takes place in New York City bringing together masses of people who dangle mistletoe over their heads and engage in a New Year’s kiss! To usher in the New Year some people make resolutions to help reflect on the past year and create goals for the coming year.
In the city of Caracas (Venezuela’s capital), there’s a unique Christmas tradition, and it involves roller skating. Every year, the people of Caracas, along with some visitors, head to Christmas morning mass… on roller skates. So many people take part in this tradition that they close the streets to traffic so that everyone can get there safely. Kids go to bed with a piece of string tied around their toe and the other end of the string hanging out of the window, and as the skaters ride past, they tug on the string so that the kids know it’s time to get up.
These are just some of the many diverse traditions around the world. No matter how you celebrate, the common theme that seems to be evident is laughter, fun, friends and family and giving.
We at Quepolandia would like to personally wish all of you a very happy holiday season and thank you for your support. Best wishes for a fantastic new year to come!