20 Holiday Traditions Around the World
From major holidays to local celebrations, here are 20 holiday traditions worth experiencing.
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Hindus celebrate Diwali, a major five-day festival of lights that’s observed in fall (the date is different every year). The ancient holiday, found in Sanskrit texts, celebrates good over evil and light over darkness. As such, the holiday is filled with all manner of light, from candles to firecrackers. Other traditions involve honoring the Hindu deity Lakshmi, who represents wealth, and creating rangoli, elaborate colorful patterns made with paint, flowers, chalk, rice, sand and more. Gift giving is another huge part of the holiday (particularly anything gold), as are endless feasts. Sweets are also key, like gulab jamun (fried balls soaked in rose-water syrup) and barfi (solid squares made of condensed milk and sugar and flavored with everything from pistachios to cardamom).
St. Nicholas Day, Czech Republic
Nobody would blame you for not knowing the origin behind Santa Claus (other than the North Pole). But he’s also called St. Nick for a reason: The jolly old man is actually based on St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek Bishop who protected children, among others. St. Nicholas Day is still commonly celebrated across Europe on December 6th, though the traditions vary depending on the country. In the Czech Republic, St. Nick dresses like a bishop and is accompanied by both an angel and a devil. Based on St. Nick’s judgment of a child’s behavior, the kid either gets a treat from the angel or gets terrorized by the devil. Fun! Public festivities make Prague an excellent base to witness this spectacle, with kids dressing as angels and devils.
St. Nicholas Day, Netherlands
In a departure, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 5th in the Netherlands, where St. Nick, or Sinterklaas, catches a steamboat from Spain. In preparation, kids leave traditional clogs (or just their regular shoes) by the fireplace or door. (Think of it as the equivalent of hanging stockings over the fireplace.) The shoes are filled with hay or carrots for Sinterklaas’ white horse, in the hopes that small gifts will replace this offering.
Christmas Boats, Greece
Christmas trees are popular in Greece, but you’ll also find boats wrapped in strings of lights, whether in the water or in the main square. There are two explanations for the boat-decorating phenomenon: The first is that the country’s ancient maritime tradition means boats have always been an integral part of the culture, so they were decorated long before a modernized version of Christmas (including trees) came along. The second is that St. Nicholas is considered the patron saint of sailors, which is probably why boats are decorated on December 6th.
Thirteen Yule Lads, Iceland
The thirteen troll-like Yule Lads are like a mashup between Santa Claus and dwarves, since each has a different name and personality, and each leaves gifts in children’s shoes for the 13 nights before Christmas. Unless kids are bad, in which case they get rotten potatoes, or worse, the Yule Lads’ mom, Gryla, will boil them in a cauldron. The lads are a mischievous bunch, who mostly steal food and other items and slam doors. For example, there’s the Pot Licker, who steals leftovers and then licks the pot clean, and the Skyr Gobbler, who has a penchant for stealing Icelandic yogurt. But, these are small prices to pay for gifts.
Simbang Gabi, Philippines
The Philippines are home to Asia’s largest Christian community, and it’s here that you’ll find the nine-day Simbang Gabi, a series of pre-dawn Catholic Masses that culminate on Christmas Eve. Waking up before sunrise may not sound like fun, but this is offset with a festive atmosphere en route to services, with lively bands and colorful lanterns lighting the way. Street vendors also rise early to sell the popular puto bumbong, a purple sticky rice cake, and bibingka, a coconut milk-based rice cake.
Las Posadas, Mexico
Believed to have originated in Mexico via Spanish missionaries, Las Posadas (meaning inns), are nightly processionals for the nine days proceeding Christmas Eve. The posadas recreate the tradition of Jesus and Mary seeking shelter and typically involve lots of singing and children dressed as angels. Eventually, each posada ends the night at someone’s pre-selected home, where, after initially being turned away, they’re welcomed with the likes of tamales and Christmas punch. The posada party isn’t over until the ceremonial whacking of the candy-filled piñata, often a seven-pointed star representing the seven deadly sins that need to be smashed.
Sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts topped with powdered sugar, are commonly enjoyed by Sephardic Jews (of Spanish, Middle Eastern and African origin) during Hanukkah. The eight-day festival of lights in December (the date is different every year) celebrates a biblical event where one night of oil lasted for eight, but it’s unknown exactly how or why sufganiyot became associated with the holiday. One theory is that both Moroccan and European Jews enjoyed variations of the doughnuts before they became popular in Israel, where today they reign supreme during Hanukkah. Yet, it’s likely that the fried component also had something to do with it, thanks to the oil, and really, what’s not to like about jelly-filled fried goodness?
Winter Solstice, U.K.
Winter Solstice is an ancient tradition — possibly dating as far back as the Stone Age — that observes the shortest day of the year. This occurs a few days before Christmas, and even though it’s celebrated in different forms everywhere from Sweden to Iran, England's Stonehenge is thought to be one of the earliest epicenters for marking the longest night of the year due to the placement of the stones. In fact, the Winter Solstice is still celebrated at Stonehenge, and anyone can buy tickets to experience the sunrise, along with Druid and Pagan traditions.
Dōngzhì Festival, China
The Dōngzhì Festival is China's take on winter solstice, although the festival is also observed in Korea, Vietnam and more. In modern times, the Chinese New Year has overshadowed winter solstice, since the more popular spring festival occurs just six weeks later. As such, the winter solstice is no longer a public holiday in China, but many families still continue the practice, which entails paying homage to ancestors and eating tangyuan (sticky rice balls in sweet soup).
Japan’s winter solstice is known as Toji, a low-key tradition that involves lighting bonfires on Mt. Fuji and soaking in citrus-scented baths. But arguably, the best way to welcome the winter solstice is by visiting an onsen (a natural hot spring) that’s filled with yuzu for the occasion. Fun fact: Yuzu is a type of sour citrus fruit that looks like a lemon, but tastes more like a lime.
Christmas Pudding, U.K.
This beloved British tradition, also called plum pudding, actually dates back to the Middle Ages. The name is a misnomer though, since the original version didn’t involve plums, and the consistency is believed to have been more akin to stew than pudding. Oh, and it wasn’t a dessert either, but a savory meat-based affair that involved dried fruit. By Victorian times, the Christmas pudding evolved into today’s familiar fruit-based version, as detailed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. To get the full traditional experience, a proper Christmas pudding conceals a silver sixpence (or any coin) for good luck. Upon serving, the dark brown ball is soaked in brandy, then set alight.
Yule Goat, Scandinavia
You’ve likely heard of a Yule log, but how about a Yule goat? Throughout Scandinavia, especially Sweden, Norway and Finland, locals celebrate a variation of the Santa Claus legend, which involves him riding a goat instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer. As such, it’s common to find goat ornaments everywhere. Although the town of Gävle, Sweden does one better by erecting a larger-than-life straw goat in the town square (whose size has even made the Guinness Book of World Records). The goat structure is meant to last from Advent until New Year’s Day, but perhaps more noteworthy than its size is the annual unofficial sabotaging of said goat, since it inevitably gets burned to the ground more often than not.
Christmas Markets, Germany
The earliest mention of Christmas markets can be traced to medieval Germany, although they likely appeared vastly different from today’s sprawling affairs that often feature ice skating rinks and towering Christmas trees. Dresden holds the honor of being the oldest, and its main one, Striezelmarkt, offers dozens of vendors, a carousel, Ferris wheel and puppet shows. Other famed markets can be found in Nuremberg, Munich and Stuttgart. And while excellent Christmas markets now exist around the world, there’s no place like the original.
Not to be confused with Carnival, a Catholic tradition associated with Lent, the immensely popular street festival called Junkanoo claims different roots. Locals believe it evolved from an 18th-century tradition when slaves would celebrate having three days off during Christmas. Today Junkanoo is celebrated on Dec. 26th and Jan. 1st and has advanced to the next level with a spectacular parade involving countless dance troupes wearing elaborate costumes. Join thousands of onlookers at the main parade in Nassau, where it starts around 2 a.m. and goes until about 10 a.m the following day. Not to fear, the contagious beat of drumming, cowbells and whistles will keep you going.
Hogmanay is a raging New Year’s Eve bash with massive parties that last until January 2nd. The holiday evolved from celebrating the winter solstice and incorporated elements from Samhain, an ancient Gaelic holiday most akin to Halloween, which is still celebrated today. Edinburgh plays host to the largest Hogmanay, starting with a massive torchlight procession on Dec. 30th. Yes, actual fire is involved, as are drummers and bagpipers (because, Scotland).
Ded Moroz, Russia
While much of the world’s Christian community embraces Santa Claus or St. Nick, Russians welcome Ded Moroz each year, an ancient figure from Slavic mythology. Also called Father Frost, the Santa-like character brings gifts to children, except he delivers them on New Year’s Eve. (This stems from the Bolshevik Revolution when the government banned anything religious, including Christmas.) Ded Moroz traditionally wears a full-length blue coat, so as not to be confused with Santa, and is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden. Even though it's become more common for Ded Moroz to wear red, he maintains the tradition of carrying a staff and riding in a sleigh pulled by three white horses.
Mummers Parade, Philadelphia
The longstanding Mummers Parade in Philadelphia is a beloved New Year’s Day tradition that first started in 1901. Costumed mimes who performed in European plays during the Middle Ages were known as Mummers. Today, Mummers have evolved into numerous clubs that perform in the day-long parade, with categories divided into those who play string instruments, comics, men dressed as women, the elaborately-costumed, and the elaborately-costumed who perform short musical numbers. The last category is immensely popular. Officially called Fancy Brigades, they used to perform along Broad Street along with the other groups, but today you have to buy tickets to watch them perform at the Philadelphia Convention Center.
Three Kings’ Day, Spain
On January 6, Three Kings’ Day is celebrated in much of the Spanish-speaking world, marking the occasion when three wise men visited the baby Jesus on the twelfth day of Christmas, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Spain, Dia de los Reyes, as it’s known, is all about massive parades and roscon de reyes, a sweet, ring-shaped pastry meant to resemble a king’s crown. The pastry traditionally contains a small plastic figure, granting the finder royal status for the day. The pastry also conceals a bean, burdening the finder with the task of buying next year’s cake.
Venice Carnival, Italy
Carnival traditions vary widely around the world, from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to the Samba parades in Rio de Janeiro. In Venice, Carnival is all about the masked costume balls. The most in-demand ones like the famous Il Ballo del Doge, the official dinner at Ca 'Vendramin Calergi and the popular Casanova Grand Ball, tend to be prohibitively expensive and sell out quickly, but there are plenty of free events in addition to the balls. As for the backstory, Venice Carnival is tied to a 12th-century Catholic custom that likely evolved from winter solstice practices and marked a period of full-out debauchery before the no-fun season of Lent began. However, it can be argued that plenty of debauchery can still be found today during the two weeks in February leading up to Lent.