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5 Ways the World Celebrates the Winter Holidays

Take a tour of the globe to see how some cultures celebrate this holiday season.

Two people wearing cozy winter socks in front of a fire
Hi, I'm Alex!

Alex is a writer who has lived all over the US. More recently, he's found himself in Rhode Island, and he thinks he'll stay for a while.

The end-of-the-year holiday season sparks nostalgia for people around the world. Sure, Christmas might take a lot of the attention thanks to events like the Rockefeller Center tree lighting and the Radio City Rockettes extravaganza, but there’s far more to the winter holidays than just what we see on TV. With that in mind, here are a few holiday traditions from around the world that you should know about.

1. Christmas

People dress up as Krampus, a popular Europe Christmas figure who is a scary counterpart to Santa Claus who punishes naughty children.
The creepy Krampus is a popular European Christmas figure.Photo Credit: FooTToo / Shutterstock

Celebrated on December 25.

All across Europe (and the world) you’ll find Christmas celebrations kicking off as we move into the winter months. Of course, you can find the traditional symbols of the season—from Christmas trees and stockings to candy canes and reindeers—pretty much everywhere, but some places have specific celebrations worth sharing.

Head to Norway, where the Christmas season actually begins in the first week of December. There, communities decorate shops and storefronts, people congregate in bars to celebrate the festivities, and dinners—or juleborder—are held for guests to indulge in Christmas staples and plenty of alcohol.

Farther south, in the Netherlands, celebrants welcome Sinterklaas (Dutch for "Santa Claus") in mid-November. Expect to see Christmas parades throughout the country, as Sinterklaas brings his troop of friends from the North Pole to greet eager onlookers. Then, on Christmas Day, kids often wake up to an assortment of cookies and chocolate letters—typically the first letter of their name—as a symbol of good fortune for the year ahead.

Over in Austria, things get weird. The notorious Krampus beast is a scary counterpart to Santa Claus who punishes naughty children. If this sounds downright terrifying to you, you’re not alone—December 5 is known as Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), a time when the horned devil goes around Austrian towns to find those on the naughty list. But it’s not all doom and gloom—the next day is called Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day) and Santa Claus comes to spread some much needed joy after Krampus’ fright night.

3. Hanukkah

A family celebrates Hanukkah, a celebration honoring the plight of the ancient Maccabee tribe who had a night's worth of oil last for eight whole nights while trapped in a cave.
A family celebrates Hanukkah in their home.Photo Credit: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Celebrated for eight days and nights, between late November and late December.

The Festival of Lights—also known as Hanukkah or Chanukah—is a joyous celebration in the Jewish community, honoring the plight of the ancient Maccabee tribe who had a night's worth of oil last for eight whole nights while trapped in a cave. A miracle, indeed, and one which explains why celebrants light one candle a night for eight nights during the festivities. Presents are also exchanged nightly, and fried foods such as latkes (a fried potato pancake) and sufganiyot (a jelly donut) are eaten to commemorate the long-burning oil.

These foods are particularly popular in Jerusalem, where the lights are strung throughout the streets for all eight nights of Chanukah. Rome also has a particularly rich Jewish history, dating back to the second century BC. In the historic Rome Jewish Ghetto (Ghetto Ebraico di Roma), you can witness a menorah lighting celebration in the Piazza Barberini, as well as a vibrant celebration with food, wine, and dancing taking place each night of Hanukkah.

Head east to Hungary, and you’ll find a particularly lively Hanukkah tradition in the city of Budapest. The country has the third largest Jewish community in Europe and, nowadays, the city completely transforms during the eight nights, with decorative lights, menorahs, and even a celebration on ice in Budapest City Park (Városliget).

Related: Hannukah: Giving the Gift of Light (and Travel)

3. Winter solstice

A spoonful of Glutinous rice dumplings, a popular meal during the winter solstice in China.
Glutinous rice dumplings are a popular meal during the winter solstice in China.Photo Credit: YamisHandmade / Shutterstock

Celebrated on the shortest day of the year.

Sure, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere may not sound all that fun, but it has a deep-rooted history dating back to ancient civilizations.

In China, the Dongzhi solstice festival honors the arrival of winter by cooking warm wintery foods including dumplings and rice cakes. Historically, participants in Dongzhi also pay tribute to their ancestors by visiting tombs and graves with gifts and food, as well as delivering gifts to seniors within the community.

American Indian peoples in New Mexico and Arizona also take part in many different customs around the solstice. The Zuni participate in a ceremonial dance called Shalako over the course of four days after the first harvest. Meanwhile, over in Arizona, the Hopi begin their celebrations on the eve of the solstice by holding an all-night celebration with fires and dancing.

4. Kwanzaa

A family lights the Kinara in celebration of Kwanzaa, a celebration of African and African American culture held over the course of seven nights from late-December into January.
A family lights the Kinara in celebration of Kwanzaa.Photo Credit: Image Source Trading Ltd / Shutterstock

Celebrated from December 26 to January 1.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of African and African American culture held over the course of seven nights from late-December into January. Centered around seven core values, Kwanzaa aims to educate about African heritage, community, family, and faith. Over the course of the seven nights, the candles in the kinara—a special candle holder—are lit to honor the values before the celebration culminates in a feast, during which children receive gifts, especially books about African culture. Kwanzaa is celebrated by Pan African communities around the world, with traditions and customs varying throughout the diaspora.

5. Three Kings’ Day

A Rosca de Reyes served during Three Kings' Day in Mexico.
Rosca de Reyes is a popular Three Kings' Day snack in Mexico and beyond.Photo Credit: AGCuesta / Shutterstock

Celebrated on January 6.

While many receive winter holiday presents before the calendar has flipped over into the new year, children in communities around the world have to hold out until Three Kings Day for their gifts. Celebrated on January 6, Three Kings' Day (or Epiphany) is said to be the day that the three kings appeared before Jesus, and is commonly welcomed with gifts and culinary treats.

In Mexico, El Día de Reyes sees presents left overnight in shoes to be opened on the morning of January 6, as well as hefty helpings of rosca de reyes, a circular sweet bread decorated with candied fruits and stuffed with baby Jesus figurines. As the custom dictates, whoever lands a baby Jesus in their slice must invite everyone for tamales on Candlemas (February 2). Many Latin American countries have similar traditions.

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