The Wonders of Winter Holidays Worldwide

The world and its peoples are vast, leading to countless wondrous celebrations all across the globe, each with their own distinctive characteristics and interrelations. Some of these winter festivities include Hanukkah; Three Kings Day; The Winter Solstice; St. Nicholas Day; Christmas; Kwanzaa; New Year’s; Mardi Gras; Las Posadas; and the Lunar New Year. How many holidays on this list do you know the history of, or even recognize at all? Learn more about each of these celebrations to educate yourself on the  interesting ideas and diversity surrounding winter holidays across the world.

  • Hanukkah
    •  Hanukkah, or Chanukah, means “dedication” in Hebrew, as it commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. According to legend, this is where the defeat of the oppressive Greek-Syrians occurred by a Jewish uprising during the Maccabean revolt. The celebration of Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which usually falls at the end of November or beginning of December. This first day is known as the Festival of Lights, where the menorah is lit, and participants enjoy traditional foods, games, and gifts. This year, Hanukkah was celebrated by Jewish families from Sunday, November 28th to Monday, December 6th.
  • Three Kings Day
    • Christians in most European countries (primarily in Spain), as well as Latin American countries, celebrate what is most commonly known to them as “El Día de los Reyes,” or Three Kings Day. It falls on the twelfth day of Christmas, which is January 6th, and “marks the glorification of baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men.” For most Latin American countries, such as Mexico, the Three Wise Men are commemorated in the same way that Santa Claus is in the United States. A grand feast is held on Three Kings Day “to honor the occasion of Jesus’ baptism” and “pay homage to the Three Wise Men” for bearing gifts in Jesus’ honor.
  • The Winter Solstice
    • The longest night of the year, or the winter solstice, falls on December 21 or December 22 in the Northern hemisphere and has been commemorated since ancient times as an important astronomical occurrence. People all over the world have different ways of celebrating the “return of the Sun,” which all have influenced how cultures celebrate more widely known holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah. 
      • Soyal
        • The winter solstice celebration of the Hopi Indians of northern Arizona is known as Soyal. This consists of ceremonies and rituals, such as dancing and gift-giving. The Hopi also welcome the kachinas into their homes, or protective spirits that drift in from the mountains, and they craft prayer sticks for various blessings.
      • St. Lucia Day
        • This festival of lights is held around the winter solstice in Sweden, Norway, and some areas of Finland to honor a Christian martyr known as St. Lucia. On this day, girls dress in the garments of St. Lucia with white gowns, red sashes, and wreaths of candles on their heads. The celebration is inspired by Norse traditions, mainly the lighting of fires that are believed to keep dark spirits at bay during the longest night of the year.
      • Dong Zhi
        • Loosely translated to “arrival of winter,” Dong Zhi is a celebration of the past year primarily observed by families of Chinese descent. Since it is based on the traditional Chinese calendar, the holiday falls between the 21st and 23rd of December. Historical fables say that Dong Zhi began as an end-of-harvest festival where workers returned from the field to enjoy the fruits of their labor alongside family members.  
  •  St. Nicholas Day
    • On December 6th, a celebration begun by Catholics in 13th century France is held to honor the bishop St. Nicholas for his generous and anonymous giving to the needy and youth. He officially became a saint in the 800s and French Catholics began to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Sinterklaas, in the 1200s. On the eve of the day, December 5th, many countries across Europe celebrate by “sharing candies, chocolate letters, small gifts, and riddles.” Children also fill their shoes with carrots and hay, leaving them out in hopes that St. Nicholas will exchange this with small gifts. For the countries who commit to this holiday, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, it is viewed as preserving the meaning of Christmas itself in the spirit of giving.
  • Christmas
    • The traditions of Christmas, which are widely-celebrated throughout the United States, were begun by early Europeans and inspired by St. Nicholas day (as listed above). Christians celebrate Christmas day, December 25th, as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, an important spiritual leader. Common festivities and customs include gift exchanges, tree decorating, sharing a large meal with family, attending church service, and, for lucky young ones, awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus and his overflowing bag of gifts for them. 
  • Kwanzaa
    • This celebration was established in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga to recognize and honor African American and Pan-African history, values, and culture. Ideas surrounding the holiday of Kwanzaa are expressed in one of the most commonly spoken African languages: Swahili. The name “Kwanzaa” originates from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning first fruits. This refers to harvest festivals that are found throughout Africa. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, from December 26th to January 1st, is dedicated to one of the seven principles of “Kaiwada,” meaning “common” in Swahili.
  • New Year’s
    • The bright arrival of the new year has been commemorated for at least four millennia by civilizations all across the world. In modern times, most New Year’s celebrations begin on December 31, or New Year’s Eve, and continue throughout January 1, which is New Year’s Day. Common traditions include attending themed parties, sharing New Year’s foods and snacks, creating resolutions for the new year, and watching fireworks displays. In contrast, the earliest festivity in honor of a new year’s arrival dates back about 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. Babylonians marked the occasion with a massive religious festival called Akitu.
  • Mardi Gras
    • This Christian holiday and cultural phenomenon has been celebrated for thousands of years. Mardi Gras carnivals and parades occur in many countries around the world, mainly those with large Roman-Catholic populations. Brazil, Venice, and New Orleans host some of the holiday’s most famous public festivities, which are traditionally celebrated on “Fat Tuesday,” the Tuesday before the start of Lent. Lent participants observe 40 days of fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday following Mardi Gras celebrations, which itself can evolve into a week-long festival in many tourist areas. 
  • Las Posadas
    • In Spanish, the word “posada” means inn or lodging, hinting at this traditional celebration of the Christmas story. The festivities of the nine days of Las Posadas occur from December 16 to 24. This holiday commemorates the religious figures Virgin Mary and St. Joseph as they searched for a place to stay where Jesus could be born. Most widely celebrated in Mexico, Las Posadas features hot food and drinks, sweets, music, and piñatas. Almost any occasion surrounding Christmas is referred to as a “posada” today. According to Journey Mexico, “Schools often host posadas as end-of-the-year parties for students and teachers.” Posadas celebrations have ignited in other countries as well, including Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.
  • Lunar New Year
    • Also known as the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, this is one of the most significant and grand celebrations in China. Lunar New Year is also celebrated in Vietnam, where it is known as “Tet;” North and South Korea, where it is known as “Solnal;” and Tibet, where it is known as “Losar.” This coming year, the Lunar New Year will be commemorated on February 1, 2022. Due to its ties to the Chinese lunar calendar, the holiday’s origins surround feasting and the honoring of spiritual household and heavenly deities, as well as connection with ancestors. Despite the common usage of the Western calendar starting in 1912 and the Chinese joining in on celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day, they continue to celebrate Lunar New Year as well.


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