Each year as fall slips into winter, people around the globe prepare to celebrate. The season brings Christmas, of course — in myriad variations around the world — and it also is a time for Jewish, Buddhist, African-American and pagan celebrations, New Year’s observances that follow the modern (Gregorian) calendar plus those tied to the lunar calendar and others. If you choose this season for travel and have no budgetary constraints, you could hopscotch from one country to another and get in on dozens of great festivities. Here’s a sampling of the riches:
1. Day of the Dead — Mexico
2. Hanukkah — Israel
People of the Jewish faith worldwide celebrate Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights or Feast of Dedication. The schedule of the eight-day celebration follows the Hebrew calendar, and it lands on the more-commonly used Gregorian calendar somewhere from late November to late December. Among the traditions are lighting of a nine-candle menorah, spinning a traditional top called the dreidel and, in many homes, giving gifts. The celebration in Israel is generally a more serious religious observance, with gift-giving generally not practiced.
3. St. Lucia Day — Sweden, Norway and parts of Finland
St. Lucia Day is observed on Dec. 13 in Sweden, Norway and Swedish-speaking parts of Finland to honor the third-century saint, a Christian martyr. Young girls wear white gowns with red sashes and don crowns with stars or candles. These “Lucia brides” engage in many activities including parades, festivities and visiting the ill and infirm.
4. Christmas — Europe and Great Britain
Christmas celebrations throughout the world emphasize various customs. In England and across Europe, singing Christmas carols is especially popular. One reason for this is historical: In the 1600s, singing of carols was considered a political act and banned in England. Groups of celebrants would gather in secret to sing. And the practice blossomed as a backlash to the ban.
5. Christmas — Ukraine
Christmas in Ukraine is a very religious celebration, so don’t expect to see a lot of Santa Claus and his eight reindeer. There you’ll find caroling, recitation of religious stories and greetings that include “Christ is born” or “Glorify Him.” In rural areas celebrants walk through the snow caroling, parading and performing special plays.
6. Christmas — Greece
Greeks celebrate Christmas with various customs including decorating ships and erecting lighted models of ships, which symbolize the joy families in the ancient land traditionally felt when reunited with seafarers, especially for holidays.
7. Christmas — Mexico
In many parts of Mexico, breaking the piñata is a favorite tradition in the nine-day celebration of Christmas. You just can’t beat that avalanche of goodies when the piñata busts open.
8. Christmas — Africa
Christianity dates back as far as the first century in Africa and is one of the predominant religious on the continent today — and growing. Celebrations of Christmas are generally more religious than commercial: They include singing carols, preparing meals with roasted meats, giving gifts and visiting family. Some places stage pilgrimages to mark the holiday. Even in some predominantly Muslim countries, such as Senegal, Christmas is designated a national holiday.
9. New Year’s Eve — Ecuador
Residents of Ecuador banish their faults at midnight on New Year’s Eve. They do so by writing them down in a list, putting the list with a straw man dressed in the writer’s old clothes, and setting both on fire. The faults, like the straw man, should disintegrate.
10. New Year — China
Chinese New Year (also called Spring Festival) is the biggest holiday of the year in China and other large communities of Chinese throughout the world. Although the celebrations in the U.S. generally last a few days, those in China last up to 13 days. The festivities include special foods (dumplings or “jiaozi”), dragon dances, fireworks and religious rituals that draw from a combination of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions. This is the most important family holiday for most Chinese. People buy new clothes and give little red envelopes or “hongbao” containing cash — to children, in particular. In 2019 the holiday, based on the lunar calendar, begins on Feb. 5.
11. Three Kings Day — Spain and Puerto Rico
Customs vary among countries but the Twelve Days of Christmas is celebrated to honor the three wise men who traveled to present gifts to the baby Jesus. Spaniards celebrate Three Kings Day with gift exchanges. Children leave a box of hay under their beds (or outside!) on Jan. 5 as an enticement to receive presents. The French feast on a King Cake in which a toy, coin or jewel is baked. Those who get the piece with the trinket are said to be blessed with good luck in the new year.
12. Winter Solstice — England and beyond
The shortest day of the year — this year it’s on Friday, Dec. 21 — is celebrated with bonfires, candles and chants to entice the sun to return. The celebration of the winter solstice in various ways (including at Stonehenge in England, above) dates to ancient times in much of the world and marks the time of the year when daylight hours start to grow longer and darkness retreats.
13. New Year (Omisoka) — Japan
The New Year, called Omisoka in Japan, is a very important holiday there. House cleaning during the last days of the old year is followed by feasting, decorating and bell ringing at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Celebrants also visit temples and shrines. Until the 1800s, this holiday followed the lunar calendar, but it now follows the modern (Gregorian) calendar, so the Japanese ring in the New Year on Jan. 1.
14. St. Stephen’s Day — Ireland
The Irish celebrate the Christmas holiday at great length — it’s not over until Epiphany (Jan. 6), a Christian feast day celebrating the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. They decorate homes and shops with bright lights, place Christmas trees, hang mistletoe and attend religious services. On Dec. 26, people in the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland (not Northern Ireland, predominantly Protestant and a part of the United Kingdom) celebrate St. Stephen’s Day. That’s when “Wren Boys” carol door-to-door collecting money for charity. The traditional Irish jewelry designer Claddagh Design describes it this way:
The Wren boys (or girls!) dress up in old clothes and paint faces. In some parts of the country they also wear straw hats. They travel from house to house singing, dancing and playing music for the household. In rural areas it will usually be neighbours that call on the wren often collecting money for a local charity.
15. Christmas — Catalonia, Spain
In Spain, children find their gifts inside Christmas logs, which are brought into homes on Dec. 8. The Spanish leave food for the happy-faced logs — much like American children leave cookies for Santa — and even cover them with blankets to guard them against chills.
16. SantaCon — worldwide
SantaCon began in San Francisco in 1994, with people parading in Santa Claus or other Christmas costumes, but has spread to numerous countries, according to its website. The event is an adults-only gathering and/or parade of men and women dressed as Santa. There’s a strict dress code and other mandates, so be sure to check websites before you plan to attend.
17. Christmas — Japan
There is a host of KFC stores — yes, the Kentucky Colonel’s chicken — in Japan. If you’re in Japan on Christmas Eve, expect to see long lines of patrons waiting to pick up KFC fried chicken. Visiting the Colonel’s restaurants and feasting on the all-American food became a Christmas tradition sometime in the 1970s.
18. Christmas — Austria, Germany, Hungary and other nations
And you thought coal in the stocking was bad! Consider that naughty children in Austria, Bavaria, Romania and elsewhere face the foreboding figure of Krampus. According to lore, during the Christmas season this half-goat, half-demon beast whips naughty children with chains or rope and drags them away. Sound scary? It is, and people dress up as Krampus and roam the streets to scare kids straight.
19. New Year — Scotland
Scots really know how to whoop it up on New Year, which they call Hogmanay. Traditions vary somewhat through the country, but fireworks, bell ringing and jumping into frigid bodies of water are among the festivities. The holiday is also a time to take a small gift to a friend’s home. If a man first steps into the house, the hosts are expected to have good luck through the year. A woman crossing the threshold first is bad luck for the home, according to tradition.
20. Twelfth Night and Epiphany — England
Visit England on or after the Christian feast day of Epiphany (Jan. 6), and you won’t find holiday decorations. The English believe leaving such decorations up past Epiphany is bad luck. To ring out the holiday season, many people hold Twelfth Night parties on Jan. 5, marking the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and the coming of the Epiphany. They attend religious services, remove decorations and enjoy Twelfth Night cakes baked containing one dried pea and one dried bean. Those who find a bean or pea in their slice of cake are celebrated as lucky.
21. Burns’ Night — Scotland
The Scottish people don’t just sing the classic “Auld Lang Syne,” they’ve built festivities around the birthday of the song’s author, Robert Burns, Jan. 25. Celebrants read works by the man considered the national poet of Scotland and feast on haggis, a savory pudding made from sheep organs.
22. Purim — Jewish communities worldwide
Although many people haven’t heard of Purim, Jews throughout the world celebrate the holiday. It marks the day Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from a decree of death. Festivities include reciting the story of the Persian queen, exchanging gifts and feasting. In 2019, Purim begins March 20 and ends March 21.
23. Orthodox Christmas — Russia, Ukraine, Serbia and other countries
Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7 instead of Dec. 25. Fasting prior to the holiday, a meal including a cold-porridge “kutia” and religious services are all part of the observance.
24. Bodhi — Buddhist communities worldwide
Buddhists worldwide mark Dec. 8 as the day Buddha experienced enlightenment. The 30-day observance includes burning candles, prayers and reflection. Many practitioners string lights on small ficus trees to symbolize unity in all things.
25. Boxing Day — United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong and South Africa
The celebration of Boxing Day in the United Kingdom and many former British colonies goes back to Victorian times, when churches put out charity boxes for donations. It was the day after Christmas, when servants could take the day off for their own holiday observances. The day is still celebrated every Dec. 26, unless Christmas falls on a weekend. If that’s the case, the following Monday is the official observance. On Boxing Day, shoppers snap up bargains, as Americans do on the day after Thanksgiving.
26. Guy Fawkes Day — England
The English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day (sometimes called Guy Fawkes Night) with bonfires and fireworks. The Nov. 5 celebration marks the day in 1605 when Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath the House of Lords, exposing a plot by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate King James I.
27. Kwanzaa — the African diaspora
Kwanzaa was begun in 1966 as a way of celebrating African heritage and focusing on family unity in the United States and other nations of the African diaspora. From Dec. 26 to the first of the new year, celebrants mark Kwanzaa with traditions including feasting and visiting family while embracing seven core principles: unity; self-determination; collective work and responsibility; cooperative economics; purpose; creativity; and faith. Crops (often fruits), mats (generally straw), candle holders, corn, unity cups, gifts (usually handmade) and seven candles are among the symbolic items used in celebrations.
28. Christmas — Poland
Christmas celebrations in Poland embrace the religious services, Nativity displays and other customs observed around the world. But Poland has a special spin on the holiday. It starts with a thorough house cleaning prior to Christmas Eve. Then celebrants don their finest clothes and begin a Christmas Eve supper, called Wigilia, a meal that lasts until the first star is seen in the sky. The meal is meat-free — out of respect for the animals that watched over the baby Jesus — and includes 12 main dishes to bring good luck for the next 12 months. Some Poles believe animals speak at midnight. But the holiday isn’t completely traditional. In recent years, the most-watched holiday movie is the 1990 American film “Home Alone.”
19. Christmas — Republic of the Philippines
Celebrations of Christmas begin as early as September in the Philippines and last through the holidays. This largely Catholic population follows some Western traditions — Santa Claus, Christmas cards and caroling are all popular. But Filipinos have their own Christmas traditions, including hanging starlike decorations to honor the star-following Three Wise Men. On Christmas Eve, many people attend church, return home for a midnight feast and then stay awake all night to greet Christmas Day.
30. Christmas — Switzerland (Italian side) and Poland
In Lugano, on the Italian side of Switzerland, and in other pockets of Switzerland and Poland, men dress as Santa and cruise through the cities on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, stopping in city centers to distribute toys to needy children. The rides generally take place in early December.
31. Christmas — Italy
Nativity cribs and Nativity scenes are important symbols of Christmas in Italy. The tradition was adopted from St. Francis of Assisi, who used a crib to relate the story of Jesus’ birth. Dec. 8 is generally the day Italians display cribs, though a baby Jesus is not placed inside them until Dec. 24.
32. St. Nicholas Day — Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic and some other European countries, Christmas is separate from St. Nicholas Day, a feast day honoring the third-century saint who sold all his possessions, gave the money to the poor and spent his life caring for the sick and suffering. St. Nicholas would eventually become the inspiration for Santa Claus (Old Saint Nick). In the Czech Republic, Santa arrives Dec. 5, accompanied by angels or devils. Good children are asked to sing songs or recite poems and are then given treats and presents. Coal is given to children deemed naughty.
33. Christmas — India
Christians make up a small percentage of Indians. But there are pockets of ardent believers in some areas, including Goa, which has historical ties to Portugal, and elsewhere in southern India. Some Christmas celebration customs are very similar to those in the West, such as midnight Mass. Other festivities include children parading while wearing Santa hats, decorating mango or banana trees and lighting oil burning lamps to symbolize Jesus lighting the way in the world. Some Indian Christians also practice religious fasting in the Christmas season.
34. Australia — Christmas
Australians celebrate Christmas with many customs familiar to North Americans, including wreaths on front doors and decorative light displays. But when Santa visits Australia, he leaves Rudolph and the other reindeer behind. Instead, Santa travels to houses with a little help from kangaroos.
What unique holiday traditions do you practice in your area? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.