Travelers can experience holiday traditions around the world when they choose to get away from home (or not) in December.
When you travel internationally in December, you find that there are countless different holiday traditions around the world. Read on for an overview of some of the most interesting traditions on different continents. And, even if you’re not traveling this holiday season, you can still sample some of these traditions in your own home with your own family and loved ones. Here’s a quick tour of different holiday traditions around the world:
On Dec. 5, citizens of The Netherlands celebrate St. Nicholas Day. Children leave their shoes by their fireplaces or front doors, filled with carrots or hay so that St. Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, as he’s known in The Netherlands) can feed his white horse. Children in The Netherlands hopes their offerings of carrots and hay are replaced with gifts.
Some natives of The Netherlands living in the United States celebrate St. Nicholas Day alongside Thanksgiving. They use the joint celebration as a chance to share their culture with new friends – and to inject some Dutch flavors into their Thanksgiving feasts.
The Greeks have long decorated their boats with string lights during the holiday season. This tradition dates back to well before the time when modern Christmas traditions called for Christmas trees draped in lights. St. Nicholas is called the patron saint of sailors, which may be why the Greeks choose to honor him in this way.
You don’t necessarily have to visit Greece to see vessels covered in lights. Boat decorating is also popular in some coastal cities in the United States — like San Diego, for example. If you find yourself near a harbor this holiday season, take a stroll to check out the boats and their festive décor.
In the United States, the 12 Days of Christmas are well-known. But, in Iceland, children eagerly await the 13 Yule Lads. The Yule Lads are something like dwarves or trolls, and each one leaves gifts in young people’s shoes over the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. If a child has been naughty, they are more likely to get rotten potatoes left in his or her shoes by Gryla — who is the 13 Yule Lads’ mother.
Christians in the Philippines celebrate Simbang Gabi, which is a series of early morning Catholic Masses covering the nine days leading up to Christmas. Each morning, before the sun rises, bands play and colorful lanterns mark the paths to local churches. Vendors even sell rice cakes to parishioners who attend the pre-dawn Masses.
Mexicans celebrate Las Posadas leading up to Christmas Eve. Las Posadas translates to mean “inns,” and the nine-day celebration is meant to honor Mary and Joseph and their search for a place to stay leading up to the birth of Jesus. Each night of Las Posadas ends at someone’s home, where the homeowner initially turns away guests before inviting them in for tamales and drinks. The nights of Las Posadas also include piñatas.
The United Kingdom
Cultures around the world celebrate the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, on Dec. 21. The United Kingdom plays host to perhaps the oldest celebration of the Winter Solstice. Stonehenge in England is considered to be the site of early Winter Solstice gatherings because of the arrangement of the stones. Today, Winter Solstice celebrants can buy tickets to a sunrise gathering on the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge.
The Japanese also celebrate the Winter Solstice, which is known as Toji. On Toji, bonfires are lit on Japan’s Mount Fuji, and many choose to soak in hot baths scented with citrus. Some even visit natural hot springs for their citrusy bath on the date of Toji.
Germany is home to the original Christmas markets, with the very first market considered to have been in Dresden. Today, visitors to Germany during the holiday season may visit markets in Dresden, Munich, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and other cities across the country. These markets are more than just opportunities to buy from vendors — they also include shows, carousels, Ferris wheels, food and more.
The JTB Business Travel team includes natives of Germany. They recently shared with us about a spiced wine that is a holiday tradition in their home country.
If you’re looking for a post-Christmas getaway, consider the Bahamas — where a traditional street festival known as Junkanoo takes place on Dec. 26 and Jan. 1. Junkanoo includes a parade with dancers in costumes, plus other events. Junkanoo is thought to date back to the 18th century when slaves would celebrate their annual 3-day break around Christmas.
The Spanish celebrate Three Kings’ Day each year on Jan. 6, marking the date when the three wise men visited Jesus shortly after his birth. Three Kings’ Day, or Dia de los Reyes, includes parades and the baking of roson de reyes, which is a circular pastry meant to look like a crown.
Ethiopians celebrate Christmas by playing Ganna, which is a game akin to hockey but played with sticks and a round ball made of wood. The game is played on a large field, and the participants tend to be highly competitive.
Across northern India, communities celebrate the Lohri Festival in mid-January to mark the harvest season. The Festival includes singing and dancing, plus bonfires, special clothing and delicious treats like gur rewri — which is a sweet made of sesame seeds and cane sugar.
Not Traveling This Season?
You don’t have to visit a different continent to explore different holiday-season cultures and traditions. You can find plenty of online resources that allow you to learn more about the many holidays that mark the end of the year around the world, and the beginning of a new one.
Coming holidays include Hanukkah, St. Lucia Day, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, the Lunar New Year, plus others. Choose a holiday to learn more about, and then explore traditions from around the world by planning a related activity or baking a dish in the comforts of your own home.
The holidays are also an ideal time to invite over anyone who’s far from home. Spending time with people from different countries is a great opportunity to learn about holiday traditions around the world — and to share your own traditions.
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