Holiday World Traditions

11 Holiday Traditions from Around the World

Learn about winter holiday celebrations from various countries across the globe.

Our unique customs and traditions are what make the winter holiday season so special, and this time of year might look different depending on where you are in the world. The holidays we celebrate—and the ways we celebrate them—are different from country to country, and even neighborhood by neighborhood. 

This season, learn how holiday traditions are celebrated around the globe, including the things all of us have in common—like gathering with friends and family for a meaningful meal or decorating our homes with twinkling lights. It’s also an opportunity to appreciate the differences between our holidays across a variety of cultures and continents.

As you make plans to gather with your own family, take some time to learn about the traditions of others, and pull inspiration from customs you might not have known about before. 

child holding tray with freshly baked king bread for Three Kings Day celebrations
Natalia Ruedisueli / Getty Images

Spain and Latin America: Three King’s Day 

You’ve heard of the twelve days of Christmas, but did you know the twelve days actually start on Christmas Day? The twelfth day of Christmas (celebrated on January 6) is known as Three King’s Day, and it symbolizes the day the wise men arrived to meet baby Jesus. 

Although it has roots in Spain and Latin America, Three King’s Day is celebrated by Christians all over the world. Since the wise men are said to have arrived on camels, children usually set out grass, carrots, and other snacks for the animals the night before the holiday. In Spain, many young children set their shoes by the front door for the wise men to fill with gifts as they make their way through town on their way to meet Jesus. In Mexico, families typically celebrate with a large meal that ends with a loaf of sweet bread that has a small baby figurine tucked inside one of the slices (similar to the King’s Cake at Mardi Gras). 

So rather than take your tree down and stop baking Christmas cookies on Boxing Day, consider Three King’s Day as a reason to keep the holiday cheer going. 

The United Kingdom: Christmas Pudding

This boozy holiday tradition from the United Kingdom is fun for all ages (really!). At the end of Christmas dinner, it’s customary to pour brandy over a traditional Christmas pudding, then light the dessert on fire. As the small cake burns, the oldest member of the family (or the head of household) carries the dessert around the house as everyone else at the table marches behind them in order from oldest to youngest. Typically, families sing the verses of We Wish You a Merry Christmas as they march around the house until the song is over or until the flames die out.

The alcohol in the brandy burns off of the cake during the march, so it’s safe for everyone to enjoy a piece afterward. Note that dried fruit pudding is very similar to fruitcake, so come with a sweet tooth.

Hanukkah Theme Blue Table Setting
Greg Scheidemann

Israel: The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) 

The eight-day celebration of Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is a minor Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Second Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah, or Chanukah, means dedication in Hebrew.

In the second century BCE, a group of Jewish people known as the Maccabees rebelled against the Seleucid Empire that had forced their community to worship Greek gods and had desecrated an important temple. They defeated the Greek army and reclaimed their place of worship. The group only had enough oil to light the temple’s menorah (a candle holder with seven candles) for a single day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days.

The eight days of Hanukkah symbolize this miracle and celebrate the Jewish faith. In November or December, families observe each night of Hanukkah by lighting a menorah candle together, exchanging small gifts, and eating traditional foods like babka, latkes, and rugelach. While Hanukkah is one of the more commonly known Jewish holidays by non-Jewish people, the High Holy Days are the most sacred observations in the Jewish faith.

India: Diwali 

Diwali or Deepavali, also known as The Festival of Lights, originated in India under Hinduism. It is now celebrated by more than a billion people around the world, including Jains and Sikhs. Reasons for celebrating Diwali vary across all three religions and within various regions in India. In some areas of northern India, Diwali is celebrated to remember ancient King Rama, while Jains celebrate in honor of the moment Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, reached enlightenment.

The five-day festival celebrates good prevailing over evil and the triumph of light over darkness. The holiday is celebrated with traditional foods like ladoo and samosas, fireworks, and lantern displays. The lanterns are often earthenware, and many communities light candles as well. The holiday aligns with the lunar calendar and is usually observed in October or November. It is a major cultural event for its celebrants and comes to a climax for Hindus on the third day, the darkest day under the lunar month Kartika.

At the start of Diwali, prayers are offered to the goddess of wealth and good fortune Lakshmi. In India, rangoli is a traditional part of the celebrations; it's an Indian art form that involves arranging colorful sand or rice into intricate patterns. It’s common for families to inherit their own specific patterns, almost like a family crest.

Germany: Christmas Markets

While you might associate Germany with its Oktoberfest celebrations, there’s another large holiday gathering that’s just as popular. For hundreds of years, towns across Germany have celebrated the season with their now-famous Christmas markets, known as Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt. The tradition of holding a winter holiday market has spread to other countries in Europe over the centuries. Sadly, the pandemic has prevented this tradition from taking place in the last couple of years.

Each large city holds its own outdoor market at night in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Visitors can enjoy a variety of traditional food and drink, including glühwein (a warm mulled wine), roasted chestnuts, and various pastries like christstollen (fruit bread) and bethmännchen (pastry with marzipan). Local artisans sell intricate Christmas ornaments, decorations, and other art pieces to give as gifts. 

girl holding candle while wearing traditional wreath on head with lit candles in celebration of St. Lucy's Day
Lena K. / 500px / Getty Images

Sweden and Italy: Santa Lucia Day

In Sweden and some parts of Italy, December 13 marks the start of the Christmas season, known as Saint Lucy’s Day or the Santa Lucia Festival. It celebrates St. Lucy, an Italian Christian martyr who died in the early 4th century.

St. Lucia was killed for keeping to her faith by bringing food to Christians hiding in Roman catacombs. To keep her hands free, she wore candles in a wreath on her head. For the public festivals, a young girl is selected to represent St. Lucia. During the procession, the designee wears white with a red sash and is followed by younger children dressed in white and holding candles.

In many Swedish families, the oldest daughter wears a white nightgown, red ribbons, and a crown of candles on her head to symbolize being a light in the darkness as she leads a procession in the morning before a large family breakfast. A key food for celebrating is the lussekatter, an s-shaped saffron bun; Swedes argue every year whether raisins on the bun are traditional or not, since most people simply pick theirs off.

The Philippines: Simbang Gabi

In the Philippines, the nine days leading up to Christmas are commonly celebrated with a daily Catholic mass, known as Simbang Gabi. Beginning on December 16, a mass is held each day at a different time. Some are held in the early hours of the morning (as early as 3 a.m.) while others are held throughout the day and evening. The early hours were to align with when the rooster crowed in the day. The practice was introduced to Filipinxs by colonial, Spanish missionaries at the start of the forced evangelization of the Phillipines.

Churches are often decorated with lights and parol lanterns to greet churchgoers, with a Nativity scene on display. Shortly after each mass, food stalls are set up right outside the churches selling treats such as bibingka, puto (rice cakes), and coffee. On Christmas Eve, a special service called Misa de Gallo is held at midnight to celebrate the birth of Jesus. 

overhead shot of a decorated table with dishes from the feast of 7 fishes and Christmas decor
GMVozd / Getty Images

Italy: Feast of the Seven Fishes

It’s common for Italian Americans to host a seafood feast on Christmas Eve, commonly known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. In Italy, Christmas Eve is known as La Vigilia (The Vigil) and involves fasting from eating meat until the main dinner on Christmas Day. It is based on the Roman practice of not eating meat and diary on the eve of important holidays. 20th-century Italian American families rekindled celebration of this ancient dinner, and it is now considered one of the oldest, practiced Italian traditions. Still, the holiday remains unfamiliar to many Italians living in Italy.

Typically, the Christmas Eve feast consists of seven different seafood dishes, which is where the holiday gets its name. The seven seafood dishes are said to represent the importance of the number seven in the Bible, such as the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church, although having exactly seven dishes is not strictly necessary. Popular at the Christmas Eve feast are also panettone and pandoro, traditional, fluffy Italian cakes.

Northwest Europe: St. Nicholas Day

If you’re looking for a new holiday tradition to start this year, take inspiration from St. Nicholas Day. The holiday is celebrated around the world, but has its roots in northwest Europe, as St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia and Greece. His life, and the celebration of it, is what stories of Santa Claus (Saint 'Cholas) are based on. 

In Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and other areas across the world, children leave their shoes out on the evening of December 5 in hopes that St. Nicholas will fill them with small gifts and gold coins. The day symbolizes the good deeds that St. Nicholas was known for. It’s said that during his lifetime, he sold all his possessions in order to help people in need. Back then, people used to leave their shoes by the fire all night to dry them out. As people slept, St. Nicholas would sneak in and leave the shoes filled with money or food. 

For that reason, the day is also associated with acts of service. It’s customary for families to spend the day volunteering or doing good deeds for members of their community.

kwanzaa candles
Sue Barr/Getty Images

Southern Africa, the Caribbean, and United States: Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was created in the United States in 1966 by Black nationalist Maulana Karenga to unite and empower Black Americans in light of the Watts Rebellion, and is primarily celebrated in the US and the Caribbean. The holiday is modeled after traditional African harvest festivals. Though its practices have roots in Southern African culture, Kwanzaa is a celebration of diasporic African family, community, and culture, especially those of Black Americans.

The seven-day celebration begins the day after Christmas and lasts until the new year, with each day representing principles, known as Nguzo Saba, honoring faith, family, and community. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday rather than a religious one, though it does have an inherent spiritual significance. These are the seven principles of Nguzo Saba:

  1. Umoja (oo-MOH-JAH) — Unity
  2. Kujichagulia (koo-ji-chah-goo-LEE-ah) — Self-determination
  3. Ujima (oo-JEE-mah) — Collective work and responsibility
  4. Ujamma (oo-jah-MAH) — Cooperative economics
  5. Nia (NEE-ah) — Purpose
  6. Kuumba (koo-OO-mbah) — Creativity
  7. Imani (ee-MAH-nee) — Faith

Families observe the passing of each day by lighting a candle on the kinara, a special candle holder made to hold seven long candles. Three of the candles are red, representing the struggle, three are green, representing land and hope for the future, and one of the candles is black, representing people of African heritage. Celebrations of Kwanzaa incorporate those colors as well as music, poetry, dance, and personal or communal narratives. On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, families celebrate with a large feast, known as Karamu Ya Imani

Spain, Mexico, and Latin America: Las Posadas and Las Navidad

Las Posadas has origins in Spain, and was introduced to Latin America during colonization of the Americas. It has been practiced in the Americas for the 400 years since then. The nine days commemorate the nine months the Virgin Mary was pregnant for the baby Jesus. It also honors Mary and Joseph's rough journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as they searched for a place to sleep during their travels. The religious festival lasts from December 16 and culminates on December 24 in Las Navidad.

La Nochebuena, or Las Navidad, is a Christmas Eve celebration that originates in Mexico but is also celebrated in Spain and many areas of Latin America. Typically, Las Navidad is a large Christmas Eve celebration with a dinner feast and a midnight mass called the Misa del Gallo. Gifts are usually given to children after the midnight mass as the evening officially turns into Christmas Day. While many families celebrate on Christmas Eve, in some areas, Las Navidad is observed over many weeks, from mid-December through Epiphany on January 6.

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