12.17.2015 by Susan Dawson O'Brien

Winter Holidays ‘Round the World

While Christmas is arguably the most well-known holiday in the United States, people around the country observe the season with a variety of celebrations, from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa to the Hindu Pancha Ganapati. Such diversity drives traditional winter festivities in countries around the globe, just waiting for travelers to explore. Here is just a sampling of events, by country and listed chronologically.


Since the mid-1500s, Christkindl markets have celebrated the German tradition offering of local wares, food, and beverages, with each town offering something unique to its region. “Christmas markets were an especially joyous, anticipated event, as they brought light and laughter to a cold, dark season,” according to christkindlmarktleavenworth.com. “Villagers bought and sold homemade Christmas ornaments, decorations, and gifts. Traditional German handicrafts at the markets included hand carved nutcrackers, wooden smokers, wooden figures, cuckoo clocks, straw ornaments and blown glass ornaments.”

One of the most notable and oldest fairs is Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt. Today visitors can enjoy sausages, gingerbread, a stagecoach tour, and the handmade Prune Men, art created from dried prunes and figs, according to www.christkindlesmarkt.de.

The Striezelmarkt in Dresden claims to be Germany’s oldest Christmas market, offering at this year’s 581st annual event a “blaze of lights, the scent of mulled wine and Christmas music, (with a) bustling marketplace and traditional Saxon treats of the holiday season in the heart of the baroque city of Dresden,” boasts Dresden.de.


For centuries, this country’s villages and townspeople have recreated the nativity scene in outdoor theaters. In Piedmont, for example, “more than 140 life-size figures… bear a striking likeness to the town’s present day population,” according to italytraveller.com. The site also highlights Teno’s great mechanical Christmas machine; the Sicilian town of Custonaci’s cave, Grotta Mangiapane, “which provides the stage for a nativity play involving more than 300 ‘actors;’” and Corciano, in the province of Perugia, which “produces a nativity scene with life-size statues clothed in medieval style costumes created by local tailors and seamstresses.”

Another noteworthy event is the “Marine Nativity Scene” in Romagna; the town of Cesanatico, “using the ancient boats belonging to the town’s Floating Maritime Museum, (adapts)…the story of Christ’s arrival on earth…to coincide with the local maritime tradition, with Jesus being born, not in a stable, but aboard a fishing boat, surrounded by dolphins and the early 16th-century port, which was designed by Leonardo da Vinci,” the website says.


Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish holiday, is known as the Festival of Lights. In Haifa, the Holiday of Holidays “offers festivities to celebrate the major festivals of its Jewish, Christian, and Muslim residents, in Hanukkah, Christmas, and Ramadan. Almost every day of the month, and especially at weekends, there are concerts, exhibitions, tours, shows, and conferences,” according to touristisrael.com. Meanwhile, the Taste of Galilee Food Festival showcases the flavors of the region as well as tours and related classes, the website reports.


In mid-December, church concerts and solemn processions honor St. Lucia, the “Queen of Light.” This 400-year-old tradition features thousands of young girls “dressed as Lucia’s maidens, in flowing white gowns, each…(holding) a candle and (wearing) a wreath of glowing candles in her hair,” says visitsweeden.com. The girls distribute saffron buns while singing Lucia’s melodies.


Key to the unique Mexican traditional holiday celebration is “La Posadas;” nightly parades begin in mid-December, honoring Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, according to worldholidaytraditions.com. “After dark, each night of the ‘Posada,’ a procession begins led by two children. The children carry a small pine-decorated platform bearing replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro. Other members of the company, all with lighted long slender candles, sing… as they approach the door of the house assigned to the first ‘Posada.’ Together they chant an old traditional song and awaken the master of the house to ask lodging for Mary. Those within the house threaten the company with beatings unless they move on. Again, the company pleads for admittance. When the owner of the house finally learns who his guests are, he jubilantly throws open the doors and bids them welcome.” Afterward, everyone kneels around the scene, singing and offering a prayer.

The piñata is another popular holiday tradition. in which children take turns trying to break open pottery or paper piñatas filled with goodies by swatting at them with a stick; the catch is that each child is blindfolded and spun around.

“At midnight the birth of Christ is announced with fireworks, ringing bells and blowing whistles. Devout worshipers surge into churches to attend…Mass, (then) families return home for a tremendous dinner of traditional Mexican foods…(including) ‘tamales,’ rice, rellenos, ‘atole’ (a sweet traditional drink) and ‘menudo’ which is said to be more sobering than strong coffee,” the website says.


On Christmas Day in the Congo, carolers walk through villages on their way to the local house of worship, where every person presents a gift, according to santas.net. They return home in the evening to have Christmas dinner, “preparing tables out in front of their home and inviting many of their intimate friends to share.”

In South Africa, the holiday occurs during summer. “Schools are closed, and camping is the order of the day,” according to the website. Caroling here occurs on Christmas Eve, with church services held on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, in Ghana, the holidays fall during the cocoa harvest, “a time of wealth,” santas.net reports. “On Christmas Day, children and older people, representing the angels in the fields outside Bethlehem, go from house to house singing. Another church service is held where they dress in their native attire or Western costumes. Later on there is a feast of rice and yam paste called fufu with stew or okra soup, porridge and meats.”


The day after Christmas in the U.K. is known as Boxing Day, but its origin is murky. According to calendar-uk.co.uk, “It is probably related to several European traditions. One is the feast day of Saint Stephen, dating back to the early Christian era when special metal boxes were installed outside churches to collect money in his name. Another tradition is even older and goes back to the Roman era when slave owners and their subordinates switched roles on Saturnalia. Part of this celebration might have included gift giving and other ways of showing appreciation to lower classed for good service and loyalty in the past year. This is related to the European tradition that dates back to the middle ages when gifts, money or food were given to the poor and needy on the day after Christmas.”

Today, employers in some countries give gifts or food as a “thank you” to employees, the website says; in other areas, people box up unwanted items for donation. For consumers, it is the start of major sales for post-holiday items.


The Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration is called Hogmanay, and, according to visitscotland.com, “In the big cities, you’ll find large-scale open air concerts, street parties and spectacular fireworks welcoming ‘the bells’ (when the clocks chime midnight). Elsewhere, the celebrations are all about community and local events such as dinner dances, ceilidhs or just parties held in neighbours’ houses which get visited in turn as ‘first footers’ go from house to house to be the first to wish everyone a good new year.”

Edinburgh hosts a Torchlight Procession beginning on Dec. 30, when “torch carriers…create a river of fire from the historic Royal Mile to the son et lumiére and fireworks finale on Calton Hill.” The next night features the Concert in the Gardens by Edinburgh Castle, with live music and midnight fireworks.

The next morning brings “the (literally) breathtaking Loony Dook, the annual splash in the River Forth at South Queensferry.” A parade on the High Street leads revelers to the river, where they take a plunge into the frigid waters–in “fancy dress,” the website reports.


Three Kings Day in early January “is virtually as important as Christmas itself in Spain. … The fun starts the evening before, when the three kings lead their procession through the streets, throwing sweets to the children. The next morning, the children wake up to find their presents have been left overnight,” according to Gospain.about.com.

The locals traditionally enjoy roscón, a sweet bread shaped like a large donut, covered in sugar and cherries; each batch contains a small plastic toy, and the one who finds it will enjoy good luck for a year.


The Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year, but it is perhaps the most important of all Chinese traditional holidays. In 2016, the Year of the Monkey, people will visit friends and family, and enjoy a large dinner including fish, noodles, and dumplings, according to kids.nationalgeographic.com. Of note: “The color gold is said to bring wealth, and the color red is considered especially lucky.”