Celebrate Like a Local: Christmas and Other Winter Holidays Around the World
Prepare yourself for a holiday season unlike any other.
One of the most interesting parts of spending time abroad is experiencing familiar situations in extremely different ways. If you’ve ever visited a restaurant in Germany or toasted drinks with friends in Russia, you know that even seemingly everyday customs can vary greatly depending on where you are in the world. The same goes for holidays: while the winter holidays we all know and love are celebrated all around the world, the traditions and celebrations of each country are unique and beautiful in their own way. If you’re abroad this holiday season, live like a local and experience the holidays as you never have before.
If you’re visiting Mexico or Guatemala, don’t miss out on the chance to be a part of the Las Posadas procession. The nine-day event, the name of which translates literally as “the accommodations,” involves participants traveling from one home to another in order to pay tribute to Mary and Joseph’s journey through Bethlehem as they searched for lodging.
The weather will probably be a lot warmer than what you’re used to experiencing in December, especially in South America, where it’s summertime now. (I’m writing this on December 6 and just looked up the weather in a few South American cities – sure enough, it’s 81OF in Rio de Janeiro and 86 in Buenos Aires!) As a result of the summery temperatures, many holiday celebrations are held outside, and some will even celebrate Christmas and New Years by going swimming.
Keep your wits about you on December 28, which is when most Latin American countries celebrate Día de los Inocentes. This holiday, which is also celebrated in Spain, is similar to April Fool’s Day in the United States and involves family and friends playing tricks and practical jokes on each other. Many media outlets are even in on the jokes and will air outrageously fake news stories to join the fun. After a person has been fooled, the trickster will often exclaim “¡Inocente!” (similar to how Americans shout, “April Fools!”).
In Italy, the eight days before Christmas are known as the Novena. Children travel from door to door singing songs and reciting prayers, which is meant to symbolize that journey of the shepherds to the manger to visit the newborn baby Jesus.
Rather than hosting individual celebrations for each winter holiday, Russians have decided to keep the party going all season long. The Winter Festival, which takes place from mid-December through mid-January, has variations in cities throughout Russia, but the largest celebration takes place in Moscow. Enjoy traditional Russian holiday food, take a ride on a Troika sleigh and view beautifully carved ice sculptures at this unique holiday celebration.
If you’re in the UK, the celebration doesn’t end at 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Day. December 26 is Boxing Day, which is an extremely popular public holiday famous for the many post-Christmas sales that begin early in the morning. Similar to Black Friday in the U.S., customers begin forming lines outside retailers in the early morning in order to take advantage of great deals. It’s also a great day for sports and features many exciting horse races and football matches.
Christmas celebrations in Africa are especially unique because many of the native tribes blend their own heritage and traditions into the festivities. Many people will travel long distances to return to their home villages and celebrate with the entire family.
Christians in the Congo attend a special church service on Christmas morning just like millions of others around the world, but one special difference is what’s known as the “love offering.” Each person in attendance brings a gift to honor the birth of Jesus and a special ceremony during the service involves every member of the congregation going up to place their gift near the communion table one at a time.
In West African countries such as Sierra Leone, Nigeria and parts of Gambia, local culture plays a major role in the celebration of Christmas. All three countries hold masquerade parades to celebrate the holiday, which is a beautiful way to experience a unique tradition through a colorful celebration.
The party starts early in Ghana – Christmas celebrations usually begin around December 1. The holiday also coincides with the end of the cocoa harvest, which is double the reason to celebrate. The main focus of the holiday is the religious aspect, and although many families will spruce up their homes with traditional Christmas decorations, the secular and commercialized aspect of the holiday is virtually nonexistent.
The Middle East
No matter what faith (if any) you practice, consider experiencing Hanukkah in its birthplace of Israel this holiday season if you’re in or near the Middle East. The celebration starts off on the first day of Hanukkah with a torch relay. Lining the streets from the city of Modi’in, the city where the holiday has its roots, all the way to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, people pass a torch from hand to hand. When it reaches the Wall, a rabbi uses the torch to light a giant menorah. When celebrating this ancient holiday in the place where it all began, it’s easy to see how it came to be known as the “Festival of Light.”
Members of the Islam faith, another major religious group in the Middle East, celebrate Mawlid-al Nabi around the same time of year as Christmas and Hanukkah. The holiday honors the birth of the prophet Mohammed and is celebrated with beautiful cultural events that vary from country to country. In Lebanon, for example, nine days of parades and festivities lead up to the actual day of Mawlid –al Nabi. In Egypt, the entire capital city of Cairo is illuminated with a stunning display of lights.
Two of the predominant religious faiths in Asia – Buddhism and Hinduism – do not typically celebrate any major holidays in December. Although only a small fraction of the population is Christian, many citizens of Asian countries celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, using it as a time to gather with family and friends and exchange gifts.
In Japan, December 24 is seen as a special day for couples to give each other gifts, similar to Valentines Day. Hotels and restaurants get booked quickly with reservations for two. On Christmas Day, one of the most unique Japanese traditions even involves a Western fast-food staple: KFC, which is immensely popular in the country, offers a Christmas chicken dinner special that many families reserve in advance.
If you’re traveling in China, don’t be surprised if your host family or local friends give you an apple on Christmas Eve. This tasty tradition came about because the Mandarin word for “apple” sounds similar to the word for “Christmas Eve.” Many stores sell apples wrapped in colorful holiday-themed cellophane specifically for this purpose.
The people of the Philippines, one of Asia’s few predominantly Christian countries, get into the holiday spirit early: it’s not unusual to hear Christmas carols starting as early as September! The holiday celebration itself starts on December 16 with a novena of nine Mass celebrations, one every day until Christmas Eve. On the 24th, many attend Midnight Mass and celebrate Noche Buena, a large open house made special by good food and good company.
Christmas Down Under shares similarities with other Western traditions with the added twist of a tropical summer. While a traditional Christmas dinner is common, many families opt for outdoor meals by the water, beach, local parks or in their own backyards. Fresh local seafood is abundant and usally accompanies the Christmas meal. To keep the outdoor fun going, head to the nearest major city to experience Carols by Candlelight, a gorgeous gathering of song and light.
No matter where you find yourself in the world this holiday season, you’re sure to have a unique experience that will make it a Christmas or Hanukkah to remember. Open your heart and mind to the beauty of local culture – you may even come across some traditions that you’d like to start adapting at home!