We tend to think of winter as a time of rest, hibernation, and quiet. But a look at the calendar reveals many holidays around the world that prove this impression entirely wrong. The cold months are clearly a popular time for parties and celebrations. While some are filled with solemn tradition, others focus on fun and frolic. All pose opportunities for interesting and real-life lessons in geography, culture, history, and religion.
Take a look at this list of several popular traditions celebrated during winter holidays around the world and share them with your kids. We hope they inspire further discussion and learning with some related activities. Enjoy the tour:
For eight days each November or December, Jews light a special candle holder called a menorah. They do it to remember an ancient miracle in which one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days in the temple. During Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes called latkes, sing songs, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts, or raisins.
Three Kings Day
At the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes a day called the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. This holiday is celebrated as the day the three wise men first saw baby Jesus and brought him gifts. On this day in Spain, many children get their Christmas presents. In Puerto Rico, before children go to sleep on January 5, they leave a box with hay under their beds so the kings will leave good presents. In France, a delicious King cake is baked. Bakers will hide a coin, jewel, or little toy inside.
The Winter Solstice occurs around December 21. It is the shortest day of the year. People all over the world participate in festivals and celebrations. Long ago, people celebrated by lighting bonfires and candles to coax back the sun.
St. Lucia Day
To honor this third-century saint on December 13, many girls in Sweden dress up as “Lucia brides” in long white gowns with red sashes, and a wreath of burning candles on their heads. They wake up their families by singing songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”
St. Nicholas Day
A popular December holiday in many European countries, St. Nicholas Day, celebrates St. Nicholas of Myra, the man whose life inspired the tradition of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. He gave all of his money to the needy and was known for his compassion for children and all those in need. The holiday honors the man on the anniversary of his death, December 6, 343 A.D. Many celebrate with parades, feasts, gift giving, and festivals.
People celebrate this Christian holiday by going to church, giving gifts, and sharing the day with their families. In some parts of Europe, “star singers” go caroling—singing special Christmas songs—as they walk behind a huge star on a pole.
The Christmas festivities in Ireland tend to be more religious in nature rather than being about gifts. Christmas celebrations last from Christmas Eve until January 6 (Epiphany). On December 26, known as St. Stephen’s Day, an Irish tradition that is known as the Wren Boys Procession takes place. Children go from door to door singing, holding a stick that is topped by a holly bush and a wren. They ask for money for the “starving wren,” which goes into their pockets. In ancient times, a real wren was killed and fastened to the stick, but today fake wrens are used.
The Christmas Eve festivities in the Ukraine are known as Sviata Vechera, which means “Holy Supper.” The celebration begins when the first evening star is sighted in the night sky. In farming communities, the household head brings in a sheaf of wheat, which symbolizes the wheat crops of Ukraine. It is called “didukh,” which translates to “grandfather spirit.” In homes within the city, a few stalks of wheat may be used to decorate the table.
Kwanzaa, which means “First Fruits,” is based on ancient African harvest festivals and celebrates ideals such as family life and unity. During this spiritual holiday, celebrated from December 26 to January 1, millions of African Americans dress in special clothes, decorate their homes with fruits and vegetables, and light a candle holder called a kinara.
In Ecuador, families dress a straw man in old clothes on December 31. The straw man represents the old year. The family members make a will for the straw man that lists all of their faults. At midnight, they burn the straw man, in hopes that their faults will disappear with him.
In Japan, Omisoka (or New Year’s Eve) is the second most important holiday of the year, following New Year’s Day, the start of a new beginning. Japanese families gather for a late dinner around 11 PM, and at midnight, many make visits to a shrine or temple. In many homes, there is a cast bell that is struck 108 times, symbolizing desires believed to cause human suffering.
Those in Hong Kong pray to the gods and ghosts of their ancestors, asking that they will fulfill wishes for the next year. Priests read aloud the names of every living person at the celebration and attach a list of the names to a paper horse and set it on fire. The smoke carries the names up to the gods and the living will be remembered.
To celebrate the Chinese New Year, many children dress in new clothes to celebrate and people carry lanterns and join in a huge parade led by a silk dragon, the Chinese symbol of strength. According to legend, the dragon hibernates most of the year, so people throw firecrackers to keep the dragon awake.
The time of Lent is a solemn one of reflection for Christians, so the Tuesday before Lent begins is a time of merry-making for many people around the world. In New Orleans, people wear costumes and attend huge parades for the festival of Mardi Gras. Brazil’s Carnaval also features parades, costumes, and music. This day is also known as Shrove Tuesday. In England, some towns have pancake contests in which women run a race while flipping a pancake at least three times. Mardi Gras usually occurs in February or March, 47 days prior to Easter.
This post originally published in November of 2014 and has been revised and republished.