By Paulette Bethel, PhD
In last year’s holiday column, I wrote about one memorable customs, cuisines, traditions, and practices in my Louisiana Creole home culture of New Orleans that were created though a myriad of enchanting and global crossroad cultural traditions that have been passed down through the generations in my family.
I received feedback from readers about how the article led them to think about their own cherished holiday traditions. Some shared stories of how they embraced and celebrated the holiday season within their families and cultural milieus. One reader added that it had inspired her to reignite some of her family’s own customs that she had stopped practicing long ago and to create new traditions with her spouse and children.
Global Citizens and cross-cultural people often have an accumulation of experiences and perspectives on how holidays are celebrated, due to having lived globally or in cross-cultural environments. Like many globally mobile and cross-cultural people, my family still relishes their exposure to holiday celebrations around the globe and in various US communities. Looking back, our adult children enjoyed experiencing holidays traditions from the places we lived (they still do).
MULTICULTURAL HOLIDAY TRADITIONS
Over the years, my family has continued practicing family traditions passed down through the generations that are dear to our hearts and developed holiday practices that have incorporated elements from the distinct cultures and locales we have experienced. For many years our children took pride and pleasure in having German Christmas Pyramids and ornamental Filipino Parols, alongside our tradition of putting up Christmas trees, lights and sparkling decorations. To our more monocultural family and friends, our family Christmas tree reads like a vintage holiday travel magazine.
Here’s a look at 13 captivating holiday traditions from different parts of the world that reflect how each culture brings its unique styles, distinctive flavors and traditions to the table — from the sparkling lights of European markets to the rhythmic beats of Latin and African celebrations and the twist that the tropics adds to holiday celebrations.
Germany is credited with being the birthplace of the Christmas Tree and is famed for their longstanding, outdoor Christmas markets, known as Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt that are open each 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, handmade crafts, decorations, and other art pieces to give as gifts.
It’s also worth noting that Christmas traditions in Germany include St. Nikolaus, the patron saint of Russia and Greece who evolved into Santa Claus is known for giving gifts to children and influences celebrations around the word.
With an estimated 60% of its population identifying as Christians, Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday in Nigeria. People decorate their homes and churches with lights and ornaments. Special church services are held on Christmas Eve, followed by a festive meal with traditional dishes like jollof rice, fried rice, and various soups. Many Nigerians exchange gifts and spend time with family and friends during this season.
Boxing Day – The day after Christmas, known as Boxing Day, is a holiday in Nigeria (celebrated in other countries. It is a time for charity and giving, where people visit less fortunate individuals and donate food, clothing, and other necessities.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
Known for its most famous traditions in Trinidad and Tobago, Christmas is a very social time in Trinidad and Tobago with most people enjoying attending parties. Both children and adults go from house to house between neighbors and relatives for food and drink.
Parang, a unique Christmas tradition in Trinidad and Tobago influenced by Spanish and Venezuelan cultures is played. It involves going from house to house, serenading neighbors and friends with Christmas songs accompanied by instruments like the cuatro and maracas. This is also a time when people update their homes and put out decorations, especially lights.
Holiday foods are usually prepared throughout mid-December and into the new year! The traditional Trinidadian Christmas meal includes apples and grapes, sorrel, ponche-de-creme (a version of egg nog), ham, turkey, homemade bread, ginger beer, pastelles (a version of tamales), and Trinidadian fruitcake. The fruits have been soaked for several months before Christmas.
The holiday season kicks off long before Dutch Christmas proper during the second weekend of November with the arrival of Sinterklaas, a solemn old man sporting a silver beard and red-white suit, much like a slimmed-down version of the well-known Santa Claus.
Beginning on the 6th of December, shops, and municipalities all over the Netherlands get busy hanging up festive lights, candles, and wreaths. The putting up of trees is also part of Dutch Christmas traditions. and kerstkranjes – sweet cookies with a hole in the middle, pushed onto the tree’s branches.
Eerste Kerstdag or first day of Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and on this holiday the tradition is as in the rest of the West. Dutch families gather and spend the day together from breakfast, which evolves into a brunch, until dinner later in the day. The typical brunch will include numerous different types of bread and cheeses and above all kerststol, a traditional Christmas bread stuffed with fruits and nuts.
Christmas is celebrated as a time for good cheer, but the religious significance of the day isn’t really considered important. As a result, the modern traditions adopted in Japan are quite different than elsewhere. The holiday season in Japan seems to be celebrated the exact opposite way as it is in western countries.
In Japan, Christmas is the time for friends and couples to attend parties, make plans to meet up for dinner and celebrate as much as they can. And New Year's Day is the time of the year when all members of the family come together, visit the temple, and usher-in January 1st, with food and drinks.
Fun Japanese Christmas Day Fact: According to Smithsonian Magazine, every Christmas, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families are obsessed about getting their holiday meal from none other than Kentucky Fried Chicken. Somehow this tradition is one of the most sacred and one that really embodies the Japanese Christmas spirit.
The demand is so high that people start placing their orders for the special Christmas menu six weeks in advance. And the wait in line on Christmas day is so long that it takes hours for people to get their meal. In short, doing Christmas the Japanese way means a visit to the Colonel! Learn more here.
Christmas in Italy is a very important holiday, and it’s celebrated with great enthusiasm and joy. The Christmas season in Italy starts on December 8th, which is the day of the Immaculate Conception, and lasts until January 6th, which is the day of Epiphany.
During this time, many towns and cities are decorated with lights, Christmas trees, and nativity scenes. On Christmas Eve, many Italians attend midnight mass, which is called “La Messa di Natale.” After mass, families gather for a big feast that usually includes fish dishes. On Christmas Day, families continue to celebrate with more feasting and gift-giving.
Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is one of India’s most significant holidays. People decorate their homes with oil lamps and candles, exchange gifts, and enjoy a variety of sweets and snacks. It’s a time for family gatherings and the celebration of good over evil.
Hanukkah, also known as the winter Festival of Lights is celebrated for eight straight nights, beginning with the lighting of the menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum. Families exchange gifts, play traditional games, and enjoy foods fried in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).
Kwanzaa is a weeklong holiday from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 to celebrate African-American culture and heritage. The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.”
Families light a Kinara (candleholder), exchange gifts and participate in the Nguzo Saba practice based on seven principles of unity, purpose, self-determination, cooperative economics, collective work and responsibility, creativity and faith. The festival may include African drums, songs, dances, storytelling and concludes on Dec. 31st with a large feast call Karamu.
These are just a few examples of the diverse holiday traditions celebrated around the world. Each carries its own unique significance and is an important part of the cultural fabric of the respective country or region. This year, as you make plans to gather with your own family, it might be fun to consider integrating holiday traditions from other cultures into your holiday festivities.
This not only offers a unique opportunity to appreciate richly diverse holiday celebration differences between various cultures, continents and countries, it also highlights the common thread that runs through each of us, no matter where in the world — traditions of coming together with family and friends in the spirit of love, giving, and togetherness that unites us all!