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Winter Celebrations around the World

How different cultures and religions celebrate the winter season holidays differently.

This blog post highlights the most popular ways people all over the world celebrate. The month of December is full of celebrations of all kinds, some of which as unique as the region of the world where they originated. Some have been celebrated for thousands of years, others are fairly new- but they are all important for the people that hold them dear.




Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.

~ Robert Alan




It really doesn't matter how you choose to say it – celebrate, celebrar, fira, célébrer, يَحْتَفِلُ, 庆祝, slaviti, fejre, festeggiare, viering – a celebration is understood all over the world and across cultures and religions as an act or event that commemorates something, and in some cases it makes something, or a specific date, special. Many people throughout the generations have taken time during the winter months to celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. And while you can see many differences in the events we celebrate, and how we do so, they all have similar aspects of togetherness, reflection, and enjoyment.

Christmas is the most popular celebration in most Western countries, around the world and throughout the U.S., but there's many more winter celebrations around. The most well-known and celebrated are usually religious in nature; some others were inspired by nature itself, acknowledging the darkest day of the year and the inevitable return of the sun; while others honor cultural traditions of the region or country they are celebrated in. There are a lot of other holidays that are culturally significant to their countries of origin, some of which have festivities that far exceed even the most ostentatious Christmas celebration.


Here we mention only 10 of the most popular celebrations around the world, all around the month of December, but there's many more.


Christmas

Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.

A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many countries, and it is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season organized around it.

Although the month and date of Jesus' birth are unknown, the church in the early fourth century fixed the date as December 25. This corresponds to the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar and it is exactly nine months after Annunciation on March 25, also the date of the spring equinox.

Most Christians celebrate on December 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which has been adopted almost universally in the civil calendars used in countries throughout the world. However, part of the Eastern Christian Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 of the older Julian calendar, which currently corresponds to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. For Christians, believing that God came into the world in the form of man to atone for the sins of humanity, rather than knowing Jesus' exact birth date, is considered to be the primary purpose in celebrating Christmas.

The celebrations associated in various countries with Christmas, have a mix of Pagan, Christian, and secular themes and origins. Popular customs of the holiday include gift giving; completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath; Christmas music and caroling; viewing a Nativity play; an exchange of Christmas cards; church services; a special meal; and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoe, and holly. In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.

Because gift-giving and many other aspects of the Christmas festival involve heightened economic activity, the holiday has become a significant event and a key sales period for retailers and businesses. Over the past few centuries, Christmas has had a steadily growing economic effect in many regions of the world.


Hanukkah

(Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה‎), also known as the Festival of Lights (Hebrew: חַג הַאוּרִים‎, Ḥag HaUrim), is a Jewish festival commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple.

It is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, commonly called a menorah or hanukkiah. One branch is typically placed above or below the others and its candle is used to light the other eight candles. This unique candle is called the shammash (Hebrew: שַׁמָּשׁ‎, "attendant"). Each night, one additional candle is lit by the shammash until all eight candles are lit together on the final night of the festival. Typically two blessings (brachot; singular: brachah) are recited when lighting the candles. On the first night, the shehecheyanu blessing is added, making a total of three blessings.

The blessings are said before or after the candles are lit depending on tradition. On the first night of Hanukkah one light (candle or oil) is lit on the right side of the menorah, on the following night a second light is placed to the left of the first but it is lit first, and so on, proceeding from placing candles right to left but lighting them from left to right over the eight nights.

Other festivities include singing Hanukkah songs, playing the game of dreidel and eating oil-based foods, such as latkes and sufganiyot, and dairy foods. Since the 1970s, the worldwide Chabad Hasidic movement has initiated public menorah lightings in open public places in many countries.

Originally instituted as a feast "in the manner of Sukkot (Booths)", it is a relatively minor holiday in strictly religious terms. However, Hanukkah has attained major cultural significance in North America and elsewhere, especially among secular Jews, due to often occurring around the same time as Christmas during the holiday season.


Kwanzaa

(/ˈkwɑːn.zə/) is an annual celebration of African-American culture that is held from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a communal feast called Karamu, usually held on the 6th day. It was based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa, including West and Southeast Africa. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 by the American Maulana Karenga who created it during the aftermath of the Watts riots as a specifically African-American holiday. Karenga said his goal was to "give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."

According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza", meaning "first fruits". First fruits festivals exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice, and Karenga was partly inspired by an account he read of the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama. It was decided to spell the holiday's name with an additional "a" so that it would have a symbolic seven letters.

During the early years, Karenga said it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas. He believed back then that Christianity was a "White" religion that Black people should not follow, but as it gained mainstream adherents, Karenga decided to alter his position so practicing Christians would not be alienated from the celebration, stating in the 1997 book "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture", that "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.

After its initial creation in California, Kwanzaa spread outside the United States

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage). They were developed in 1965, a year before. These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili word meaning "common". Each of the seven days is dedicated to one of these principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. Children are included in ceremonies and also give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Food and drinks are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. The holiday greeting is "Joyous Kwanzaa". Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa.

A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast of faith (Karamu Ya Imani). The greeting for each day is Habari Gani?, which is Swahili for "How are you?". Cultural exhibitions include the "Spirit of Kwanzaa", an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.

At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so went against the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination), violating the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. But today most African American families that celebrate it do so along with celebrating Christmas and New Year. However, its observation has declined steadily in both community and commercial contexts throughout the years. The National Retail Federation sponsors a marketing survey on winter holidays since 2004, and in 2015 they found that only about 1.9% of those polled planned to celebrate Kwanzaa—about six million people in the United States.


Las Posadas

Las Posadas is a "novenario" (an extended devotional prayer in the Catholic faith). the name Posadas derives from the Spanish word for lodging, or accommodations, which in this case refers to the inn from the Nativity story. It uses the plural form as the celebration lasts for a nine-day interval (called the novena) during the Christmas season, which represents the nine-month pregnancy of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

It is celebrated in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and Spain, and by Hispanics in the United States.

It is typically celebrated each year between December 16 and December 24. These countries have continued to celebrate the holiday, with very few changes to the tradition, for over 400 years.

In Mexico, celebrations started in 1586. Many of their holidays include dramatizations of original events, a tradition which has its roots in the ritual of Bible plays used to teach religious doctrine to a largely illiterate population in 10th- and 11th-century Europe. The plays lost favor with the Church and were eventually banned as they became popular through the addition of folk music and other non-religious elements; they were reintroduced in the 16th century by the Spanish as the Christmas pageant, a new kind of religious ceremony to accompany the Christmas holiday.

In Mexico, the winter solstice festival was one of the most important celebrations of the year that came on December 12 according to the Julian calendar used by the Spanish until 1582. According to the Aztec calendar, Tonantzin Guadalupe (the mother of the gods) was celebrated on the winter solstice, and she is still feted on December 12, while their most important deity, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, was born during the month of December (panquetzaliztli). The parallel in time between this native celebration and the celebration of Christmas lent itself to an almost-seamless merging of the two holidays. Seeing the opportunity to proselytize, Spanish missionaries brought the reinvented religious pageant to Mexico where they used it to teach the story of Jesus' birth. In 1586, Friar Diego de Soria obtained a Papal bull from Pope Sixtus V, stating that a Christmas mass should be observed throughout Mexico on the nine days preceding Christmas Day.

While its roots are in Catholicism, Protestant and many secular Latinos also follow the tradition- adapting the traditions to their culture and region. For example, one event in Portland, Oregon, finishes with Santa Claus and Christmas gifts donated to needy children. Also, a large procession has been held since 1966 along the San Antonio River Walk, which traverses large landmarks in San Antonio, Texas, including the Arneson River Theater, Museo Alameda, and the Spanish Governor's Palace, ending at the Cathedral of San Fernando.

In the Philippines, the tradition of Las Posadas is illustrated by the Panunulúyan pageant; sometimes it is performed immediately before the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass) and sometimes on each of the nine nights. The main difference, compared to other countries, is that actors are used for Mary and Joseph instead of statues and they sing the requests for accommodation. The lines of the "innkeepers" are also often sung, but sometimes these respond without singing. The lyrics are not in Spanish but in their language.

In Nicaragua, the older generations grew up celebrating posadas, but the tradition fell out of fashion in cities by the 1960s. However, another major holiday called La Gritería (The Shoutings), on December 7, is celebrated in honor of La Purísima Virgen (The Purest Virgin). La Purísima originated in León in the 1600s with Franciscan friars, and the celebration spread quickly throughout the country. By the 1800s, it became a national holiday and has since become a tradition in the Nicaraguan diaspora. La Purísima starts at noon with major fireworks. Around 6:00 PM more fireworks announce the time when adults and children go out around their neighborhoods or towns with burlap sacks in hand visiting different altars while caroling the Virgin Mary. In exchange for singing, people receive sweets, fruit and toys. The celebration goes on into the night. At midnight, fireworks in the shape of Mary, stars and angels begin, typically lasting half an hour.

Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have a similar tradition called Parrandas, Aguinaldos or Mañanitas; but their atmosphere is more similar to Carnavales. The tradition began in the 19th century, in order to get the people to go to midnight masses the week before Christmas; the church had the idea to put together groups of children and provide them with jars, plates, and spoons so they could run around the village making noise and singing verses. The idea persisted over the years and gained a street party ending. The aguinaldo is a musical gift offered during the Christmas season and is a tradition inherited from the islands' Spanish colonizers. As a musical gift, aguinaldos are mostly played by "parranderos" or "trullas" during the Christmas holidays.

In Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, families and friends gather from the 16th to the 24th of December to pray the Novena de Aguinaldos. In Venezuela, aguinaldo is a genre of Christmas music and generally have six verses. Played by "parranderos" or "aguinalderos" that announce their arrival in song and seek to gain entry to the community houses to relate the story of the birth of Christ, and to share in the joy of the message of Peace on Earth and to all People of Good Will. Aguinaldos are played with typical instruments such as the cuatro (a small, four-string guitar), furruco, and maracas. Other instruments often used are violin, guitar, tambourine, mandolin, bandol, caja (a percussive box instrument), and marímbula (an Afro-Venezuelan instrument). In exchange for the entertainment, "parranderos" are traditionally given food and drink: hallacas, panettone, rum and "Ponche Crema" (a form of alcoholic eggnog). Aguinaldos are also played at Christmas church celebrations.


Three-Kings Day or Epiphany Holiday

In the English-speaking world, the Christmas and holiday season tends to end with the celebration of New Year’s Day. However, for those in Spanish-speaking countries, the holiday festivities extend all the way to January 6th. Christians celebrate this day as the Epiphany – the day the three wise men found the newborn Jesus Christ after following a star through the desert for 12 days after his birth. While this day isn’t quite as important for English-speaking Christians, for those in Spain and Latin America it is a very important date marked with celebrations known as El Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day.

For those in Spanish-speaking countries, the three wise men (Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) are traditionally associated with gift-giving – as per their story of giving the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The holiday itself dates back to the 4th century and became especially prominent in the Roman province of Hispania (modern-day Spain and Portugal). From there, the traditions spread with colonists to Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Just as with Christmas, there is a heavy emphasis on gift-giving on Three Kings Day. Children all over the Spanish-speaking world sleep early the night before Three Kings Day so that the kings will come and leave them presents. In the same way as families leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus, families will often leave salt and grass, and even cigars for the kings themselves– the first two are meant for the camels that the three kings are said to ride on. Parades and parties are commonplace. Some even include camels.

In Mexico and among Mexican families in the US, another tradition revolves around the baking and eating of a special treat known as rosca de reyes, or Three Kings bread. This is a sweet bread that contains a baby Jesus doll hidden within. It is said that if you are the one who ends up with the baby Jesus doll on Three Kings Day, you’re obligated to host a party for the subsequent holiday Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day), which occurs on February 2nd.

In Spain, on the evening of January 5th every year, Spanish towns and cities are given over to the colorful parades. Mechanized floats bearing effigies of Melchior (Arabia), Gaspar (the Orient) and Balthazar (Africa) – or real life versions of the wise men played by members of the local council – and various other brightly-costumed participants, trundle down major streets; as they pass, they throw out handfuls of sweets that rain down on the spectators gathered to watch their grand entry into the town. The sweets are for kids, for whom this annual holiday has become the biggest deal for, but adults also collect them with upturned umbrellas trying to catch as many as possible. In major destinations such as Madrid and Barcelona, the sweet-throwing Kings’ parades attract crowds of hundreds of thousands and are televised across the country, but every Spanish town and city stages some kind of celebration on January 5th. The atmosphere is friendly and family oriented and the parades usually happen early evening so young children can watch them before going to bed.

in the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries there are many traditions that go along with Three Kings Day. Leading up to the holiday, children write letters to the Kings asking for gifts. The night before the Kings' anticipated arrival, children collect and leave bundles of grass out to feed the camels that the three kings ride on and they leave out candy and cookies for the three Kings to enjoy while they are delivering presents. In the morning, children wake up early to open their gifts brought to them by the Three Kings, and the rest of the day is spent with family eating, playing, and celebrating the end of the holiday season.

Three Kings Day is celebrated in many different cultures around the world with distinct feasts, parades, parties and traditions unique to each individual place, but one thing they all have in common is the importance of acknowledging this important day in biblical history.


Yule (Winter Solstice)

(also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót or "Yule time" or "Yule season") is a festival historically observed by the Germanic people. The original celebrations of Yule are connected to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky), the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht ("Mothers' Night"). Yule is the modern version of Old Norse Jól and Jólnir one of the names for Odin. The Old English derivates ġēol or ġēohol and ġēola or ġēoli, and indicates the 12-day festival.

Later departing from its original roots, and with the advent of Christianity, Yule underwent a major transformation and became known as the Christian festival Christmastide. Most present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, the decorated trees and most of the things we associate with the Christmas celebration are actually from older pagan Yule traditions. Cognates to Yule are still used in the Scandinavian languages as well as in Finnish and Estonian to describe Christmas and other festivals occurring during the winter holiday season. Many pagan rituals and traditions were also adopted into the Christian version of the festival and continue to this day.