Dive into the fascinating world of holiday traditions with CK and GK. From St. Nicholas Day to Three Kings Day, we explore diverse cultural celebrations that will help you keep the festivities going until Valentine’s Day.
Once a teacher, always a teacher: Caitlin and Jenny love learning new things and diving into different cultures. Join us and expand your cultural awareness by discovering unique winter holidays from around the world: Hanukkah, Yule, Soyal, Ōmisoka, Three Kings Day, Lohri… so many cool celebrations!
Maybe while you're hosting these holiday parties, you can enjoy this throwback treat...
13 Winter Holidays
Explore Diverse Holiday Traditions
Our episode delves into the diversity of end-of-year traditions celebrated worldwide. We did our best to convey the beauty of these diverse celebrations and foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for global holiday traditions.
1) St. Nicholas Day | December 6
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 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 CE. Many people celebrate with parades, feasts, gift-giving, and festivals. Children leave letters for St. Nicholas and carrots or grass for his donkey or horse. In the morning, they find small presents under their pillows or in the shoes, stockings, or plates they have set out for him.
Oranges and chocolate coins are common treats that represent St. Nicholas’s legendary rescue of three impoverished girls by paying their marriage dowries with gold. Candy canes are also given, which have the shape of a bishop’s crosier.
2) Hanukkah | December 7 - 15
Hanukkah, or Chanukah, is an eight-day Jewish celebration that commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem following the Maccabean Revolt. Those who took part in the re-dedication witnessed what they believed to be a miracle: even though there was only enough untainted oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued to burn for eight nights.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. Celebrations revolve around lighting the menorah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown. The ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others.
Typically, blessings are recited and traditional Hanukkah foods such as potato pancakes (latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are fried in oil. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with dreidels and exchanging gifts.
3) Winter Solstice | December 21
The Winter Solstice occurs around December 21. It is the day of the year with the least amount of daylight. People all over the world participate in festivals and celebrations. Long ago, people celebrated by lighting bonfires and candles to coax back the sun.
In Canada, to honor the many cultural traditions that celebrate the winter solstice, Vancouver’s Secret Lantern Society created the city’s Solstice Lantern Festival. Participants can attend workshops to create their lanterns. On the night of the solstice, processions march throughout the city, culminating in fire performances. Attendees can also try to find their way through the Labyrinth of Light, a maze of 600 candles that invites visitors to let go of old thoughts and find new possibilities for the coming year.
In Japan, a hot bath with yuzu citrus fruits is believed to refresh the body and spirit, ward off illness, and soothe dry winter skin. Fun fact: giant rodents called capybaras love yuzu baths as well, and in a modern twist on the age-old tradition, some Japanese zoos will throw the fruit into the warm waters the animals soak in on the winter solstice.
4) Yule | December 21
This Pagan celebration of the darkest day of the year (again, the solstice), was originally called Yule. It's one of the oldest recorded winter holidays in history. At its core is the rebirth of the sun—welcoming back days of more sunlight—and it has long been viewed as a powerful time for energy renewal and introspection.
Historically, Yule—also referred to as Christmastide or Yuletide—was celebrated by feeding a large oak tree into the fireplace. The tree would be cut down on the Winter Solstice and the yule log would be slowly pushed into the flames over the 12 days of Christmas. That ritual became the basis for the modern yule log.
Modern celebrations include meditation, the exchange of nature-themed gifts, crafting an evergreen wreath, candlelight celebrations, and spending time in nature to honor and celebrate its many gifts.
5) Soyal | December 22
Zuni and Hopi Native American tribes in the southern U.S. honor the Winter Solstice on December 22 with a ceremony to lure back the sun god, who is believed to have traveled away from the tribes during the winter. It also marks a new cycle of the Wheel of the Year. Traditionally, it’s viewed as a time for purification, and, for the Hopi, it’s a festival that lasts 16 days and includes prayers, passing down of stories from elders in the tribe, and concludes with a feast. At the feast, which occurs on December 22, tribe members dress up in masks and costumes to represent Kachina spirits—spirits believed to support the community—and perform dances. Traditionally, children are given dolls that represent the Kachina spirits as gifts.
6) HumanLight | December 23
HumanLight is a Humanist holiday first celebrated in 2001. Various organizations have recognized the holiday, including the American Humanist Association.
HumanLight is a secular holiday that focuses on the "positive, secular human values of reason, compassion, humanity, and hope".
While there are no universally accepted ways to commemorate the holiday, modern celebrations typically involve a communal meal among a family or group.
The use of candles to symbolize reason, hope, compassion, and humanity has become widespread among those celebrating. Groups today also observe the holiday using charity work, gift exchanges, and other ideas associated with holidays and celebrations.
7) Christmas | December 25
In the Christian faith, Christmas is the historical celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Whether celebrated for this religious reason or solely as a cultural celebration, Christmas traditions vary around the world.
While Americans celebrate with Christmas trees, visits from Santa Claus, and dreams of snowy landscapes, Christmas falls during Australia’s summer, where it is popular to go camping or to the beach over the holiday.
Some Australians decorate a “Christmas Bush,” a native Australian tree with small green leaves and flowers that turn red during the summer.
In Iceland, the capital city Reykjavik turns into a winter wonderland with its Christmas market and for the children, there is not one but thirteen Santas, known as Yule Lads. One arrives each night in the thirteen days before Christmas, leaving small gifts in shoes left in window sills.
8) Kwanzaa | December 26 - January 1
Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 after the Watts riots in Los Angeles. He founded the US Organization and started researching African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. From there, he combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations to form the basis of Kwanzaa.
The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase matunda ya kwanza which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal called a Karamu on December 31. On each of the seven nights, families gather and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara, and one of the seven principles, or values of African culture, is discussed.
9) Boxing Day | December 26
Boxing Day takes place on December 26. Only celebrated in a few countries, the holiday originated in the United Kingdom during the Middle Ages. It was the day when the alms box, collection boxes for the poor often kept in churches, were opened and their contents distributed, a tradition that still happens in some areas.
It was also the day servants were traditionally given the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families. Boxing Day has now become a public holiday in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among other countries.
In England, soccer matches and horse races often take place on Boxing Day. The Irish refer to the holiday as St. Stephen’s Day, and they have a tradition called 'hunting the wren.' To participate, boys fasten a fake wren to a pole and parade it through town. The Bahamians celebrate Boxing Day with a street parade and festival called Junkanoo.
10) Ōmisoka | December 31
Ōmisoka, or New Year’s Eve, is considered the second-most important day in Japanese tradition as it is the final day of the old year and the eve of New Year’s Day, the most important day of the year.
Families gather on Ōmisoka for one last time in the old year to have a bowl of Toshi Koshi-soba or Toshi Koshi-udon, a tradition based on eating the long noodles to cross over from one year to the next. At midnight, many visit shrines or temples for Hatsumōde. Shinto shrines prepare amazake (rice drink) to pass out to crowds and most Buddhist temples have large cast bells that are struck once for each of the 108 earthly desires believed to cause human suffering.
11) New Year's Day | January 1
Around the world, cultures welcome the change of the calendar with unique New Year’s traditions of their own.
In Spain, it is customary to eat 12 grapes – one at each stroke of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Each grape represents good luck for one month of the coming year.
In hopes of a travel-filled new year, residents of Colombia carry empty suitcases around the block.
You’ll find round shapes all over the Philippines on New Year’s Eve as representatives of coins to symbolize prosperity in the coming year. Many families display piles of fruit on their dining tables and some eat exactly 12 round fruits (grapes being the most common) at midnight. Many also wear polka dots for luck.
12) Three Kings Day | January 6
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 bed 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.
In Mexico, the holiday gets a sweet ending with Rosca de Reyes, a sweet bread baked in a ring to resemble a crown, with a baby figurine hidden inside to represent the holy family’s need to hide from King Herod.
13) Lohri | January 13
Lohri is all about paying gratitude to the almighty, dancing to the beats of the dhol (drum), a bonfire, fancy foods, food baskets, and enjoying a delicious feast. The festival belongs to the region of Punjab and is mostly celebrated in the northern part of India.
The bonfire symbolizes the God of Fire. It is believed that offering food items to the God of Fire helps take away all negativity from life and brings prosperity. On this day, foods like til (black sesame seeds), peanuts, and popcorn are fed to the fire as part of the harvest ritual. After making their offerings, people seek blessings, prosperity, and happiness from the God of Fire.
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Happy all the holidays.