top of page
  • gallopade

December Holidays Around the World


When considering the December holiday season, which holiday typically comes to mind first for you? Are you pondering the broader spectrum of holidays, or are you perhaps reflecting on the specific one your family predominantly celebrates during December?


In the United States, Christmas often takes the lead, given its profound significance and widespread observance across the country, owing to various cultural, religious, and traditional influences. As it is a special holiday for many, it is also important to learn about other international and cultural holidays that are celebrated in December, including ones that are celebrated here in the U.S. that are maybe not as popular but are just as important to others.[1]


Christmas


Santa Claus, Christmas trees, mistletoe, snow angels, holiday music, Christmas cookie decorating, and sleigh rides evoke an eagerness for December 1 to arrive swiftly. Numerous people seize the holiday season as a chance to relish moments with family and friends. After all, who could resist the allure of those delightful festive traditions in the company of their loved ones?

Christmas is a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, who Christians believe is God's one and only son.[2] There have been different celebrations held over the centuries. One of these celebrations is called Yule, a Germanic solstice festival that is rarely celebrated today. This particular festival would start on December 21 and end on January 1, but the annual tradition of celebrating Christmas only on December 25 became wildly popular and basically took over as the norm for celebrating Christmas.[3] This is just one example of older cultural traditions and festivals that used to be celebrated or are rarely still celebrated during Christmastime!


Nowadays, people decorate their homes with lights, mistletoe, and trees with ornaments and tinsel. Cooking a feast for friends and family to share is also largely popular, along with doing gift exchanges or playing the white elephant game[4] (a gift-exchanging game involving opening random presents from other players, and throughout the game, other players can steal gifts from others, after they’re opened, that they want instead of another until everyone has a gift) at Christmas parties. Even watching Christmas movies during the whole month of December, sometimes even right after Thanksgiving, is another huge tradition! Along with that, many people celebrate Christmas Eve just as they would Christmas Day, so for many folks, it is a two-day celebration.


As mentioned before, Christmas is an exceptional religious holiday for Christians, and they have several traditions to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One of the most common traditions would be to attend church service or mass (for Catholics) on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, or maybe both days for some people! A well-known symbol or representation of the birth of Jesus is a nativity scene (sometimes called a manger scene). The nativity scene includes baby Jesus, his mother (the Virgin Mary), Joseph, shepherds, the Three Wise Men, an angel, and several animals, such as a donkey and a lamb. Many Christians own replicas of the nativity scene and set it up inside or outside their homes during the holiday season as part of their Christmas decor. In December, many churches also put on nativity plays and reenactments to watch the nativity.[5]

Another vital part of the religious celebration of Christmas includes the Advent period, which begins four Sundays before Christmas Day (celebrated for four weeks). The word “Advent” translates to “coming” in Latin, representing Jesus coming into the world. Christians celebrate this time to prepare and to remind themselves of the true meaning of the Christmas holiday. During church services and mass, four Advent candles in an Advent wreath are lit each week: one pink candle (the Shepherd’s Candle) and three purple ones (the Prophecy Candle, the Bethlehem Candle, and the Angel’s Candle). The Shepherd’s Candle, the one pink candle, is lit on the third Sunday of Advent because it represents rejoicing and excitement for how close Jesus was to entering our world. The other three purple candles are lit on the first, second, and last Sunday, representing the other Sundays during the Christmas preparation.[6]


Christmas is not celebrated the same way in every country, let alone in every household. For example, some cultures in South and Central America commemorate the birth of Jesus differently than some cultures in the United States while still celebrating the same thing. In Mexico, children will reenact Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Joseph searching for somewhere for Mary to give birth on that night, and they hit a piñata to receive candies and treats. While in Brazil, Christmas takes place in the summer and is celebrated with wild fireworks and outdoor picnics. Some members of Indian culture will replace the typical Christmas evergreen tree with a mango tree or maybe a bamboo tree.[7] Although all of these cultures celebrate Christmas differently worldwide, it is all the same holiday being recognized in their own beautiful, unique ways.


Hanukkah


Hanukkah is an eight-day, Jewish holiday celebrated in December around the same time as Christmas and sometimes overlapping it. The word “Hanukkah” means “dedicated” in Hebrew, and the whole point of celebrating Hanukkah is to rededicate oneself to the faith of Judaism every year.

The holiday is also known as the Festival of Lights because it recognizes the story behind the lit menorah, a nine-branch candelabra, in the Jerusalem temple that the Syrian Greeks destroyed. The invaders wanted to prevent the practice of Judaism, and they wanted to spread their Greek customs; however, the Jewish people decided to rebel against the Syrian Greeks. Judah the Maccabee led a small group of Jewish people to fight back, and they reclaimed the Holy Temple and their freedom to practice their faith.


When they wanted to clean up and rebuild their Temple after it was demolished, the Jews felt they should light their menorah while completing the project. The only dilemma was that they did not have enough of their sacred burning oil that was used to keep the flame; they thought they only had enough to last them about a day. To their surprise, the candles lasted eight whole days, and the Jews claimed this as a miracle. They named the rare appearance the Festival of Lights after their beloved menorah during a troubling time for the Jewish people.[8]

To this day, the Jewish people still celebrate Hanukkah for eight days because that is how long the candles remained lit after the Jewish victory. The holiday, however, lands on different days every year.[9] Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which is a part of the Hebrew calendar, so Hanukkah occurs sometime between late November and late December.


Traditions for celebrating Hanukkah include reading verses from the Torah, playing dreidel, and lighting their menorah at home. The Jewish people also celebrate with feasts, including traditional dishes like latkes (a type of potato fritter or pancake) and sufganiyot (a jelly-filled, doughnut-like dessert), and gift-giving like many others do for Christmas celebrations.


Kwanzaa


Kwanzaa is a significant cultural celebration in December that extends from December 26 to January 1, encompassing a seven-day period. Notably, the term "Kwanzaa" itself signifies "first fruits" or "first harvest" in Swahili. Unlike many other holidays, Kwanzaa isn't rooted in religious observance; rather, it holds wholehearted, cultural importance for numerous African-American families. Its essence lies in honoring and rejoicing the heritage and lineage of individuals and their ancestors.[10]

During the festivities, African-American communities engage in various activities, including gift-giving, indulgent feasts, singing, dancing, and continuing deeply cherished familial customs. There is also a lot of art, poetry, story-telling, and similar activities that take place during these celebrations to honor the history of the culture and ancestral importance. A highlight of the festival is the traditional feast known as Karamu, often held on December 31, though some opt for multiple Karamu gatherings.[11]


Kwanzaa revolves around seven fundamental concepts called Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles in Swahili): Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). These pillars symbolize the guiding values for fostering an improved world and embodying better versions of oneself. The Kinara, a candle holder featuring seven distinct candles, serves as a representation of these principles. With three green candles symbolizing the Earth and the homelands of their forebears and three red candles honoring the bloodline of their ancestors, the central black candle unites these elements, embodying the unity of the African-American community. These candles also mirror the colors of the Pan-African flag, further tying together the spirit of unity and solidarity.


Boxing Day


Boxing Day is mostly recognized in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which is where it originated.[12] It takes place every year on December 26, the day after Christmas. Many children worldwide think the day after Christmas is meant to be Santa’s day to recuperate and relax after handing gifts out across the world overnight, but in certain countries, that is not the first thing that comes to mind for some people.

The original purpose of Boxing Day was to give people the chance to repay their household staff for all of their hard work by giving them extra money, gifts, and sometimes the day off from work. As it adapted over the years and grew more popular, some churches even had a special collection during their ceremonies that would go specifically toward Boxing Day traditions. The church would neatly box up this money and pass it out to the poor who really needed it. These acts of kindness were further planned to take place on December 26 because it is the day dedicated to St. Stephen, a patron saint known for his good deeds and status as the first Christian martyr.

Even though the holiday started as an annual opportunity to give back to your personal staff or the community, it has evolved over the years in certain ways. The original tradition normally still stands, but there are now new traditions of shopping major, post-Christmas sales (very similar to Black Friday in the U.S.), and a paid holiday off from work in certain cities and countries. Some of these big sales are even called “Boxing Week” because they last beyond Boxing Day alone. Besides the shopping festivities, family and friends also like to get together for meals and maybe attend certain sporting events together, like soccer games or horse racing competitions.[13]


New Year's Eve & New Year's Day


Another huge celebration many countries and cultures are familiar with is New Year's Eve (December 31) and New Year’s Day (January 1). We like to celebrate the end of a year, whether it was a pleasant one we want to cherish or a poor one that we are ready to move on from, and welcome a new year that will bring us good fortune!

In the U.S., there are thousands of parties thrown every year, and there are thousands of people who decide to stay home and watch the New York City Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop with the countdown to midnight. A widely known tradition involves many people deciding to create their own lists of personalized New Year's resolutions to begin on January 1 for improvements for themselves for an even better year than the one before.


However, there is not just one New Year's tradition that is celebrated. Other cultures have their own ways of celebrating a different new year based on which calendar they choose to go by. For example, the Gregorian calendar observes New Year’s Day on January 1, with celebrations in the U.S. and other countries that follow the Gregorian calendar.

According to the Chinese calendar, the beginning of the new year is known as the Lunar New Year, also called the Chinese New Year, which changes date every year and lasts seven days. The months of the year are marked by moon cycles, so the start of the new year is celebrated on the date of the first new moon of the Lunar calendar. In 2023, the Lunar New Year started on January 23 and ended on the sixth day of the new Lunar calendar.[14]


There are also Ōmisoka (Japanese New Year), Songkran (Thai New Year), Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Diwali (Hindu New Year - India), and more New Year’s celebrations in other countries and cultures around the world! Who knew there were so many different New Year's traditions?

What are your family's holiday traditions? We'd love to hear and learn about them! Email us at updates@gallopade.com to share how you and your loved ones celebrate the holidays at the end and/or beginning of the year! Happy holidays!

 

Sources:


[1] Wressell, Tamsin. “A Calendar of New Year Celebrations around the World.” National Geographic, 31 Dec. 2021, www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel/2021/12/a-calendar-of-new-year-celebrations-around-the-world.

[2] Blakemore, Erin. “How Christmas Has Evolved over Centuries.” National Geographic, 13 Dec. 2021, www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2021/12/how-christmas-has-evolved-over-centuries.

[3] History.com Editors. “History of Christmas - Origins, Traditions & Facts.” History.Com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas.

[4] “Official White Elephant Gift Exchange Rules.” White Elephant Rules, 23 May 2023, www.whiteelephantrules.com/.

[5] “Nativity Scene.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Dec. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_scene.

[6] “The Meaning of Advent Candles: Dynamic Catholic.” The Meaning of Advent Candles | Dynamic Catholic, www.dynamiccatholic.com/advent/advent-candles.html. Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

[7] “Christmas.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 5 Dec. 2023, www.britannica.com/topic/Christmas.

[8] Dubin, Alesandra. “What Is Hanukkah? - Hanukkah Meaning, Origin, Story & Traditions.” Woman’s Day, 30 Oct. 2023, www.womansday.com/life/a33798121/meaning-of-hanukkah/.

[9] “Why Does Hanukkah Change Dates Every Year?” Wonderopolis, wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-does-hanukkah-change-dates-every-year. Accessed 22 Nov. 2023.

[10] “Kwanzaa.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, 14 Nov. 2023, nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/kwanzaa.

[11] History.com Editors. “Kwanzaa.” History.Com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/holidays/kwanzaa-history.

[12] Mabutas, Vincent. “Boxing Day.” National Today, 11 Aug. 2023, nationaltoday.com/boxing-day/#:~:text=Boxing%20Day%20is%20observed%20only,it%20up%20this%20Boxing%20Day.

[13] Klein, Christopher. “Why Is the Day after Christmas Called ‘Boxing Day?’” History.Com, A&E Television Networks, 20 Dec. 2016, www.history.com/news/why-is-the-day-after-christmas-called-boxing-day.

[14] Cindy. “Is 2023 Lucky for You? - Chinese Horoscope 2023 for 12 Chinese Zodiac Animals.” China Highlights: Private Tailor-Made China Tours, 8 Nov. 2023, www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/festivals/when-chinese-new-year.htm.



Comments


bottom of page