How the World Celebrates Winter Holidays

Short winter days inspired cultures across the Northern Hemisphere to light up the night with festive celebrations. Here’s what year-end holiday celebrations look like around the world.

Christmas Eve was the centerpiece of my holiday season as a kid growing up in Southern California. My sister and I would struggle to stay awake during midnight mass in order to make it to noche buena, a Spanish Catholic tradition that translated for us into a massive feast with our family and neighbors. The menu included a roast suckling pig, noodles, and mountains of sweets. After our guests had gone home in the wee hours of the morning, my family would open Christmas presents together.

In many ways, our traditions are connected to those of people of many cultures and faiths sprinkled around the globe, who hold festive, and often candlelit, celebrations toward the end of the year. Such holidays tend to focus on the joy of sharing food, and often gifts, among family and friends. Many of the holidays tie back to the winter solstice in late December, marking the official start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as the longest night of the year. That important moment, when the days start growing longer on the way to spring again, has been celebrated since ancient times.

Here’s how to celebrate with people of many cultures and beliefs at one of the most fun and festive times of the year—and what gifts to give them.

Diwali

A major religious festival for people of the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain faiths, this five-day celebration falls in late October or early November each year. Diwali originates from Sanskrit for “row of lights,” since during this new moon festival, small earthenware lamps placed in rows illuminate houses and temples and are floated down waterways.

What to give: Gold- and silver-plated picture frames or bowls are popular gifts, along with boxed sweets and nuts.

St. Lucia’s Day

This December holiday observed in Sweden, Norway, and parts of Finland honors St. Lucia, a Christian martyr, and incorporates earlier Norse solstice traditions, such as lighting fires to ward off spirits during the darkest time of the year. Girls dress up in white gowns with red sashes and wear wreaths of candles on their heads in honor of St. Lucia.

What to give: Families celebrate with coffee, mulled wine, and baked goods like lussekatter (saffron buns) and ginger snaps.

Hanukkah

This eight-night celebration usually falls in December and celebrates a miracle from ancient Jewish texts: When a temple lamp, despite only having enough oil for one night, burned for eight. Today, Hanukkah is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah, traditional foods, games, and gifts.

What to give: Traditional gifts include a dreidel, a small amount of money, chocolate coins, or a menorah.

Yalda

The Persian festival of Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda, is an ancient celebration of the winter solstice. Yalda is viewed traditionally as the victory of light over dark, as well as the birthday of the sun god Mithra. Some people celebrate by staying awake until sunrise.

What to give: Families eat special foods, such as nuts and pomegranates.

Dongzhi

Dongzhi, or “extreme of winter,” is an important festival in China, Japan, and Korea. Based on the traditional Chinese celestial calendar, the holiday generally falls between the 21st and 23rd of December. It is thought to have started as an end-of-harvest festival, with workers returning from the fields and enjoying the fruits of their labor with family.

What to give: Sweet glutinous rice balls called tang yuan (“family reunion”) are shared and symbolize unity and prosperity.

Christmas

Many Christmas traditions—such as yule logs and Christmas trees—are rooted in an ancient Roman festival marking the end of the planting season. Festivities included drinking, feasting, and exchanging presents. Early Christian leaders marked December 25 as Jesus’ birthday and transposed the older traditions onto that religious celebration.

What to give: For children, toys and games are appropriate. Gifts for adults can include sharing plates of Christmas cookies and holiday spirits.

Kwanzaa

This primarily African American holiday is observed from December 26 to January 1 and celebrates family, community, and culture. Each night, a candle is lit to observe one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

What to give: On December 31, celebrations include a banquet of food and cuisine from various African countries. Handmade gifts or books on African culture are exchanged.

Three Kings Day

For Christians in Spain and Latin America, the holiday season officially ends on January 6—the 12th day of Christmas known as the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. The holiday celebrates the biblical tale in which the three kings visited the infant Jesus and presented him with gifts. On January 5, children leave their shoes or baskets by the door with hopes that the three kings will leave presents inside.

What to give: Small toys and candy.

However you celebrate, GiftNow has you covered with inventive holiday gift ideas for him, for her, for them, and for your long-distance loved ones.

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