What Other Cultures Do for the Holidays

The holidays are upon us, and you no doubt look forward to your favorite family traditions. But did you ever stop to wonder how people around the world celebrate?

Winter is ideal for festivals, and the shortest days receive recognition for good reason. In many cultures, the time surrounding the solstice carries religious significance. Others participate in a more secular celebration of rebirth and renewal. Here are seven unique holiday traditions from around the world:

1. Mexico — Las Posadas

In Spanish, las posadas means “the inns,” and this series of parades commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph as they sought lodging for her to give birth. People decorate their houses with evergreens and paper lanterns to symbolize welcome to guests during this time. Every night, a different household hosts an evening party. Nativity scenes arise anywhere, and most people head to church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, the sky comes alive with fireworks.

2. China — Chinese New Year

Some people in China celebrate an American-style Christmas as more students come to the U.S. to study and take the culture back with them. However, across the Pacific, the real festival takes place at the end of January during the Chinese New Year. During this time, businesses shut down, and people take to the streets for parades and fireworks. Paper dragons fill the skies. The time is also one of renewal. Many people ritualistically clean their homes and throw open their windows at midnight. This act lets the old spirits escape and welcomes in a fresh, new age.

3. Africa — Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa isn’t a religious holiday, but rather, a celebration of African spirituality and heritage. The festivities include embracing what it means to be a part of the greater human community. Kwanzaa celebrates the seven principles of the Nguzu Saba, including unity and purpose. Each day of Kwanzaa represents a different one of these principles.

4. Austria — Krampus 

If you’ve seen the American movie “Krampus,” you know something about St. Nicholas’s dark alter ego. In Austria and other eastern European countries, Krampus punishes naughty children and warns them to change their ways. The creature has a dark brown, hairy body and horns. In some traditions, he gobbles up those who won’t reform the errors of their ways. You don’t have to worry about him crashing your holiday festivities, of course — but it wouldn’t hurt to be on your best behavior. Just in case.

5. India — Diwali 

The word Diwali means “rows of lighted lamps,” and this five-day Hindu festival celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. The exact date of the celebration varies each year but usually occurs between October and November. Sikhs also celebrate the holiday, although they worship different deities. The festivals consist of feasts with family members and lights of all kinds — including fireworks displays.

6. Japan — Ganjitsu 

The Japanese celebrate a similar New Year’s Day to the U.S., but it has unique cultural traditions. Ganjitsu, which translates to “new beginning,” is the most important holiday in Japanese culture. If you’re abroad, greet everyone you meet heartily — this celebration marks a time of fostering new friendships. You’ll want to give money to children to symbolize prosperity and visit a temple to renew your spirit.

7. The United Kingdom — Boxing Day  

No, the name “Boxing Day” doesn’t come from the discarded packaging lying around after the kids open their gifts. It doesn’t have anything to do with Mike Tyson or Mohammad Ali, either. Instead, this holiday represents the time when members of the British aristocracy would box up small gifts and Christmas leftovers for the less fortunate. These presents typically went to household servants and employees, who would have this traditional day off. Another possible origin for the holiday is the Feast of St. Stephen. During Advent, churches place boxes for donations to the poor, which they would distribute on Dec. 26.

Today, people in the UK celebrate this public holiday with a family game of football (soccer), some post-Christmas shopping, a country walk, or some quality time with friends and neighbors.

Celebrate the Holidays the Multicultural Way

This year, why not add some multiculturalism to your holiday celebration? If you’re fortunate enough to travel abroad, enjoy the festivities and celebrate like a local or add an international spin to your family tradition and celebrate another culture.

Alyssa Abel is an education blogger with a special interest in study abroad, language learning and cultural education. Read more of her work for students and educators on her blog, Syllabusy, connect with her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter