Cultural Holiday Traditions from Around the World


Alexandra Risi

Our world is filled with so many different cultures, and with that comes different ways of celebrating the holidays we know and love. I decided to write a bit about some of the countries in the world, and how they celebrate the holiday season. I actually got some help from my Dad. He works with people all over the world, so I was able to hear first-hand stories of what the holidays are like in other countries. Although there are many differences between the festivities each country has, there is one common theme – everyone spends the holidays with those that they love. 

In Belgium, Sinterklaas brings a few presents on December 6th, which is St. Nicholas day. On this day, children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, and if they are good, Sinterklaas will leave them small gifts like tangerines, chocolate, gingerbread, and mojkes (cookies made in the shapes of letters). If they are bad, Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), St. Nicholas’ sidekick, leaves sticks in their shoe. According to a native Belgian “Sinterklaas would arrive in November by steamboat from Spain and he then officially enters the town by having a parade. His arrival is broadcast on national TV!”. Belgians also celebrate advent, which are the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and make advent wreaths or crowns with candles on them to represent each week of the holiday. On Christmas Eve, a special feast takes place, which begins with small drinks and foods, like soups and chips. There is a starter course of seafood, and then a main course of some sort of game (stuffed turkey or chicken). For dessert, they have a yule log, which is vanilla sponge cake and chocolate buttercream to represent a real yule log. New Year’s Eve brings another special feast, and children make New Year’s Letters to read to their parents about their hopes for the upcoming year. 

In Hungary, the countdown to Christmas is also marked by an advent calendar, and four candles are lit during the advent season. Hungarian children will also receive items in their shoes on December 6th, where Mikulás will bring Oranges and Mandarins, or Krampusz will leave sticks. Luca Day is the Hungarian winter solstice, which takes place on December 13th and is said to be a day filled with spirits and witches, so people perform rituals to ward off evil. Speaking of Luca Day, a famous Hungarian tradition is carving the Luca Chair. This chair is made out of nine different kinds of wood, and must be completed by Christmas Eve.The maker of the Luca Chair carries it to midnight mass on Christmas morning and uses it to have a high enough vantage point to see evil spirits that may be nearby. Love spells are also performed around Christmas, where unmarried women would write down twelve traditional names of men on scraps of paper and burn one a day up to Christmas. The last name that was not burned would be the name of that woman’s soulmate. On Christmas Eve, the parents decorate the tree. Christmas trees are decorated with fondant and chocolate wrapped in tinfoil, along with other ornaments embroidered with Hungarian designs. After decorating the tree, there is a huge feast complete with spicy fish soup, stuffed cabbage, and lots and lots of paprika. Poppy seeds are believed to bring good luck in Hungarian culture, so many of their traditional desserts are made with them, like Mákos retes (poppy seed strudel) and Mákos gubas (poppy seed bread pudding). Another holiday tradition is regöles, which translates to “singing good wishes”. This is when singers travel from house to house singing songs that wish good luck on their neighbors. 

Similar to Belgium and Hungary, German children put out shoes on December 6th and St. Nicholas carries around a book filled with their sins to see if they deserve presents for the year. Since the Christmas Tree originated in Germany, Germans take their decorating very seriously, so much so that the children are not allowed to see the tree until after it is fully decorated, like in Hungary. The trees themselves are decorated with candles, apples, candy, tinsel, and small toys.When the children are allowed to come see the tree, a bell is rung, sparklers are lit, and presents are opened. In Germany, Christmas Eve is given the name Dickbauch, which means “fat stomach”, since it is considered bad luck in some parts of Germany if a person does not eat well on Christmas Eve. On the contrary, in other parts of the country, citizens “have a very simple lunch to show the simple life that Jesus was born into”. The foods that Germans eat include suckling pig, white sausage, macaroni salad, and other regional dishes. 

In the Estonian folk calendar, Christmas time starts on St.Thomas’ Day, which is December 21st, and goes until Epiphany on January 6th. Estonian culture really doesn’t celebrate Christ as a prominent figure throughout their holidays, and he just became important to them in recent centuries, since many of their ancient rituals were pagan. The time of the holidays is often characterized by fortune telling, and on Christmas Eve, the fire must stay burning and the food must stay on the table all night for good luck. It is believed that during the holiday season, both good and bad forces wander around, and that ancestors visit the houses of their descendants. A custom tradition on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve is to go into the sauna and take a steambath, and the sauna is often visited before midnight mass, where children are given their first gift of new clothes. A common tradition is the bringing home of Christmas straw for children to play with, and Estonians also make Christmas crowns, which imitate the Church chandelier. On Christmas, Estonians normally eat blood sausage, pork, and sauerkraut. They like to have full meals on Christmas, since they think it reflects the upcoming year. Commonly on the 26th, people visit their family and friends, and by the 27th, Christmas is “sent off”. When the Soviet Union invaded Estonia, Christmas was banned, but it was still celebrated unofficially. People would even light candles on the graves of their loved ones as a form of protest, until their traditions were regained in the 1980s. 

In Israel, they celebrate Hanukkah. This holiday celebrates the Jewish control and reclaiming of the Temple of Jerusalem. It is said that in the Temple, Jews found a small amount of oil that was only supposed to last about one to two days. But, in a miraculous way, the oil burned a lamp for eight full days and nights. Hanukkah is nicknamed the “Festival of Lights”, since in each synagogue during this holiday, a holy lamp burns above Jewish scriptures. Hanukkah is celebrated by the lighting of nine candles on a Menorah. Eight of the candles are lit one-a-night to represent the eight days that the oil burned for. The ninth candle, the Shammus, is lit first and used to help light the other candles. As each candle burns, families sing Hanukkah songs. Menorahs are placed in different places depending on the family, but people who traditionally practice the holiday leave the lit Menorah on the window for all to see. Many different treats fried in oil are eaten during this holiday, including Latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts (typically jelly-filled). Latkes are normally made among families, while fancy donuts are sold nearly everywhere. These donuts are different from American donuts, since they don’t have a hole in the middle and are cream-filled. Although it is the same holiday, Israel’s interpretation of Hanukkah is much different than American’s interpretation. For one thing, there is rarely any gift-giving in Israel, besides some gelt and possibly a dreidel. Dreidels are four-sided tops that spin meaning “A Great Miracle Happened Here”. Additionally, Israel only gives off of school for part of the holiday, as opposed to other holidays where all commercial and government functions are stopped. 

In India, about 2.3% of citizens celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, they still go all out for the holiday season, with many lights and colors, as well as poinsettias. Many Indians actually decorate Mango and Banana trees for Christmas instead of pine trees, and decorate them with handmade ornaments and cotton to imitate snow. In Southern India, people leave an oil lamp burning on their roof to symbolize how Jesus is the light in their world. In northwest India, Christmas carols and stories are performed every night for a week in preparation for Christmas. In southwest India, the traditional Catholics will fast from December 1-24. Many Christmas traditions are practiced in the Indian state of Goa, such as decorating a tree, singing carols, and baking fruit cake. Indians will give Kuswar, a special set of treats, to their neighbors and family throughout the holidays. Some of these treats are rose cookies, cashew macaroons, kiyodo (fried dough balls covered with icing sugar), neurio (sweet dumplings), and cardamom. Christmas staple foods in India may include pork, chicken curries, roast turkey, and steamed rice cakes. After a good meal on Christmas Eve, families go to midnight mass. Because India is filled with people of vast cultural backgrounds, the figure Americans refer to as Santa Claus goes by many different names, such as Baba Christmas or Natal Bua. This figure brings presents in a horse-drawn carriage, and although he is a non-secular character, many secular regions have adopted the customs of Christmas, and receive gifts each year. Indians also celebrate the Epiphany on January 6th, which commemorates the visitation of the Magi to Jesus. 

Each country described has its own unique traditions and customs when it comes to celebrating the holiday season. Whether you’re carving a Luca chair, going for a steambath, decorating your Christmas tree (mango or pine!), staying up waiting for Sinterklaas, or singing Hanukkah songs while you light the Menorah, the key element of the holidays is to make sure you do it with the ones you love, and create memories that will last a lifetime.