Chances are good that you and your family have long followed some kind of tradition to celebrate the joys of the season. Trimming the tree, lighting the menorah, exchanging gifts, singing traditional music, hanging stockings by the chimney with care. If you’re like us (that is to say, curious), you might wonder about the rituals of other countries.
Well, you know Country Walkers is all about helping you experience all things local. So we’ve compiled some of the more compelling (and sometimes tasty!) rituals, customs, and beliefs.
From the many faces of St. Nick to Hanukkah’s delicious fried treats, here’s how some of our destinations celebrate the holidays.
In Europe, St. Nicholas Wears Many Hats
Popular culture tells us that Santa Claus resides at the North Pole and delivers toys in a whirlwind trip on Christmas Eve. But December 6th is St. Nicholas Day in many European countries. One legend says he was born in a much warmer climate – Greece. The cheerful saint is based on a 4th-century Greek Bishop who looked out for the welfare of children. And in the Czech Republic, he actually dons the frock of a bishop and wanders Old Towns accompanied by an angel and devil. In Hungary, he appears as Mikulás and fills children’s boots with juicy oranges and mandarins.
Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland have fashioned their image of St. Nick after Odin, the hooded, white-bearded Norse god who flew across the sky on an eight-footed steed. French legend hails Père Noël, who travels with his donkey named Gui (or Mistletoe); children leave carrots and treats for Gui in exchange for gifts. In England, Father Christmas has much more weight to bear: He is the very personification of the entire holiday.
Hanukkah’s First Flame
Despite its proximity to Christmas on the calendar, Hannukah is a minor Jewish holiday when compared to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. So most people go about their daily lives as they always do throughout the eight-day celebration. Still, the menorah is a beloved symbol the world over. The nine-branch candelabra commemorates the Miracle of Oil – and for many, their religious freedom – in the moments after the Jews liberated Jerusalem’s Holy Temple from the Greeks in 164 BC. Only a tiny amount of oil was found in the Temple, but it kept a flame burning for eight days.
For many, the most memorable part of their celebration takes place at the dining table. As you might imagine, fried foods pay the most meaningful homage to the Miracle of Oil, and potato latkes are a signature dish. The blend of ground potato, flour, and egg is topped with sour cream, applesauce, or just plain sugar. If you have a sweet tooth, the fried sufganiyot donut – a wholly satisfying confection stuffed with jelly – comes to the rescue. And speaking of sweet, gelt (chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil) are used as currency in friendly games of dreidel every year.
A Week of Self-Reflection and Family in the U.S.
From December 26th to January 1st, many African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, a convergence of several harvest festival traditions from African countries like Botswana and Zambia. This deeply meaningful community-focused holiday is built on the seven principles of Kawaida: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each principle is celebrated and contemplated on each of the seven days, inspiring self-reflection and conversations.
The centerpiece of any Kwanzaa celebration is the display of “first fruits,” a sign of optimism and hope. Typically, symbols of the seven principles are laid out on a table: a mat for tradition, a cup for unity, fruits for collective work and the like. Black, red, and green candles are burned – one is lit each day to represent one of the seven principles – and traditional foods and recipes connect families to their ancestors. All are encouraged to share their cultural values by dancing, singing, reciting poetry, and by offering gifts to children.
5 Other Christmas Traditions in Our Destinations
Greece: Before Christmas trees, Greeks decorated boats to bring light and joy to the holiday season. They still do, whether draping their skiffs in the harbor or erecting a nautical-themed sculpture of lights in the main square. The illumination begins on December 6th to commemorate the patron saint of sailors – none other than St. Nicholas.
Scandinavia: The yule goat dates back to the ancient pagan festivals of Northern Europe. Its exact origins are unknown, but the creature still has a central place in holiday décor. Typically made of straw, the tiniest yule goats hang on trees. The largest, and most famous, stands more than 40 feet tall in the Swedish village of Gävle.
Iceland: On each of the 13 nights before Christmas, the 13 Yule Lads – mischievous troll-like creatures – leave gifts in children’s shoes. If kids have been naughty, however, their shoes are filled with rotten potatoes. Or, worse, their mother Gryla will cook them in a cauldron. Now there’s some motivation to be on your best behavior!
Japan: You might be surprised that the non-Christian country of Japan has a Christmas tradition. Its ritual was born from a marketing genius who convinced the Japanese 40 years ago that Kentucky Fried Chicken is the traditional American holiday dinner. So each year, locals head out for the their bucket of chicken.
United Kingdom: It turns out that plum pudding is neither plum nor pudding. The holiday culinary tradition began as a sort of meat-based stew but evolved into a fruit-based cake that Charles Dickens depicted in A Christmas Carol. In some versions, the cake is soaked in brandy and set on fire before serving.
4 Other Hanukkah Traditions in Our Destinations
France: In Avignon, home to some of the world’s finest wines, French Jews toast the Shabbat that falls during Hanukkah by opening a new bottle of wine. They might visit friends in their neighborhood to share good tidings.
Italy: To commemorate Tishah B’Av – the destruction of the Holy Temple –Jews might read the Book of Lamentations by candlelight. In Italy, many save that candle to help them light the menorah for Hanukkah, the day that celebrates the rededication of the temple.
Morocco: Jews in Morocco prolong Hanukkah by one day, “the day of the shamash.” This is when children make the rounds in their neighborhoods to collect used and leftover Hanukkah candles. They build a bonfire with them and dance and sing around the flames.
Israel: Bakery cases overflow with sweet sufganiyot donuts throughout Hanukkah. And in Jerusalem, animated candles and dancing dreidels are projected onto the walls of the Old City. Bands, puppeteers, and fire-jugglers perform as the High Priest lights to giant menorah at the Temple.