Holiday Traditions From Around the World
In the west, when we think of the holidays, specific images and traditions always come to mind. Wiry hair witches and menacing pumpkins accompany Halloween. Santa stuffed in a red suit is iconic at Christmas and fireworks splattered against the night sky easily triggers thoughts of New Year's Eve.
People in every corner of the world celebrate, or choose not to celebrate, holidays according to their unique histories. In Japan, where 1 percent of the population is Christian, celebrating Christmas casually with a bucket of KFC fried chicken is normal. Since the 18th century, Guatemalans prepare for the holiday season by burning effigies of the devil. And in Scotland Halloween celebrations follow ancient Celtic traditions rooted in the underworld.
Whether you prefer spending New Year's on the couch in your softest pajamas or you want to ring in the New Year by smashing dishes in Denmark, the choice is yours. If you're looking for a new holiday adventure or just curious about how people in other corners of the world celebrate, we've got you covered.
Samhain in Scotland
The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain began over 2,000 years ago in parts of modern-day Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France.
Every year on Oct. 31, the Celts gathered to celebrate the end of the autumn harvest and the beginning of winter. During this transition, they believed the ghosts of unsettled spirits returned to earth to haunt the living and to damage crops. To ward off these maleficent spirits, people built bonfires and wore costumes made of animal skin. Historians believe this is one of the original festivals behind the creation of Halloween.
While much of the original Celtic festival has been modernized, in the old town of Edinburgh, Scotland, a fire festival is held on Oct. 31 to commemorate Samhain and celebrate Halloween.
Halloween in Japan
Over 5,000 miles from Edinburgh Scotland and the fiery Samhain festival, there's the Kawasaki Halloween Parade in Japan.
For the past 20 years, on the last Sunday in October, in the city of Kawasaki, thousands of revelers gather for Japan's largest Halloween street party.
Inventive, theatrical and downright gory, the costumes alone make this celebration an endless feast for the eyes. In past years participants have dressed up as life-sized Chanel handbags and zombies that look as if they've been plucked right from the set of The Walking Dead.
If you're planning to be in Japan for Halloween and have a creative costume you want to strut through the streets, you can register to join the parade. Previously, prizes awarded for the event's costume contest have included trips to Italy and cash awards up to 100,000 yen (about $1,000).
Bonfires for the Dead - Fucacoste In Italy
The feast of "Fucacoste and cocce priatorje" (or "Bonfires and heads of purgatory") takes place in the quaint Italian city of Orsara di Puglia.
On Nov. 1, the community gathers to honor and pay their respect to the spirits of their ancestors who they believe return to earth, on this night, to visit the living.
Traditionally when the bell tower strikes 7 p.m., 100 bonfires are lit throughout the city causing Orsara di Puglia to figuratively catch fire. However, these fires are not meant to ward off the ghosts but to illuminate their path back home once they've had a chance to warm up.
While Orsara di Puglia is not considered a Halloween celebration, due to the lack of witches and ghouls, the fires and carved pumpkins that line the streets give the event a spooky feel. Instead this ancient festival is held to celebrate the bond between the dead and the living and remember loved ones who’ve passed.
Fet Gede - Day of the Dead - Haiti
On Nov. 1-2, vodouists in Haiti gather at the Grand Cemetery in Port-au-Prince to celebrate Fet Gede (Day of the Dead).
In addition to dancing, and drumming people visit the cemetery to honor their ancestors and other spirits popular in the Vodou or Voodoo religion.
At the black cross of Baron Samedi, the keeper of the dead and one of Voudou's most revered spirits, practitioners light candles and leave offerings of flowers, food, and rum spiked with hot peppers.
While Fet Gede isn't the Haitian version of Halloween, the various elements of the festival create an unmistakable Halloween vibe. In Haitian cemeteries, if rent on a burial plot goes unpaid, the crypt owners evict the crypt's tenants and leave their bones scattered around the cemetery. During Fet Gede, it's not unusual to see human bones laid amongst offerings left at altars.
La Quema del Diablo in Guatemala
Since the beginning of the 18th century, Guatemala has ushered in the holiday season with La Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil). Every year precisely at 6 p.m. on Dec. 7, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception, Guatemalans build bonfires and burn effigies of Satan.
In addition to cleansing the home of all evil spirits, the burning of Satan is meant to symbolize the purifying of the Virgin Mary upon her conception. As the one chosen to birth Jesus, Mary had to be cleansed of the stain of original sin.
Burning an effigy of Satan wasn't part of the original ritual. Initially, piles of garbage or paper were burned. However, modern environmental concerns linked to the burning of plastics led to burning Satan piñatas.
KFC Christmas in Japan
While the origins of the tradition, born in the early 1970s, are fuzzy one thing is clear, Christmas in Japan is synonymous with KFC fried chicken.
Unlike other countries where Christmas is a national holiday, only 1 percent of Japan's total population is Christian. Overall, the day is celebrated, but most Japanese treat it as a romantic holiday, similar to Valentine's Day in the States. But regardless of how the day is interpreted, KFC at Christmas is a tradition that millions of Japanese embrace.
Beginning in early November, families start pre-ordering their Kentucky Christmas boxes. The menu includes classic KFC fried chicken, nuggets, roasted chicken and chocolate cake. Not pre-ordering a meal could mean standing in line at KFC for hours on Christmas Eve.
While in the states, we may not connect fried chicken with Christmas, we do associate the holiday with friends and family. In Japan, it's the same, only they gather around a bucket of KFC.
Christmas in Argentina
At first glance, Christmas in Argentina looks a lot like Christmas in North America and Europe. Houses get draped in colorful lights and trees are decorated with ornaments. However, unlike their neighbors to the north and the east, in Argentina, the main celebration happens on Christmas Eve.
After attending mass, families gather for a late night feast. Around midnight the heart of the festivities kicks off with fireworks that grind on long after the children have gone to bed. Globos (paper lanterns) are lit and released into the night — a gesture meant to welcome in the calm of Christmas Day.
The Christmas holiday lasts, although the partying subsidies, through Jan. 6, or Three Kings Day, when traditionally children wake to find presents stuffed in their shoes.
Mari Lwyd in Wales
Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare or Holy Mary) is an ancient Welsh Christmas tradition. A poetry slam mixed with caroling, the ritual involves a group who travels at Christmas time from door to door carrying a festively decorated horse skull. The person carrying the bony head wears a sheet over their body, creating something akin to a horse-ghost-puppet.
The horse and his or her crew troll the neighborhood, knocking on doors, inviting the dwellers to participate in a hybrid call-and-response rhyming battle called "pwnco." When the duel is done, everyone, including the horse, is welcomed inside for food and libations.
While no one is quite sure how the tradition of Mari Lwyd began, it's believed to be a pagan ritual of pre-Christian times.
Takanakuy in Peru
Every Dec. 25, in the Andean province of Chumbivilcas in Peru, villagers gather for the Christmas Day fist-fighting festival known as Takanakuy.
Men, women, and children of all ages square off, bare-knuckled in a makeshift ring to settle harbored grievances and clear up any unresolved private or public disputes. A referee monitors each fight curbing any biting or kicking and keeps the surrounding crowd in check by cracking a colorful whip.
Despite some blood, and a few broken noses each fight begins and ends with a hug or a handshake. And while Takanakuy, which roughly translates to "beat each other up" or "when the blood is boiling," seems like an odd, even brutal way to celebrate Christmas, the event often strengthens community bonds and facilitates peace between the locals.
Christmas and Communism in Russia
The Russian Revolution in 1917 marked the birth of communism and the creation of the Soviet Union. Gradually, in compliance with communist ideology, atheism became law, and all religious practices were prohibited. By 1928, Christmas was outlawed.
However, in 1935, under Stalin's rule, Christmas was reintroduced as a secular holiday to be celebrated on Dec. 31, New Year's Eve and Jan. 1, New Year's Day. This new hybrid civic holiday included the non-religious aspects of Christmas including presents, cards, and trees as well as the fireworks and parades tied to New Year's celebrations. And instead of anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus, children waited for Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his beautiful granddaughter Snegurochka.
Finally, in 1991 under Boris Yeltsin, Christmas was released from under the clutch of communism and reinstated as a legal and religious holiday in Russia.
Today the majority of Russians recognize the hybrid celebration created during the Soviet Era as their holiday instead of Dec. 25. However, the Russian Orthodox celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
New Years Bonfires in Iceland
As the winter sun begins to set in Reykjavik on New Year's Eve, towns and villages around the capital city begin to prepare their community bonfires, or Áramótabrenna. A tradition rooted in Icelandic folklore, families gather around the roaring piles of flames starting at 8:30 p.m.. In addition to connecting with members of the community, the bonfires provide a symbolic burning of the old to welcome in the new.
At 10:30 p.m. sharp, the streets of Reykjavik empty entirely as about 90 percent of Icelanders head home to watch Áramótaskaup. Started in 1966, Skaupið, as the locals call it, is a Saturday Night Live-esque sketch comedy show broadcast only on New Year's Eve. The 50-minute show, adds a comedic spin to all of the major news events from the year.
Finally at 11:30 p.m., Icelanders bundle back up and head outside for fireworks. Unlike cities such as New York or London, in Reykjavik, a fireworks free-for-all unfolds at midnight as families from each village and town individually launch their stash of fireworks into the night sky.
Melting Tin in Finland
Finland is home to an intriguing New Year's fortune telling tradition called Molybdomancy, or "Casting," of the New Year's Tin.
On New Year's Eve, lead horseshoes are melted in a pan on the stove and then quickly poured into cold water. As the metal resolidifies, random shapes are created. These shapes are meant to predict the caster's fortune for the coming year.
According to one source, a rough surface means lots of money, while a shiny surface signifies peace. If the metal mimics the shape of a ship, then travel is likely, and a ring shape predicts marriage in the new year. Unfortunately, for those who are already married, a broken ring is interpreted as divorce.
Plate Smashing in Denmark
While smashing dishes isn't a practice unique to Denmark, it’s one of the country's most cherished holiday traditions. Throughout the year, families put aside their old and chipped plates for when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.
At that time, people rush to the homes of friends and family and smash their vintage dishes outside each other's front doors. Over the years, instead of hurling plates some people have modernized the tradition and now break their dishes beforehand to avoid adding to the commotion.
Despite the inevitable mess and noise, for the Danes, it's considered a mark of popularity and an omen of good luck for the year ahead if you have a massive pile of smashed china waiting for you on New Year's Day.
Nyepi, New Year's, in Bali
Meant to restore balance and harmony to all aspects of life, Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, is celebrated with 24 hours of complete silence making the holiday one of the most unique on the planet.
Beginning at 6 a.m. on Nyepi, Balinese are forbidden to travel, work, speak, engage in entertainment or use electricity. Instead, they use the day for self-reflection and meditation. Leaving the home during this time is strictly forbidden and if caught outside the Pecalang (Balinese security) will issue fines.
While the day of silence is the most important of the New Year, additional purification ceremonies take place the days before and after Nyepi. Bhuta Yajna, the Parade of Demons, is held on the eve of Nyepi. The event includes burning demon effigies called Ogoh-ogoh to cast out all evil spirits.
As a majority Hindu island, the Balinese follow the ancient lunar Saka calendar. Depending on the year, New Year's Day can fall anywhere within February, March or April.
Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong
The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place during the 7th month of the lunar year in Hong Kong as well as other parts of Asia. It took place on Aug. 25 this year and will happen on Aug. 15, 2019.
The festival begins on the first of the month when it's believed the Gates of Hell open, and ghosts return to the earth to mingle with the living. Throughout the month, people burn paper money and food on the streets as an offering to their ancestors and to soothe the angst of restless spirits. Incense is burned, and candles are often left out at night to help guide the ghosts and ghouls back to wherever they call home.
On the 15th day of the month, after the ghosts have been wandering for two full weeks, the Yu Lan celebration kicks off. On this festival day, to appease the hungry spirits, people burn paper versions of dim sum and roasted turkey along with paper iPhones, Lamborghinis, luxury bags, and gold watches.
In addition to feasting and receiving gifts, throughout the festival month, communities host pop-up operas to entertain both spirits and earthlings. It's customary for the first row of the theatre to remain empty on opening night for the ghosts, of course.