Learning About the Beloved Holidays around the World
We may feel closer than ever to the neighbors of our world. COVID-19 shows us, among other key lessons, that we are deeply and biologically connected to one another. Our children and teens may be socializing more online with friends in other countries who may share interests that children in their own neighborhood do not. As we homeschool this year, we are learning about countries, cultures, and history to increase our family’s understanding of the unique gifts each culture brings to the expression of being human. One of the most beautiful and illustrative ways to do that is to learn about another culture through their celebrations and rituals.
Because of the numerous holidays celebrated through the fall and winter months, it is an ideal time to discuss how people celebrate around the world – both the uniqueness of traditions and also the many commonalities. I was struck by the number of similar themes and symbols when I did the research for the following world holiday facts. Most notably, the major holidays celebrate light in the darkness, show gratitude for food, family and life and pause for reflection or prayer. I was so enriched by learning about the beautiful traditions of celebrations around the world. I hope you will take a moment to share these with your family. Happy holidays!
Cultural or Religious Origin: Christianity and Secular
Purpose: To celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the son of God. For the non-religious, the purpose is to give gifts, receive gifts from Santa Claus and celebrate with loved ones.
Symbols/Practices: Santa Claus who was originally named after St. Nicolas, a bishop in Turkey, who was a giver of gifts to children. The evergreen tree was originally a German tradition. The star is the guiding light that led to the animal manger where the baby was born.
Traditions: Presents are delivered in secret by Santa Claus on Christmas Eve while families are sleeping. Families and friends exchange gifts.
Cultural or Religious Origin: Judaism
Purpose: To celebrate a miracle that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the temple.
Symbols/Practices: For eight days, Jews light a special candleholder called a menorah.
Traditions: On Hanukkah, many Jews also eat special potato pancakes called latkes, sing songs, and spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins. Families also give one gift each of the eight days.
Cultural or Religious Origin: African-American
Purpose: Started in the United States to celebrate African heritage for seven days based on African harvest festivals and focused on seven African principles including family life and unity. The name means “first fruits” in Swahili.
Symbols/Practices: Participants wear ceremonial clothing and decorate with fruits and vegetables.
Traditions: They light a candleholder called a kinara and exchange gifts.
Chinese New Year
Cultural or Religious Origin: China
Purpose: Celebrate the new year.
Symbols/Practices: Silk dragon in a grand parade is a symbol of strength. According to legend, the dragon hibernates most of the year, so people throw firecrackers to keep the dragon awake. Each new year is symbolized by a Zodiacal animal that predicts the characteristics of that year. 2016 will be the year of the monkey.
Traditions: Many Chinese children dress in new clothes. People carry lanterns and join in a huge parade led by a silk dragon. People take time off of work for seven days and celebrate the feast with family.
Cultural or Religious Origins: Hindu, India
Purpose: The festival of lights honors Lakshmi, India’s goddess of prosperity. It celebrates the inner light that protects all from spiritual darkness.
Symbols/Practices: Millions of lighted clay saucers with oil and a cotton wick are placed near houses and along roads at night.
Traditions: Women float these saucers in the sacred Ganges River, hoping the saucers will reach the other side still lit. Farmers dress up their cows with decorations and treat them with respect. The farmers show their thanks to the cows for helping the farmers earn a living.
Cultural or Religious Origins: Mexico and parts of Central America, Christian
Purpose: Reenacts the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter to give birth to their son, Jesus. It is a festival of acceptance asking, “Who will receive the child?”
Symbols/Practices: Candle light, song, prayer, actors dressing as Mary and Joseph
Traditions: People celebrate through song and prayer doing musical re-enactments of the journey. In Mexico and many parts of Central America, people celebrate La Posada in church during the nine days before Christmas. It is a reenactment of the journey Joseph and Mary took to find shelter before the birth of their child, Jesus
Cultural or Religious Origins: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Holland
Purpose: To share gratitude and give to the poor.
Symbols/Practices: Alms boxes were placed in churches to collect donations for the poor.
Traditions: Servants were given the day off as a holiday. Charitable works are performed. And now major sporting events take place.
Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr
Cultural or Religious Origin: Islam, Muslim
Purpose: An entire month is spent re-focusing on Allah (God) and participating in self-sacrifice to cleanse the spirit.
Symbols/Practices: The crescent moon and a star are shown to indicate a month of crescent moons in the night sky. Participants pray daily in mosques. On Eid al-Fitr, they break the fast by dressing in their finest clothing, decorating homes with lights and decorations and giving treats to kids.
Traditions: Not only do celebrants abstain from food, drink, smoke, sexual activity and immoral behavior during the days of Ramadan, they also work to purify their lives by forgiving others and behaving and thinking in positive, ethical ways. They break their fast each day by eating with family and friends after sunset. Breaking the fast on Eid al-Fitr involves making contributions to the poor and gratefulness.
Cultural or Religious Origin: Japan
Purpose: This is the Japanese New Year.
Symbols/Practices: Thoroughly cleaning house to purify it.
Traditions: People remove any clutter and clean their homes to purify them for the new year. They have a giant feast with traditional foods. There’s a national talent competition. Bells ring at midnight and people go to pray at Shinto shrines.
St. Lucia Day
Cultural or Religious Origin: Sweden
Purpose: To honor a third-century saint who was known as a “bearer of light” through dark Swedish winters.
Symbols/Practices: With a wreath of burning candles worn on their heads, girls dress as Lucia brides in long white gowns with red sashes.
Traditions: The Lucia brides wake up their families by singing songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”