Winter Holidays Around the World

Multi-colored strands of lights wrapped around trees, red and green bows tied atop neatly wrapped presents – these are some of the images that come to mind when I think of Christmas time in America. Christmas is just one of the many winter holidays celebrated around the world. The following celebrations are among some of the diverse festivities that take place throughout the months of December and January. Because who can say no to more reasons to celebrate?

Omisoka

Otherwise known as Japanese New Year’s Eve, Omisoka celebrates the ringing in of the new year full of new opportunities and possibilites. In order to start the new year off with a clean slate, people purify their homes and remove last year’s clutter through a process called “osoji”. Giant feasts are had with friends and family and at 11 p.m., everyone gathers around to have one last meal of toshikoshi-soba, a noodle dish. This Japanese tradition stems from the belief that eating long noodles helps one to live a long life. People eat so much on the final day of the year because it is considered very unlucky to cook in one’s kitchen for the first three days of the new year.

Omisoka is also considered a spiritual holiday for many people in Japan. At midnight, people visit Shinto shrines to hear the ringing of a large cast iron bell. The ringing of the bell, known as joya-no-kane, signifies human desires that cause suffering. While at the temple, a traditional sweet beverage called Amazake is passed out for people to drink.

St. Lucia’s Day

St. Lucia’s Day is one of the biggest Christmas time celebrations in Sweden. This celebration takes place every December 13th and is based on the stories of St. Lucia, as told by the Monks who first brought Christianity to Sweden. St. Lucia was a young Christian girl who was killed for her faith. She secretly brought food to the persecuted Christians of Rome, who lived in hiding in the catacombs beneath the city. St. Lucia wore candles on her head so she had both her hands free to carry things in the dark.

Today, St. Lucia's Day is celebrated by dressing up a girl in a white dress with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head. The crown is composed of evergreen Lingonberry branches, which symbolize new life. Most towns and villages in Sweden select a girl to play St. Lucia in a public procession where carols are sung about the saint with the candle crown.

El Día De Los Reyes

For many Christians, the holiday season isn’t officially over until the 12th day of Christmas.  El Día De Los Reyes or “Three Kings’ Day” commemorates the biblical love of baby Jesus by the three wise men. It is said that the three wise men, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar found baby Jesus by following a star across the desert for twelve days to Bethlehem. Upon their arrival, the three wise men presented the divine child with three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh.   

El Día De Los Reyes carries on the Christmas spirit of gift giving. Children in Latin America and Spain receive a majority of their holiday presents from the three wise men, rather than from Santa Claus. In Mexico, people serve Rosca de Reyes, or King’s Cake. This dessert has an oval shape to signify a crown and a small doll that represents baby Jesus is hidden inside. Whoever gets the slice with the doll must host a party on Día de la Candelaria in February.