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December Traditions and Celebrations Around the World

Every family and culture have their own unique set of holiday traditions. During the holiday season, it’s endlessly fun and fascinating to see them displayed and celebrated in their own distinct way. In honor of the season of light and love, here’s a little round up of some of the holiday traditions and customs celebrated around the world.

  • Feast of the Seven Fishes. My sister married an Italian boy, and ever since, The Feast of the Seven Fishes has been a staple Christmas Eve tradition in our family. Because we live near Seattle, we start the day with a trip to Pike Place Market, loading up on fresh seafood, then make a giant-seafood inspired dinner (this year is caviar, crab, and Cioppino)!  The Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition hails from Italy, where a seafood-based meal was custom as a form of fasting by Roman Catholics before holy days. Why seven fishes? It’s not entirely clear, but possibly due to seven being a very holy number in Catholicism (think the week-long creation story, sacraments, and yes, even sins).
  • St. Lucia. While we now celebrate Christmas Eve Italian-style, my heritage is largely Swedish. Growing up, this meant Christmas Eve was the big day of celebration (rather than Christmas Day), and traditionally lutefisk was on the menu—something that quickly lost steam. One Scandinavian tradition that has not lost steam is St. Lucia’s (or Lucy) Day. Honoring the Swedish Christian martyr St. Lucia, a Lucia (which means light) is chosen from a household, church or other social group to dress up in white and don a crown of candles. These little Lucia’s are often accompanied by a parade of boys and girls, also dressed in white, singing carols and handing out treats.
  • Boxing Day. I would like to say I learned about Boxing Day while studying the history of the middle ages in college, but that was not the case. I discovered Boxing Day in college while hitting up my favorite British Pub on December 26th, where a Boxing Day celebration was well underway (more recently I was reacquainted via a Downton Abbey episode). Originating in the United Kingdom, Boxing Day was typically a day off for servants when they received a Christmas box from their employer. Boxing day traditions also include distributing boxes of gifts to the needy, often collected at churches.
  • Wassailing. A few years back I worked in the tasting room of a local cidery specializing in heritage ciders, which use traditional English and French cider apple varieties. The cider makers were always coming up with fun, seasonal blends, and when the holidays hit, there was a new cider named the Wassail. Since it was my job to talk to visitors about the ciders, I took it upon myself to learn up on this tradition that I had sung about many times as a child (and who am I kidding, an adult too). The word wassail denotes both to become a bit boisterous with drink, and to carol, either at homes or in orchards, the later involving singing to fruit trees in hopes of a good harvest. Rooted in Anglo-Saxon history, the merry carolers would offer up spirited-drinks from a bowl or goblet, referred to as a “wassail.”
  • Lighting of the Menorah. It’s that time of year when you begin to see beautiful menorahs lit up in home windows. A menorah is a special candleholder with eight candles, plus one attendant candle in the middle used to light the others, that sits higher up. A candle is lit each night during the eight holy days of the Jewish celebration of Hanukah. Every year the National Menorah, the world’s largest, is raised in Washington, D.C. across from The White House, drawing thousands of visitors to celebrate its lighting.
Photo by Sara Lukas
  • The Diwali Festival of Lights. There is something truly magical about how across cultures and religions, the celebration of light seems to always be integral. Diwali is a celebration that spans many cultures, including, but not limited to, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains, each having their own take on the festival. Where the cultures tend to overlap is that this five-day festival of light celebrates new beginnings, the victory of light over darkness, and good over evil. Diwali is celebrated in either October or November, with the exact date changing each year in accordance with the cycle of the new moon.
  • Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage and African American culture, spans the last week in December. In a nod to ancient African harvest festivals, Kwanzaa literally means “first fruits,” with fruit and vegetables often serving as décor, and lots of vibrant attire. This festival typically includes gifts, a feast, and similar to a menorah, a special candle holder called a kinara is lit each night for the seven-day span of the festival, honoring the seven principles of Kwanzaa; Unity, Self-Determination, Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.

At no other time is the unique tapestry of mankind more apparent than the holidays.

We are all so amazingly different, yet in researching the unique customs and traditions from around the world, there is a unifying theme of our search for light, love, and fellowship.

Happy Holidays to All!

Photo by Sara Lukas

Unless noted, all photos through Adobe Images