The end of the year is filled with many December traditions and celebrations. From Christmas and Hanukkah to unique regional festivities, let’s embark on a global journey to explore how different countries mark this special time of year.
1. December traditions in Germany: Christmas markets and Advent
Germany is renowned for its Christmas markets, known as Christkindlmarkts. These festive markets are filled with stalls selling handmade crafts, warm Glühwein (mulled wine), and traditional treats – Stollen (a sweet, fruit-filled bread), Marzipan (almond paste shaped into various figures), Bratwursts (sausages) especially Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) and Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies).
The Advent season is significant, with Advent calendars and wreaths counting down the days to Christmas. Some of the most famous Christmas markets in Germany include the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which dates back to the 16th century and is known for its gingerbread cookies; the Cologne Christmas Market, and the Munich Christmas Market. These markets are a must-visit for anyone seeking a truly magical December traditions experience in Germany.
2. December traditions in Israel: Hanukkah lights and latkes
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is celebrated with great enthusiasm in Israel. Families often gather to sing traditional songs, exchange gifts, and tell the story of the Maccabees’ victory and the miracle of the oil. The eight-day holiday is marked by playing with dreidels (a four-sided spinning toy), enjoying foods fried in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts) and lighting the menorah (a multi-branched candelabrum).
The menorah used during Hanukkah has nine branches, with one candle being lit each night. The lighting is done from left to right, adding a new candle each evening, but the shamash (helper candle) is lit first and used to light the others. This is one of the many beautiful December traditions celebrated around the world.
3. December traditions in Japan: Christmas KFC and illuminations
Japan has its own unique twist on Christmas. While not a national holiday, it’s celebrated with festive illuminations (known as “illuminēshon” in Japanese) and a peculiar tradition of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Ordering KFC as a Christmas meal has become so popular that it often requires reservations weeks in advance!
This quirky custom began as a marketing campaign by KFC in the 1970s which featured the catchy slogan “Kentucky for Christmas!” and introduced the idea of enjoying KFC as a festive holiday meal. The promotion was so successful that it quickly became a nationwide tradition.
4. December traditions in Iceland: Yule Lads and book giving
In Iceland, the 13 Yule Lads, mischievous characters from folklore, visit children in the 13 days leading to Christmas. Children leave their shoes by the window, receiving gifts or potatoes based on their behavior. The holiday season is also marked by a tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve, known as “Jólabókaflóð.”
Publishers release a significant portion of their annual titles in the months leading up to Christmas to coincide with this tradition. The Jólabókaflóð tradition has contributed to Iceland having one of the highest rates of book publishing and readership per capita in the world.
5. December traditions in Sweden: Saint Lucia’s Day
In Sweden, one of the highlights of the season is Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13th. The holiday is a blend of Christian and pre-Christian December traditions, with its origins dating back centuries. Young girls dress as Lucia, wearing white gowns and wreaths with candles on their heads, and sing traditional songs to bring light in the dark winter months.
Saint Lucia’s Day is also a time for indulging in traditional Swedish treats. Families often gather to enjoy saffron buns known as lussekatter and ginger cookies.
6. December traditions in Mexico: Las Posadas
Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration leading up to Christmas, reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter. The term “Las Posadas” translates to “the inns” or “the lodgings” in Spanish, and the tradition embodies the struggles faced by Mary and Joseph as they sought a place to stay on the eve of Jesus’ birth. Las Posadas typically begins on December 16th and continues for nine consecutive nights, culminating on Christmas Eve.
Participants move from house to house singing carols (known as villancicos) and asking for lodging, and the homeowners respond with verses denying them shelter, echoing the rejection Mary and Joseph experienced. This dialogue continues until the pilgrims finally receive a positive response, typically at the last house on the journey. The ceremony concludes with a “posada party,” with piñatas and traditional treats like tamales, buñuelos, and hot chocolate.
7. December traditions in South Korea: Seollal and Christmas
In South Korea, while Christmas is celebrated (particularly in urban areas), the more significant winter celebration is Seollal, the Korean Lunar New Year, which often falls in late January or early February. Seollal is a time for family reunions, where people travel to their hometowns, wear traditional clothing (hanbok), and enjoy a special meal with dishes like tteokguk (rice cake soup). It’s a blend of cultural tradition and festivity, reflecting the importance of family and heritage in Korean culture. Christmas is marked with decorations and gift-giving, similar to Western traditions, but on a smaller scale.
8. December traditions in Iran: Yalda Night
Yalda Night, or Shab-e Yalda falls on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, typically on December 20th or 21st. Yalda Night is a cultural festival that has roots in ancient Persian traditions. It’s a time when families and friends gather to eat, drink, and read poetry, particularly the works of the famous Persian poet Hafez, through the night. The celebration symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and the arrival of winter. Special foods like pomegranates, watermelons, and nuts are enjoyed, representing the colors of dawn and life.
December’s holiday traditions are as diverse as they are delightful, reflecting the rich mosaic of cultures worldwide. From the snowy markets of Germany to the to the luminous celebrations in Japan, these customs invite us to embark on a journey around the globe, exploring the unique ways in which different countries embrace this special time of year. Happy holidays, wherever you are!
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