Understanding the origin of holidays around the world can heighten our appreciation and curiosity for other cultures and the traditions they hold. Intertwined in our identities, the traditions we enjoy over the holidays are reflections of who we are as people. Some holiday traditions are rooted in religion, some go back centuries as a culture’s way to stay tied to their ancestors, and yet others are recent adoptions reflective of the changing world around us; cultural collisions.
Traditions are both our collective memories and a culmination of experiences that act as a cultural expression to the world.
Food, Football & Festivities on UK’s Boxing Day
There’s some controversy as to the origins of this December 26th holiday celebrated across the pond.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, some historians pin the holidays beginnings to the Duke of Bohemia who gave food and wine to a peasant in need. This act is believed to have inspired the Church of England to turn this day into a day for giving to the poor as they distributed alms boxes to the poor. Another theory is that the day after Christmas was when the upper crust of society distributed “Christmas boxes” full of small gifts to their servants as a thank you for their hard work. Whatever the foundation, Boxing Day has evolved into a post-Christmas holiday full of festive gatherings with friends and family, usually centered around sports games or shopping sales.
Akin to the United States Black Friday tradition, many of those celebrating Boxing Day do so with their wallets, so if you’d like to join in on the Boxing Day festivities, head over to the UK for some premium holiday shopping.
This holiday is also celebrated with a variety of sports and sporting events. For example, fox hunts in the UK and Test cricket matches in other countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
In other countries like the Bahamas, Boxing Day holds a different meaning. For the Bohemians, Boxing Day dates to the Bahamas colonial days when slaves worked on plantations. This holiday commemorates the celebration season slaves were given, after Christmas. This culture celebrates with street parades and a festival called Junkanoo, a four-day carnival celebration that showcases Bahamian culture and traditions.
Australia’s Christmas in July ‘Yulefest’ Celebration
In the land down under, the Aussies celebrate the holiday season with beach parties, fireworks, and swimsuit-clad Santas on surfboards. Australians still enjoy common Christmas traditions shared with the U.S. like Christmas trees, string lights, and gift giving, things are just done a bit differently given the seasonal differences between the two hemispheres. There is, however, one holiday tradition that’s been popular in Australia since the early 1980s and that’s Christmas in July.
Australians celebrate Christmas two times a year; once in December, and again in July with “Christmas in July,” or “Yulefest.” Yulefest isn’t technically an official holiday, but many Australians relish this annual winter tradition to enjoy the classic cool weather Christmas traditions that aren’t celebrated in the warmer month of December. As more of a winter solstice celebration, Yulefest is held on the Saturday closest to winter solstice, the longest night of the year. And while Christmas in July hasn’t been around but for a few decades, the tradition of solstice celebrations is an ancient and sacred practice held in many cultures from the Egyptians to the ancient Romans. Australians seeking out the warmth and cozy Christmas traditions of a more classic Christmas can get their festive fix in the Blue Mountains of Australia where you can catch a seasonal dusting of snow.
The holidays are already so jam packed with celebration, why not pull out some of that holiday cheer mid-year? To try this tradition at home, hold a gingerbread house decorating competition (summer edition), bake up some beach-bound gingerbread men, or host an ugly Christmas swimsuit pool party complete with warm weather versions of your favorite holiday cocktails.
Mexico’s La Noche de Rabanos
For over a century, the town of Oaxaca, Mexico has found a way to celebrate Christmas with a crop integral to their local agriculture: the radish. On La Noche de Rabanos, Oaxaca locals spend hours carving radishes into intricate, creative renditions of biblical scenes, people, animals and nativity scenes to put on display for one night only, December 23rd, or the “Night of the Radishes.” Like many other holiday traditions around the world, this tradition is a celebration of culture and for this area of Mexico, the radish is woven into their history.
Spanish travelers brought this hardy root vegetable to Mexico in the 16th century, and it’s been an important part of the local agriculture since. In 1897 the mayor of Oaxaca began radish carving in the Christmas Market to support and celebrate local agriculture, and it’s now an event that draws visitors from all over the world. The radishes only last for one night, so winners are announced at the end of the evening.
The radish isn’t technically a vegetable associated with the holidays here in the U.S. but it is a highly versatile little root vegetable with a unique and unexpected taste and texture. Radishes come in hundreds of varieties from watermelon radish to Daikon white. And each varietal has a slightly different taste; some sweet and tangy, some spicy and more mustard-like in taste. Incorporate radishes into your holiday spread to create a sense of brightness and crunch to tossed salads or to add a pop of color to a charcuterie board.
The German Weihnachtsmärkte
There are few holiday traditions more picturesque than the German Christmas market, or Weihnachtsmärkte. Each town throughout Germany has their own “version” of this historically rich holiday tradition but a few things you’ll always find are traditional German food, drinks, artistry, it’s core to German culture.
Christmas markets are always held at night, and always outside, as a nod to the traditional winter markets from the medieval period of Europe from which these markets originate. It’s part of the experience and atmosphere to wander the market under the glow of string lights, sipping hot mulled wine (or Glühwein), passing by the gleams of artisan booths and street vendors selling gingerbread hearts, hot chestnuts, and of course wurst (German sausage) sold in all shapes, sizes, and variations. Even better? Most German cities date back to the medieval times so the architecture and natural ambiance of these city centers are enough to make you feel like you’ve stepped right into another era. It’s a tradition the Germans hold sacred and is very much a celebration of culture, on display to celebrate for the Christmas holiday.
If you get the chance to visit Germany during the holiday season, you’ll have your pick of German Christmas markets. The Nuremberg Christmas Market, or Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt, is one of the most well-known and oldest markets dating back to 1628. The Dresden Christmas market Striezelmarkt is another popular market considered the first and oldest Christmas market founded in 1434. Held in Altmarkt Square, you’ll find the world’s largest Erzgebirge step pyramid here along with wood crafts, and of course seasonal delicacies like Christstollen.
Italy’s Visit from La Befana
So ingrained in this country’s holiday celebration, the traditional visit from La Befana, or good witch, has become more than just a tradition but part of Italian folklore. Every year on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, Italian children set out stockings or leave out shoes in preparation for a visit from La Befana who leaves candies and chocolates for good children. And just as in the U.S., this benevolent witch doesn’t shy away from the values of morality, leaving naughty children a cold lump of coal. Sound familiar?
The story of La Befana starts with the three wisemen. As the story goes, after La Befana declines an invitation by the wisemen, the men arrive first to see Jesus. As a result, she now hops on her broomstick every January 5th and sets out to reward the good boys and girls of Italy with gifts of sweet treats to commemorate the gifts given by the wisemen. Her visit marks the official end of the holiday season with the Feast of the Epiphany, a national holiday in Italy that’s celebrated with local pastries and specialty sweets.
While you might not be able to enjoy a visit from La Befana here in the U.S., you can try some of the seasonal fare eaten at a traditional Feast of the Epiphany, like Panettone. This Italian Christmas bread has a rich buttery texture that’s filled with bright citrus, tender raisins, and crunchy almonds.
Native American’s Soyal Winter Solstice Ceremony
On December 21st, the shortest day of the year, the Native American tribes of the Southwest Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi tribes hold the Soyal Winter Solstice Ceremony intended to bring the sun back from its long winter slumber. It also marks the beginning of another cycle of the Wheel of the Year.
This celebration, which is also called the Great Feast of the Winter Solstice, is a 16-day long ceremony involving visits from the spirits known as Kachinas that sing, dance, and bring gifts. There are over 100 of these spirits and they act as sort of spirit messengers.
The ceremony begins with prayers and intentions set for the coming year. The Hopi also make prayer sticks made of feathers and pinyon needles that are used to bring blessings to the community.
While the actual ceremony is performed in underground chambers called Kivas, there is a public Kachina dance and feast at the culmination of the celebration.