6 Winter Holiday Traditions from Around the World
Take a cue from other cultures this holiday season to help your family learn and grow.
Help your kids get a sense of life in other countries by introducing them to a variety of holiday rituals celebrated around the globe during this time of year.
Here are a few examples to get your crew exploring different cultures—maybe you'll even create a new family tradition!
Ethiopia: Here, many families celebrate Christmas on January 7—though most people actually refer to the holiday as either Genna or Ganna, after a hockey-like game that is traditionally played on that afternoon.
The Netherlands: Children set out pairs of shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 6. In the middle of the night, St. Nick pays a visit, filling the shoes with small treats such as chocolates, candies, and toys.
Italy: Kids write letters to their parents promising good behavior (and apologizing for recent misdeeds), as well as telling them how much they love them. The letters are then placed under Dad's plate on Christmas Eve; he reads them all aloud once the meal is through.
Mexico: December 28, Day of the Holy Innocents, is celebrated much in the same way as April Fool's Day. Children—and adults—play innocent pranks. If successful, the trickster gives his victim a candy treat.
Sweden: St. Lucia Day, December 13, is the beginning of the holiday season; one girl in each home dresses as Lucia, patron saint of light, in a white gown and a crown of leaves—and then wakes everyone by bringing a tray of breakfast treats.
Korea: Families celebrate January 1 by making Duk Gook—also spelled Ddeokguk—or rice-cake soup. According to tradition, enjoying a bowlful on New Year's Day allows everyone to advance a year in age.
Use these talking points—provided by the experts at patheos.com, a site dedicated to world religions—to help your kids understand the meaning behind certain traditions.
Why do people light candles each night of Hanukkah?
"We light them to remind ourselves of an ancient miracle that occurred after invaders of Israel tried to force the Jewish people to practice a different religion. When they refused, the invaders ransacked their temple, destroying almost everything. The Jews pushed them out, then hurried to restore the holy site. The first time they lit the oil lamp, there was only enough oil for one day. Yet to their surprise, it burned for eight days and nights."
—Rabbi Keith Stern, leader of Temple Beth Avodah, in Newton, Massachusetts
Why does Kwanzaa last for seven days?
"Inspired by many African nations that hold weeklong harvest celebrations, Kwanzaa was created in the U.S. as an African-American holiday. It draws on these traditions in order to connect African Americans to their African heritage. Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a different principle (including unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith) to help us honor our family, community, and culture."
—Anthea Butler, Ph.D., associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia
Why do people exchange Christmas gifts?
"Each year, Christians honor the birth of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago. Shortly after Jesus was born, Magi, often called the wise men, came from the East to Bethlehem and offered the infant gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As part of the Christmas celebration, we give gifts too—to our friends, family, and the poor and hungry—as a way of remembering the gifts given to Jesus."
—Rev. Emile R. "Mike" Boutin Jr., co-pastor of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Walpole, Massachusetts
Start Your Own Family Traditions
1. Capture memories
You'll probably make videos of the gift-giving frenzy anyway, so why not use your phone or camera to record interviews with your kids too? It's a great way to document their changes from year to year. Try these questions for your annual "exclusive."
- What's your favorite thing we did together as a family this year?
- Who are your best friends? What do you like about them?
- How is school this year? Which subject do you enjoy most and why?
- What do you daydream about?
- What's the nicest thing a friend or someone in the family has done for you this year?
2. Lend a hand all year 'round
Volunteering during the holidays gets kids in the habit of helping those in need, but so many families do it that most charities see a huge surge in donations and participation each December—it's every other time of the year that they need attention. Get your family to keep up the bighearted action in the off-season by...
- volunteering one afternoon a month at a food bank. For locations, visit feedingamerica.org.
- sponsoring an underprivileged child abroad. Check out savethechildren.org to make an ongoing impact on someone's future.
- asking a local nursing home's volunteer coordinator about activities your family can help out with regularly, like craft sessions or reading hour.
Pause and Reflect
3. Pause and reflect
Give your family a chance to think during the holiday rush: During December, share a half-minute of silence each night at dinner. Tell the kids to focus on whatever they like—something good that happened that they're grateful for, positive thoughts for a sick friend, a wish for the coming year. These moments together each day will help you feel more calm, connected, and appreciative of what you have the rest of the year too.
4. Steal these reader rituals
A unique tradition teaches kids that they're part of something special—your family—and binds this holiday to future ones.
"One year, the day before Christmas, I was about to snap. So I threw food in a pack and told my family we were having a picnic. Though confused, they went along with it. We live in a mountain valley, so getting to a secluded spot was easy. The downside: It was so cold that the food froze! Our 'Doomsday Picnic' has become a tradition (we go better prepared now!). It's a time to relax—we love it." —Lynnette F. Harris; Millville, Utah
"Every year during the holidays our entire family sits down to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. It makes us realize that we are not as dysfunctional as we might think!" —Betsy Gravalec; Marietta, Georgia
"To help our kids really understand the holiday, on Christmas morning we throw a birthday party—complete with cake—to celebrate Jesus's birth. Sometimes the kids seem as excited about the balloons as they are about the gifts!" —Kelly Wilson Mason; Ohio
"Rather than giving gifts to all 17 family members, we each draw a name and then give the money we would have spent on Hanukkah gifts for everyone else as a donation to charity. Before opening presents, we all share what we did with the money to benefit someone less privileged than we are." —Carol Hochman Dierksen; Orlando, Florida
"Every year, when the first snow falls I make 'First Day of Snow' fudge, just like my mom did. You could make it any time, but it just wouldn't taste the same." —Kris Wittenberg; Eagle, Colorado