In December, celebrations are held throughout the world by people from different faiths, walks of life and nations.

But what are the stories behind some of the biggest winter holidays, and how are they celebrated in different cultures?


The word Christmas originates almost 1,000 years ago, first coined in old English times as “Cristes-Maesse,” or “Christ’s Mass.” The first recorded use of this phrase was in 1038 AD. The previous term “Yule” is of Germanic origin and refers to the Winter Solstice feast. 

The date, Dec. 25, is commonly denoted today as the celebration of Jesus Christ, the central figure of the Christian faith. Many early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, as it was seen as a pagan custom to celebrate birthdays. 

Third-century Christian Historian Sextus Julius Africanus is credited as one of the first to denote the birth of Jesus as occurring on Dec. 25. That day was already celebrated as “dies solis invicti nati,” or “day of the birth of the unconquered sun,” a popular holiday in the Roman Empire that celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun. 

The tenants of the modern Christmas observance, such as a Christmas tree adorned with decorations, wreaths, caroling, etc. are of fairly recent origin.

How Christmas is celebrated in other cultures

Sweden: Beginning in Sweden but spreading to other Scandinavian counties, the celebration of St. Lucia on Dec. 13 is seen as the beginning of the Christmas season, and is known as “little yule.” Light is a main theme of St. Lucia Day as her name, which is derived from the Latin word lux, means light. Her feast day is celebrated near the shortest day of the year when the sun’s light again begins to strengthen. Lucia lived in Syracuse during the fourth century when persecution of Christians was common..

Norway: Norway is the birthplace of the Yule log. The ancient Norse used the Yule log in their celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice.

Mexico: The poinsettia flower, a staple of the Christmas season, is named for Joel Poinsett, who was the American Minister to Mexico in 1828. Poinsett brought the bright red and green plant back to America from Mexico. Pinatas filled with candy and treats are staples of many Mexican Christmas celebrations.

Australia: With the nation’s position far south down the globe, Australia regularly sees temperatures rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the Christmas season, leading to many outdoor events. Houses are often decorated with bright summer plants such as the Christmas Bush and Christmas Bellflower. Backyard barbecues on Dec. 25 are also common.

Ukraine: In Ukraine, both Dec. 25 and Jan. 7, which is the date of Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Julian Calendar are celebrated as national holidays. A huge 12-course meal is planned for Christmas Day, and it cannot be eaten until the first evening star is seen in the sky.


The holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated in the Jewish religion and commemorates the Maccabean revolt, where Jewish rebels fought against Greek and Syrian forces and were able to reclaim the second temple in Jerusalem, with all of this happening in second-century BC. 

Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, like the Christian Easter holiday, starts at different days each year, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew Calendar, which falls sometime in November or December. This year, Hanukkah begins on Dec. 22 and runs through Dec. 30. 

While not mentioned in the Jewish Torah, as the events occurred after it was written, the holiday is mentioned in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, which sees Jesus attend what is referred to as a “Feast of Dedication.” 

Hanukkah is traditionally represented by a menorah, a seven-branch candelabrum.

How Hanukkah is celebrated in different cultures

Algeria: It is a tradition for many Algerian Jews to hang a menorah on their door, as well as a mezuzah, which is a small scroll usually stuck inside the front door, meant to bestow protection and blessings.

Canada: The first Hanukkah celebration in Canada is believed to be in 1760, which is when Jewish people were first allowed to immigrate to what was a British colony. More secular traditions of gift-giving can be observed in Canada, much like the United States.

England: Home to estimated 250,000-plus Jewish residents, England has a unique tradition of lighting a giant menorah in London’s Trafalgar Square for the holiday each year.

Hungary: Established in 2009, the Quarter6Quarter7 Festival is a large celebration of Hanukkah each year in Budapest’s former Jewish Quarter. The festival routinely features flash mobs, candle lighting, live music, theater performances, film screenings, culinary events and guided walking tours.

Israel: In a nation where those practicing the Jewish faith make up more than 74 percent of the population, it’s no secret that Hanukkah is one of the most important times of the year for its people. It is a national holiday in Israel, with schools closed and with menorahs displayed prominently in almost every building.


Kwanzaa is an extremely new holiday with regards to the previous two, dating back just over 50 years. The holiday was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of black studies at California State University, Long Beach. 

The holiday is a combination of multiple different traditional African harvest celebrations, and the name comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which is Swahili for “first fruits.” 

Kwanzaa lasts for seven nights beginning on Dec. 26 and ending Jan. 1 each year. It is based on seven principles, being: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, Faith.

Each day is to reflect on one of the principles each, and a special candelabra called a kinara is used to represent all seven principles. A feast is held on Dec. 31.

It was conceived as a nonpolitical and nonreligious holiday.

How is Kwanzaa celebrated around the world

Kwanzaa is most often perceived as an American holiday, but it has been celebrated in other areas such as the Caribbean and in Africa as well. Seen as a Pan-African holiday, it sees many similarities in how it is celebrated worldwide as it has not been around very long for the holiday to evolve heavily within certain cultures. 

The numbers are not precise, but it is estimated that anywhere between two million and 12 million Americans celebrate Kwanzaa each year.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, History Channel,,

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