In honor of the holiday season, let’s take a look at a handful of unique celebrations from around the world—some you might not know about.
This holiday season will be unlike any other. According to a survey from Morning Consult, 71% of Americans say their holiday traditions will change. Still, despite cutting back on travel and spending, most plan to celebrate in one way or another. Although they might look different this year, the holidays will remain a time for togetherness, gratitude, and reflection, even if they take place virtually.
We may not be able to travel across the globe this year, but we can certainly experience different cultures through photographs. Join us for a journey across the United States, Mexico, Iran, Israel, Ukraine, and beyond.
In 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga started this African American and Pan-African holiday to celebrate the values and culture of the African continent. It starts the day after Christmas and continues through January 1st, with the seven days relating to the seven principles, or Nguzo Saba: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
These principles are represented by seven candles in black, red, and green, with the colors symbolizing the people, the struggle, and the future, respectively. The holiday originated in the United States, yet is celebrated in many parts of the African Diaspora today. In 2009, the African American Cultural Center reported that thirty million people of African descent celebrated Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa celebrations can include dancing, singing, drumming, along with performances, a feast (Karamu), and more. The celebration at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is the largest Kwanzaa celebration in the country, drawing thousands of people annually. “What’s wonderful about Kwanzaa is that it gives everyone the opportunity to learn a little more about African American history, which is American history,” the educator Dr. Linda Humes told Inside Edition last year.
Dating back to ancient times, this Iranian festival celebrates the winter solstice—the longest night of the year—on December 20th or 21st. Today, families still come together to mark Shab-e Yalda through storytelling and poetry, staying up past midnight to witness the arrival of winter and the eventual triumph of the sun as the days grow longer.
Traditional foods on Yalda Night include sweets, nuts, dried fruit, and symbolic fresh fruits like pomegranate and watermelon, with the red hue representing the rising sun at dawn. Summer fruits like watermelon are believed to protect against illness during the upcoming winter, while pomegranate represents rebirth and the glow of life.
Many celebrate by reading from the Persian poet Hafez. You can ask a question or make a wish before turning to a passage from his work for guidance and wisdom. Celebrations often take place at the household of the eldest family member. It’s a time for togetherness, family, gratitude for the blessings of the previous year, and prayers for the next. It’s been part of Iran’s List of National Treasures since 2008.
Sometimes spelled Tu B’Shevat, this “New Year for Trees” is one of the four Jewish New Years, or Rosh Hashanahs. As the Torah forbids the eating of fruit from new trees for three years after planting, the holiday originated as a birthday for trees and a way of calculating their age. Over time, it’s evolved into an ecological holiday and a reminder of the importance of preserving the natural world.
In Israel, many celebrate by planting trees, either on their own property or as part of a volunteer group. If you can’t plant your own trees, you can still mark the occasion by tree-sitting or spending time in nature, or by taking smaller steps through composting, cutting out meat products for the day, and other sustainable practices.
Tu BiShvat can also be celebrated by eating fruits associated with Israel, including the seven species mentioned in the Torah (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates), along with the reciting of blessings. Ideally, the fruits should be locally and sustainably grown.
Some host a seder meal or picnic among the trees, and many celebrate by trying a new fruit. The holiday falls on the 15th of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar or late January to early February.
Night of the Radishes
Also known as Noche de Rábanos, this annual event takes place on December 23rd in Oaxaca, Mexico. It dates back more than a hundred years to the city’s Christmas markets, where merchants and farmers carved radishes to attract and delight shoppers, with many bringing them home as Christmas centerpieces.
Night of the Radishes was made official in 1897, and is still celebrated today with a much-anticipated radish-carving competition. Common themes include nativity scenes, the Virgin of Guadalupe, mythical imagery, and local wildlife. Participants can compete in a traditional category or a free category, depending on their chosen subject, with a talented winner receiving a prize of 30,000 pesos.
Today, the radishes are grown specifically for the occasion and not suitable for human consumption. More than one hundred artisans and amateurs of all ages participate in the contest, with thousands of visitors lining up to see the creations every year. Unfortunately, the radishes wilt quickly, making for a precious, but brief, window for viewing. Many families participate for decades, passing the tradition on from one generation to the next.
This Ukrainian holiday takes place on January 13th, or New Year’s Eve on the Julian calendar, marking the dawn of a new year and the anticipation of spring. It derives its name from ancient folklore and the story of Malanka, the daughter of Mother Earth, who, according to legend, was kidnapped by the Devil. As the story goes, the Earth became barren during her absence and only became fruitful once she returned.
According to locals who spoke to the writer Melody Rowell, who covered Malanka for National Geographic, people could go to prison for celebrating the holiday during Soviet times. However, many still did, making the occasion a symbol of Ukrainian identity and togetherness. For many, it marks the end of the Christmas holiday and a final opportunity for revelry before the start of Lent.
Traditions vary from city to city, but people often celebrate with masquerades and short plays, dressing up as bears, goats, characters from folk stories, and more. In the village of Krasnoilsk, revelers go house-to-house singing carols. The costumes are homemade and can be massive. Although many are fragile and don’t survive from year-to-year, parts and elements are often saved and reused.
Learn even more about people, cultures, and events from around the world:
Cover image via Shahar Azran/Shutterstock.