Winter holidays around the world


Daniel Bethke

In Russia, New Year’s is an occasion where wishes might be granted, as per the tradition of watching the New Year Address by the President of Russia.

Daniel Bethke, Perspectives Editor

The commonplace winter traditions and festivities practiced in the U.S. are by no means universal. 

Indeed, many countries around the world have their own versions of such practices (or, rather, the U.S. has its own versions of other practices) or celebrate entirely different but nonetheless interesting and important-to-know winter traditions. Here are a few unique winter holidays or holiday variations from around the world.

Russian New Year

While Christmas is celebrated in Russia (on Jan. 7), the New Year is decisively the more important holiday. More accurately, however, it is New Years, as in Russia two such holidays are celebrated: one on Jan. 1 in accordance with the Gregorian calendar and one, less grandly celebrated but still important, on Jan. 14 in accordance with the Julian calendar. New Year’s bears so much cultural significance in Russia because of the belief that how one spends and leaves the old year reflects how the upcoming year will go for them. It is also an occasion where wishes might be granted, as per the tradition of watching the New Year Address by the President of Russia. The Address is concluded by the Kremlin clock striking 12 times, during which Russians can pour a glass of champagne, write a short wish for the new year on a small paper, burn it, drop it in the glass and drink it… all during only the 12 strikes of the clock. Then the national anthem plays. But food is even more important than this tradition of drink; Russian New Year’s places more emphasis on such than the U.S. does for Thanksgiving! Common foods for New Year’s dinners (which are typically very late) include herring, salads, bread with caviar and pickles. Russian children get presents around but not necessarily on New Year’s, which are personally delivered by Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost). Parents, their friends or hired individuals can dress up as Ded Moroz and visit the children, only giving them presents if they can recite a prepared poem for him.

Vietnamese New Year (Tet)

The Vietnamese holiday of Tet (the name of which you might recall from the 1968 Tet Offensive) is short for Tết Nguyên Đán. Following the Vietnamese calendar, the holiday celebrates the arrival of spring, which commences in 2021 on Feb. 12. Tet is a multi-day holiday during which many people prepare special holiday food such as sticky rice cake, bamboo soup, pickled shallots and bitter melon. The first day of Tet is more family-oriented, involving children visiting elders and getting a red envelope with money in exchange. This stems from the belief that the first visitor to another house influences the whole year’s fortune, and the events of this day reflect how the upcoming year will go. Families often clean extensively before but not during this day, since activities like sweeping are seen as bad luck because they symbolically sweep away good fortune. The second day of Tet is usually reserved for friends, and the third is for teachers. Public performances are especially prominent, such as parades emphasizing lots of loud noises and instruments for the purpose of warding off evil spirits. Houses are decorated with peach or Yellow apricot blossoms, and each family displays a New Year Tree, a tall bamboo pole adorned with many decorations and good luck charms at the top. Vietnamese families also pay respect to their ancestors on an altar topped with fruit—it is very much a family-oriented celebration. Red and yellow, colors said to bring good luck, are abundant in this celebration that coincides with Lunar New Year.

Mayan Wayeb

Wayeb is derived from Mayan tradition; it is based upon the Mayan calendar, which consists of 18 identically sized months of 20 days each. The final period is a five day month called Wayeb, observed by the Maya in February in places such as Chiapas and Yucatán and much of Central America. This is largely a time for reflection upon the past year. At all scales and instances, the events of the prior year are assessed and recalled. Mayan peoples give thanks and ask deities such as Huracan (also referred to as Heart of Sky) for good fortune, relationships and health. Many families clean their homes and have large dinners sans meat and alcohol. Some also refrain from bathing. Traditionally, Wayeb was thought to be a dangerous period because the boundary between the mortal realm and the Underworld temporarily dissolved. The Maya who celebrate Wayeb developed many traditions to ward off these spirits, such as staying inside and combing their hair. Activities are seldom planned on Wayeb, since it is generally considered a period of ill luck.

While domestic holidays may seem paramount in the U.S., their international versions and counterparts are of equal and high importance in terms of learning about one’s place in the myriad cultures of the world.