Beginning at 11:59:00 p.m. EST, as the clock ticks toward midnight on New Year’s Eve, The Times Square Ball, a prominent feature of celebrations in New York City’s Times Square, descends on a specially designed flagpole. It rests exactly at the stroke of 12 midnight, to signal the start of the new year, and playing in the background is ‘Auld Lang Syne”. A song that represents an emotional close to another year and is the most notable song played internationally. Martin Kahn Reports
Written by Robert Burns in 1700s, this tune has spread across the world. As a soccer anthem in the Netherlands, to a song about fireflies in Japan and from a military band tune in India to the national anthem in South Korea (till 1948), this song signifies different things to different people across the globe. Translated as, “For old time’s sake.” this song is about collecting folk songs, preserving, and celebrating heritage, that is what Rabbie Burns wanted to do, and asks you to remember people from your past and raise a toast to them.
In recent years, shopping, festivities, and entertainment, including performances by musicians, have become a mainstay of December holidays. But true to this song and its tradition, “For old time’s sake.”, let us look at some winter holiday celebrations, both old and new and what they mean to people across the world.
America and Europe
Massachusetts celebrates New Year by what it calls the first night. The very first, first-night started in Boston, in 1975. It is a daylong celebration that ends into the night on New Year’s Eve. Many local performers, artists and comedians put on shows at various venues in town and you can walk from venue to venue wearing the first night button that allows you to get in. Here, contrary to the New York tradition, the ball goes up instead of dropping, and this differs from the traditional American New Year’s Eve celebration, but ends with our song, ‘Auld Lang Syne”. Other local New Year’s Eve events across the US often drop objects that represent local culture or history. In the southern part of the United States, eating black-eyed peas brings luck, greens bring money, and hog jowl symbolises positive motion. They have day–long public festivities and are like Hogmanay festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where people share drinks and celebrate on streets throughout the night.
Kwanzaa, another winter festival, is a week-long celebration held in the US and other nations of the African Diaspora in the Americas that honours African American heritage and culture. Established in 1965, it is a fairly new holiday where family and friends gather to exchange gifts and to light a series of black, red, and green candles, one for each day for seven days from December 26 through to January 1st. Every candle representing an important value of an African American family life, unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. It culminates in charity and a feast.
In Spain, on New Year’s Eve, eating 12 grapes before the big clock in the centre of Spain’s capital strikes 12 is an important event. It is for good luck; they say. Thousands gather on December 31st at noon in Madrid in Plaza del Sol to even practice together.
Dongzhi, a winter solstice festival, celebrated in Taiwan on December 21st or 22nd, means ‘the arrival of winter’ or ‘winter’s extreme’”. Sweet sesame or red bean paste filled round glutinous rice balls, called Tangyuan, is prepared and served in a ginger broth on this occasion. Each family gets several similar small ones and a large one to symbolise reunion and family togetherness, especially in south China.
In northern China, though, in remembrance to serving food to poor farmers suffering from frostbite, people eat lamb dumplings for the Dongzhi Festival. A fitting tribute to Han Dynasty physician, Zhang Zhongjing, who showed this act of kindness during one particularly cold winter.
Chinese New Year recognises the beginning of the Chinese calendar and falls inthe latter part of January to the early part of February. Celebrated with parades, ceremonies and feasting with family and friends, this is an important festival in China. Another key feature of the Chinese New Year is the lantern festival, where children go out at night carrying lanterns and solve fun riddles written on them.
Further east in Japan, December 31st is the Omisoka (new year). A day earlier than the rest of the world. On Omisoka people clean their homes from top to bottom and remove clutter, hoping to start afresh and encourage new beginnings and possibilities. Traditional Japanese foods and parties form an important part of winter celebrations, and spending time with family is a cornerstone of these holidays.
Jewish people in Israel celebrate another wonderful winter holiday festival called Hanukkah. This is to commemorate the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem during the second century BC, a result of the Maccabean revolt against Greek and Syrian oppressors. When the Jews returned to the temple, they wanted to light the menorah (candle Umbra with nine branches) and had enough oil to light it for one day only. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and that is why Jews celebrate Hannukah for eight days in December, one candle for each day. Jewish foods like latkes (potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream) and sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts) are popular sweets cooked in oil to remember the miracle of the oil. Children play dreidel, a four-sided spin dice to compete for a pot in the middle made up of chocolate gelt pennies and raisins. The dates change because this holiday follows the moon cycle, but Hanukkah always happens in winter and families usually make their own menorahs. People light hanukkiah (small menorah like candle stands) all over the place where others can see the lights. Some families, as a tradition give presents or money to the kids of the family, often called Hanukkah gelt.
Another festival principally followed in the Middle East is Ramadan. An important Islamic festival that can fall during wintertime in December and summer alike. This month-long observance of strict fast during daytime and only eating and drinking before dawn and after sunset is a time of increased prayer and spiritual reading. It celebrates the receiving of the first revelation in the Quran and encourages empathy towards the poor with actions of generosity and Zakat (compulsory charity).
Junkanoo or John Canoe is a street parade festival of Caribbean origin. Parades in Miami are in June and in October in Key West, mostly in parts where black populations with cultural roots in the Bahamas are present. These cultural parades mostly showed in the Bahamas are with mainstreamed music and dance and costumes of Akan origin from islands across the English-speaking Caribbean. They present this type of dancing on Boxing Day (26 December), New Year’s Day, other historical days, and Independence Day in the Bahamas, and is the cultural dance for Garifuna and Afro-North Carolinians. Choreography includes cowbell and beat of goatskin drums.
Christmas Celebrations —
Celebrated on December 25th each year, one of the most popular holidays around the world is Christmas. It remembers the birth of Jesus Christ over 2000 years ago, and you do not have to be religious to enjoy this holiday. Three Kings Day or Epiphany is another related festival observed by Christians all over the world at the end of the twelve days after Christmas, usually on January 6. This day remembers the day when three wise men first saw baby Jesus and brought Him gifts.
US and UK
Christmas in the US and UK brings together many customs from other countries and cultures around the world. Family members come together to decorate the Christmas tree and their home with bright lights, candles, wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and ornaments. People often attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and Santa supposedly comes from the North Pole in a sleigh to deliver gifts. In Hawaii, he arrives by boat, in Australia on water skis and in Ghana he comes out of the jungle. The highlight of this day is opening gifts with family and friends, kept under the Christmas tree by Santa Claus. Loved ones come together for a time of prayer and family meal in many homes. In Puerto Rico, before children go to sleep on January 5th, they leave a box with hay under their beds so the kings will leave wonderful presents.
In Germany, preparations for Christmas start at least four weeks in advance called as the Advent. Some people follow a liturgical advent calendar with prayer in anticipation of Christmas, especially believers. Nowadays there are fun advent calendars aimed at children and grownup alike. You light a candle on each of the four Sundays on the Advent wreath before Christmas and get to light one more candle on the day of the festival. Eat a piece of chocolate off the chocolate advent calendar or burn incense in little figurines made from wood on each day leading up to Christmas.
Christmas Eve in Spain is about getting together with family and friends with a lot of food, drink, laughter, and children get their presents on this day. Everything gets dressed up with lights and decorations, nativity scenes, Christmas trees, and there is something fun to do for everyone. Shopping centres in Madrid put up lavish displays for all. There are houses with natural caves that owners turn into Santa’s grotto, where children can meet Santa, buy sweets, or mail letters asking for gifts. You can sometimes hear Christmas carols in shops, and everyone gets hot chocolate to warm up before heading home.
The difference about the holidays in Spain is that Christmas does not end until the 6th of January and the city celebrates the coming of three wise men that came to see baby Jesus on this day. Every town, every city, and every village have their own parade celebrating with music, costumes, and candy. There is a lot of candy that gets thrown around in the air during parades for everyone. The idea is to collect as much candy as possible before the festivities end.
In France, you get delicious Kings Cake baked with a hidden coin, jewel, or a little toy inside. Family members have to put their shoe underneath the tree so that Santa knows where to put their present. Here candies and toys are the traditional stocking stuffers that get put into shoes instead of stockings.
Differently, Saint Lucia’s day followed in Scandinavian countries honours Saint Lucia each year on December 13th. Originating in Sweden in the 6th century, this tradition spread to Denmark, Finland, and marks the beginning of the holiday season. On Christmas Eve families place a single lit candle in the snow next to the graves of their loved ones as a symbol of resurrection and a reminder that ancestors will live again.
Further up north, Icelandic children get to enjoy the favour of not one, but 13 mischievous Father Christmases called the Yule Lads, who take turns to visit kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. In Italy though, as per folklore, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on
Epiphany Eve, the night of January 5th, like Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus.
Likewise, Christkind or Christkindl is a traditional gift–giver at Christmastime in several European countries including Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the eastern part of Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, Hungary, and France. The word Christkind translates to Christ child but depicted as an Angelic figure with blonde hair and wings.
Lithuania, a fairly modern country that is part of the Baltics, also has similar traditions. Decorating the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and un–decorating it on January 6 on Three Kings day is one such tradition. Santa Claus is Kalėdų senelis here, and there must be 12 dishes on the Christmas Eve dinner table. The meal, known as Kūčios, has fish, kūčiukai or šližikai (bite-sized hard biscuits), strawberry sized buns with poppy seeds, sauerkraut, and other things but no meat. There are other interesting traditions in Lithuania, like putting a bunch of hay under the tablecloth and then drawing a straw after the meal. The longer the straw, the longer you will live, and your linen (Lithuanian linen is popular) will grow best. Then there are waffles with baby Jesus’s image on them, that you share with everyone around the table. Traditional cookies include vanilla cookies with lots of almonds, cinnamon stars, and finally the Kraków similar to Gingerbread.
As the birthplace of both Jesus and Saint Nicholas, the Middle East is home to some spectacular holiday celebrations. From festive lighting on the streets of Cairo to a giant Christmas tree in the main square of Beirut. Christmas here is one of the most celebrated events of the year. Not to mention tourist focussed holiday destinations like Dubai or Abu Dhabi that offer popular mainstream experience.
Well, it is not possible to cover everything that happens during winter or December in this article. Yet will be reasonable to say that these beautiful celebrations, rich in traditions, are important to the people and families that follow them.
Traditions help strengthen relationships and preserve values and heritage. They nurture a sense of belongingness, togetherness, and simply help people to connect.
So, what better way to celebrate holidays than spending time with our loved ones, calling them up if away, remembering old friends and raising a toast to them.
As if the Scottish bard is saying, “For old time’s sake.”.
May you and yours have happy holidays and a joyous new year!