Around the world, the end of the year tends to be the time when the days are packed with festivals. Between roughly the end of November and the middle of January, it seems like almost any religion or culture you look at is celebrating something or the other. Here’s a look at some of the major celebrations in capital cities around the world.Sinterklaas in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The holiday season is a wonderful time of year in the Netherlands, but it’s probably safe to say that the most important and popular celebration, at least for children, is Sinterklaas. The feast is celebrated on December 5th, the day before Saint Nicholas Day. Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is said to be based on Saint Nicholas – the similarities between the names are obvious, and the characters are similar in many ways.
Sinterklaas is an elderly man with white hair and a long white beard, but his attire is more like a bishop’s robes, with a miter and a golden staff. Much of the folklore and tradition around Sinterklaas is similar to that around Santa Claus, with local twists. He rides a white horse (not a sled), comes from Spain (not the North Pole), and is assisted by Zwarte Pieten (who are similar to elves), which translates to ‘Black Peters’.
Sinterklaas “arrives from Spain” by steamboat in the middle of November, to lead a parade through the streets of the city, with traditional songs sung by children and candy thrown into the crowd. In the following weeks, he can be seen in the streets and at various locations such as schools and hospitals, playing with children and distributing gifts and sweets. December 5th is when the main celebrations happen, with parties for children, treasure hunts, special traditional cakes and biscuits, and of course presents. The festive season continues after Sinterklaas, with Christmas markets, concerts, and so on, but Christmas itself is relatively subdued.
Kwanzaa in Washington, DC, USA
Kwanzaa is primarily celebrated in the US, although it has been gaining popularity in other countries too, primarily Canada, France, the UK, and Jamaica. The festival is unusual in that it is about culture rather than religion or religious myths – the festival celebrates African-American heritage and culture, and is a seven-day long celebration from December 26th to January 1st.
The philosophical focus of the festival is on celebrating “the seven principles” or Nguzo Saba, which have been described as “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world” by the founder of the festival, Maulana Karenga. People reflect on and discuss one principle on each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. In addition, there are performances that include drumming, singing, dancing, and storytelling, the lighting of ceremonial candles, dressing up in traditional clothes and colors, and of course shared food and drink. Washington, DC is a great place to experience Kwanzaa celebrations, with numerous performances, as well as displays and presentations at museums and cultural centers for those who want to learn about the festival.
Hanukkah in Jerusalem, Israel
Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the end of an escalating conflict between Jewish rebels and the prevailing empire in 167 BCE, and the best place to celebrate it is where it all happened. The festival is celebrated in many parts of the world, but in Israel the celebrations are on a truly remarkable scale, and while Tel Aviv is more about the parties, Jerusalem is more about tradition.
Celebrations begin with the torch relay in the Old City, where a giant menorah is lit at the Western Wall. Most households also light their own menorahs, which are placed in their front windows, where they can be seen by passersby and serve as a reminder. Over the next eight days, families get together, gifts are exchanged, games are played, traditional songs are sung, and a variety of fried delicacies are eaten, of which the most popular are the potato pancakes known as latkes and the jam-filled doughnuts known as sufganiyot. The timing of the festival is set according to the Jewish calendar, any time between the end of November and the end of December.
Christmas in London, United Kingdom
London is among the best places in the world to be in for Christmas. It’s cold and dark, yet buzzing and full of cheer. There’s all the commercial activity that’s inevitable in almost any modern city that celebrates Christmas, and yet there’s also plenty of old world charm, warmth, and tradition. London has a mix of all the Christmas traditions that are now familiar to most of the world – lights, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and Christmas carols – but much of this has its own English touch, and in addition there are a number of elements that are unique to the city.
One of the best Christmas experiences you can have in London is a visit to a Christmas fair. This is where you’ll find almost everything that the city has to offer: beautifully decorated Christmas trees and lights, mulled wine and cider to keep you warm, some great snacks and treats, Christmas ornaments and cards for sale, skating rinks, fairground rides, grottos with Santas, Christmas carols, and plenty more. London also has some amazing carol singing performances, often in beautiful settings, by candlelight and in historic venues.
Christmas in Manila, Philippines
The Philippines has the largest Christian population in Asia after East Timor, with around 65% of the population belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, and a considerable number belonging to various other Christian denominations including a few indigenous, independent churches and several strains of Protestantism. Naturally, Christmas is a very big deal all across the country. In fact, one famous factoid on the Philippines is that the country has the longest Christmas season in the world: it begins in September, when Christmas carols start to be sung and played, and usually ends on January 9, the Feast of the Black Nazarene. That’s four months of Christmas!
Christmas celebrations in Manila are a mix of indigenous traditions, Spanish traditions, and more recent traditions from countries like the US and the UK. A lot of the celebrations revolve around the religious aspects of Christmas – for example, there are daily novena masses at dawn from December 16th to Christmas Eve, and traditional Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve itself. In addition, there is of course plenty of feasting and partying with friends, family, and neighbors. Houses and neighborhoods are decorated with a mixture of typical international decorations such as Christmas trees and tinsel, but in addition, there are traditional local decorations too, such as the star-shaped lanterns known as parol, and the belén, a tableau depicting the infant Jesus in the manger.
One of the most charming traditions is pangangaroling – groups of children go from house to house in their neighborhoods, singing carols and getting a small gift of money in return. Towards the end of the season, there are also the Three Kings parades, in which men dressed as the Three Kings ride through the streets on horses, throwing sweets to children and sometimes giving them rides.
Hanukkah in Moscow, Russia
Russia has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, and Moscow is one of the best cities in which to celebrate Hanukkah. Festivities begin with the lighting of a giant menorah outside of Red Square, in the presence of a massive crowd, which gathers there each year in spite of the freezing weather. After the lighting of the menorah and the traditional blessing, the crowd typically breaks out into music and dancing. The celebrations here are particularly poignant because not too long ago, it was impossible to publicly celebrate Hanukkah or any other religious festival anywhere in Russia, and certainly not at this important location. As with Hanukkah celebrations elsewhere in the world, the next eight days are filled with singing, dancing, games, family gatherings, and food and drink.
Christmas in Paris, France
The French have some great Christmas traditions that include Yule logs, poinsettia flowers, and the Christmas markets that are common to much of Europe. Paris in particular has some fantastic Christmas markets, and also some amazing Christmas trees and displays. In addition, everyone knows how seriously the French take their food and drink, so naturally there’s plenty of that too at Christmas.
For the best of it, you should ideally attend a réveillon – the long, luxurious family dinner the night before Christmas, with the best wine, meats, and desserts. Some families continue the tradition from Provence of thirteen desserts, representing Jesus and the twelve apostles. It’s an unforgettable experience, and any expat living in France ought to have the opportunity to attend at least one réveillon.
Another great Christmas tradition in Paris is the carousel rides. The city has numerous carousels all through the year, but Christmas time is when they really come alive. You’ll find a carousel almost everywhere in Paris, some majestic and almost intimidating, and others much humbler, with a rundown charm. Many of them allow children to ride for free around Christmas.
Christmas in Reykjavik, Iceland
Christmas in Iceland is a wonderful mix of Icelandic folklore, religious traditions, and modern Christmas traditions, many of which are unique and local. In fact, the festival is still often known as ‘Jól’ – ‘Yule’, which was the winter festival that later turned into Christmas with the advent of Christianity. Christmas time in Iceland is the darkest time of the year, which makes all the warmth and light that most people associate with Christmas that much more important. Bright Christmas decorations and Christmas lights are everywhere, and the capital city of Reykjavik is particularly beautiful at this time of year.
There are Christmas markets and concerts all over the city, and special seasonal food and drink, including smoked and cured meats, mulled wine, spiced Christmas ale, and of course fermented fish with potatoes, an Icelandic specialty that’s similar to hákarl. Another fun Icelandic tradition is the Yule Lads, sometimes known as the 13 Santas, who come down from the mountains one by one from December 12th to Christmas Eve. Like the Santa we all know, the Yule Lads leave gifts for children who have been good; although they’re not left in stockings, but in shoes that children hang at their window. Children who have been bad however get rotten potatoes, and unlike the gentle, jolly Santa Claus, the Yule Lads are scruffy pranksters who also do things like harass sheep and steal sausages.
Christmas in Rome, Italy
It’s no surprise that Christmas is an important festival in Italy, and particularly in Rome, which is beautiful all through the year but becomes truly magical at Christmas. Most tourists tend to visit in the summer, but if you love Christmas, we recommend a December visit instead. The focus is heavily on religion and tradition, but it’s all done so elegantly and beautifully that people of any or no faith can easily appreciate it. The weather, the relative lack of commercial frenzy, the beautifully lit up streets, the Christmas markets, the ice skating, the nativity displays, the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and of course the food, the hot chocolate, and the wine: it all comes together to make for a perfect ending to the year. There’s also the charming befana tradition – an old lady, sometimes described as a good witch, who flies around on a broomstick and visits children to give them gifts (if they’ve been good) or a lump of coal (if they’ve been bad).
Christmas in San Juan, Puerto Rico
One of the most well-known modern Christmas songs in the world comes from Puerto Rico – Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano. The country is over 80% Christian, with Catholics alone making up more than half the population, so Christmas is the biggest and most important celebration of the year. The religious aspects of the festival remain important today, with feasts and masses throughout the Christmas season, especially from December 15th to Christmas Eve.
However, in addition, December is a time to party in Puerto Rico, and a considerable amount of the celebration lasts all the way into the middle of January. Forbes and CNN have both called Puerto Rico one of the top Christmas destinations in the world. There are Christmas lights everywhere, Christmas trees, processions and parades, great quantities of the best Puerto Rican food and drink, and dazzling fireworks, but arguably the most ubiquitous and important part of the season is the music.
Music is everywhere during the Christmas season, and a lot of it is traditional music with local instruments. The singing is a prominent element at almost all church services, and it’s also in people’s homes, at many public places, and even in the streets. The most enjoyable musical celebrations are the parrandas – the carol singing, done by troupes of children and adults, who go house to house in their neighborhood, starting late at night and ending only at dawn.