Find Us on Facebook
As winter sets in, many of our hearts and minds turn toward the holiday season. The United States is certainly special in the number of cultures represented here, and Portland is no exception. A wide array of cultural backgrounds can be found throughout the City of Roses, and as the holidays roll in, we are better able to appreciate just how unique the holiday season in America truly is. But we must remember: it’s not just Portland, or the United States, that celebrates the season. As we commemorate such time-honored traditions as Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and other winter-based holidays, other places and people around the world also celebrate their traditions, as well as observing holidays that many of us never knew existed.
While many of our country’s traditions come directly from Europe, a number of European countries celebrate winter holidays in ways that never made it over to the United States. Rich in Norse history, Iceland celebrates many holidays in the winter that few Americans are familiar with. For many Icelanders, Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, but extends all the way to January 6. Although the holiday is called Twelfth Night in English, the Icelandic term, Þrettándinn (pronounced “threh-tawn-din” in Icelandic) actually means “the thirteenth.” Don’t worry: this irony is not lost on Icelanders, who jovially celebrate the holiday with elf dancing around raging elf bonfires (álfabrenna). The night also finds families and friends gathering for food, fun and fantastic fireworks displays.
Those familiar with Japan know that the country has more state-sanctioned holidays than almost any other country. While the United States has 11 national holidays, the island nation of Japan has 17! For Japan, there are several major holidays during the winter season: the Emperor’s Birthday (December 23), New Year’s Day (January 1), Coming of Age Day (January 11) and National Foundation Day (February 11). Now, we’re all familiar with New Year’s Day, and around the world this celebration is marked by champagne and soon-to-be-broken resolutions. In Japan, however, New Year’s Day is celebrated with a distinctive Japanese flair. While the majority of Japanese today do not actively practice a religion, Buddhist traditions still hold strong in the country’s holiday celebrations. On New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples across the country ring their bells 108 times. This is to symbolize the 108 sins of mankind, and the hope is to drive out these worldly desires for every Japanese citizen as the country slides into the New Year. Actually, the bells ring loud and strong 107 times on December 31, and then once more as the clock ticks over into January 1. If you happen to be in Japan during the New Year holiday, or simply feel like celebrating the holiday in the Japanese style this year, make sure to grab a nice bowl of soba noodles. Many Japanese follow the tradition of eating a steaming bowl of toshikoshi soba (or “year-crossing noodle”) as a symbolic gesture of crossing over into the New Year. The noodles represent letting go of hardships, as represented by the ease with which these buckwheat noodles are cut while eating.
In Colombia, a country steeped in heritage and religious Catholic traditions, the holiday season begins well before Halloween. As early as October, residents begin putting up lights to celebrate the season. And while many of us in Americana grudgingly gripe about the holiday season starting earlier and earlier each year, in Colombia, they don’t wait long to get the celebrations started. Christmas, for example, begins on December 7, with a celebration called Dia de Las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles). For this South American country, where Roman Catholics make up over 70 percent of the population, the Christmas season begins with millions of citizens filling the streets with lit candles and voices lifted in prayer and thankful reverence to the Virgin Mary. If you’re ever in Colombia during the Christmas season, make sure to bring your candles!
While many Americans gear up for religious holidays in December, for Libyans, late December means one special holiday: Independence Day. While we hold the Fourth of July reverently in our hearts as our nation’s day of independence, for Libyans, December 24, 1951, marked their first step into freedom from Italy and France. Unfortunately, when Muammar Gaddafi ascended to power in 1969, he quickly converted the day into a celebration of … well, himself. After his death in 2011, Libyans took to the streets to celebrate their independence once again for the first time in over 40 years. Although the event scheduled that year, which included a series of tables with bread to be broken in solidarity, was unfortunately cancelled, the people of Libya still celebrate the day with all of the appropriate pomp and circumstance that such a momentous day deserves.
Although most of us don’t think of enjoying a day of fun in the sun as part of the holiday season, don’t forget: south of the equator, our winter is their summer. That of course includes the internationally celebrated New Year’s holiday. While the majority of us spend the morning after New Year’s Day in relative dread over the return of our responsibilities, in New Zealand, the day after New Year’s Day is an official holiday. Appropriately and officially titled “Day after New Year’s Day,” this holiday (one which we in the United States should almost certainly adopt) is spent relaxing after an intense night of celebration. Many New Zealanders use the day to travel or to begin their annual summer vacations. Beach trips, camping excursions and other warm and sunny outdoor recreational activities are extremely popular during this holiday. If anything could make one want to pack it up and move to New Zealand, that might be it!
It goes without saying that America is a very diverse country. All sorts of cultures and traditions intermingle in the United States, calling our nation home and adding to the uniqueness of the country. But the world is a much bigger place than we typically realize, and the ways of celebrating the holidays we know and love are just a small sample of the fascinating traditions enjoyed around the globe.