The holiday season is nearly upon us. And, while most American families have their own traditions, we can all greatly benefit from the recognition and, perhaps, adoption of the traditions of other countries and cultures. So, for a truly memorable holiday, hold off on the tree, the colored lights and the cardboard cutouts of Santa Claus (if just for a moment), and consider whether any of the following diverse customs from around the world speak to your festive spirit.
India, Nepal + Myanmar: Diwali
Diwali is a five-day Hindu festival celebrated in India, Nepal, Myanmar, and various other countries. Beginning on November 13th, this “festival of lights” commemorates the attainment of nirvana by Mahavira (a 6th century Indian Sage) and the death anniversary of Swami Dayanand (founder of Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement).
Though trees and tinsel aren’t a part of the festivities, beautiful art known as Rangoli decorate the floors of homes as a welcoming gesture to the gods. While traditionally made from colored powders, ground rice powder, flowers and diyas (oil lamps), rangoli rugs and wall art can help you get that distinct Diwali feel without making a mess.
The Philippines: Simbang Gabi
If you want your holiday to last a bit longer, why not take the Filipino approach by starting in September and ending sometime in early January? Truth be told, the Philippines has one of the longest holiday seasons in the world, lasting over four months and culminating in a series of Catholic masses known as Simbang Gabi. If you attend all the masses, you are said to get a wish that will be granted in the upcoming year.
Predictably, the Christmas influence is much more apparent here than in Kwanzaa or Diwali, including trees, wreaths, and “parols,” paper lanterns used to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem. These parols are ubiquitous within the culture, hanging from businesses and homes alike, each brandishing a unique color and lighting effect.
Spain, Mexico, + Guatemala: Las Posadas
Las Posadas is another Catholic-based holiday celebration, originating in Spain, then spreading to Mexico, Guatemala and Southwestern parts of the United States. This nine-day event involves a church procession that signs and prays from house to house while carrying candles inside paper lampshades. The procession is followed by a great feast, singing and plenty of piñatas.
Papel picados are a staple decoration of the season, featuring unique designs cut from tissue paper and poinsettias, a plant species indigenous to Mexico. These are hung en masse from house ceilings and city walkways alike, showcasing a variety of vibrant colors to help put people in a festive mood.
Western Africa Diaspora: Kwanzaa
Though recognized in the United States and Canada, Kwanzaa is a worldwide holiday, celebrated primarily by the Western African Diaspora (descendants of those dispersed from Western Africa). This week-long event–observed from December 26 to January 1–is relatively new, created in 1966 by African-American professor Maulana Karenga in order to honor African heritage.
During this time of the year, houses are commonly decorated with a seven-candle holder (representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa) and various other items in a black, red and green color scheme. Balloons, cloths, and African prints are an easy way to get your home in the Kwanzaa spirit.
Sweden: St. Lucia Day
Following the trend of Simbang Gabi and Los Posadas, St. Lucia Day is a religious-inspired Swedish holiday that honors its namesake, a third-century saint, by dressing homes and even people in red and white–the colors of St. Lucia. The girls dress up as “Lucia brides,” wearing white gowns, red sashes and wreathed crowns of burning candles. Slightly dangerous, but impressive nonetheless.
Meanwhile, homes are decked out in a similar manner, including red and white tablecloths, centerpieces and various other furnishings. As with Kwanzaa, these color coded decorations make it easy to experience the holidays through the lens of the Swedish culture.
I’m sure you’ve heard the famous line from William Cowper’s poem, The Task (1785): “Variety is the very spice of life….” This is especially true in regards to our traditions. Tradition, by its very definition, is a custom or belief exercised over and over again, not just for years or decades, but entire generations. And so, once in a while, it’s a good idea to stop and consider how other cultures celebrate the holidays. Not only will you learn something, but you might get some inspiration for new color schemes and decorations that will help your own traditions seem…well…less traditional.