Winter Customs Around the World

Girl Hanging Ornament on Reindeer
The winter season is celebrated in many ways around the world. Per Breiehagen / Getty Images

Whether you observe Yule, Christmas, Sol Invictus, or Hogmanay, the winter season is typically a time of celebration around the world. Traditions vary widely from one country to the next, but one thing they all have in common is the observance of customs around the time of the winter solstice. Here are some ways that residents of different countries observe the season.

Did You Know?

  • The winter holidays are celebrated in many ways around the world.
  • Nearly every culture has traditions that mark the changing of seasons, the winter solstice, and the season of giving.
  • In countries below the equator, December falls during the warmer season, but the winter solstice, six months later, is still seen as a time to celebrate.

Australia

Although Australia is huge geographically, the population sits at under 20 million people. Many of them come from a blend of cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and celebration in the winter is often a mix of many different elements. Because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, the winter solstice falls in June, and people may use native plants like Mallee roots, Tasmanian oak, and eucalyptus to make a family Yule log. In Tasmania, naked revelers celebrate with an icy plunge into the Derwent River.

Scotland

Torchlight Procession Through Edinburgh
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

In Scotland, the big holiday is that of Hogmanay. On Hogmanay, which is observed on December 31, festivities typically spill over into the first couple of days of January. There's a tradition known as "first-footing", in which the first person to cross a home's threshold brings the residents good luck for the coming year – as long as the guest is dark-haired and male. The tradition stems from back when a red- or blonde-haired stranger was probably an invading Norseman.

China

In China, only about two percent of the population observes Christmas as a religious holiday, although it is gaining in popularity as a commercial event. However, the main winter festival in China is the New Year celebration that occurs at the end of January. Recently, it's become known as the Spring Festival, and is a time of gift-giving and feasting. A key aspect of the Chinese New Year is ancestor worship, and paintings and portraits are brought out and honored in the family's home.

Greece

Christmas is typically not a huge holiday in Greece, as it is in North America. However, the recognition of St. Nicholas has always been important, because he was the patron saint of sailors, among other things.

The idea of decorating a Christmas tree didn't appear in Greece until the early nineteenth century, when King Otto arrived from Germany, where the custom was already in practice. Instead, a sprig of basil is wrapped around a wooden cross to protect the home from the Killantzaroi, which are negative spirits that only appear during the twelve days after Christmas. Hearth fires burn for several days between December 25 and January 6, and rather than swapping gifts on Christmas Day, Greeks typically exchange presents on St. Basil’s Day, which is January 1.

India

India's Hindu population typically observes this time of year by placing clay oil lamps on the roof in honor of the return of the sun. The country's Christians celebrate by decorating mango and banana trees, and adorning homes with red flowers, such as the poinsettia. Gifts are exchanged with family and friends, and baksheesh, or charity, is given to the poor and needy.

A multi-day festival called Pongal falls around the time of the winter solstice, and it's when rice is boiled in milk and presented as offerings to the gods, followed by the family cows, and then the humans who live in the home. The cows are venerated during this time, and they are decorated with floral garlands and their horns are painted. There's even a special parade to honor the cattle, and they are allowed to graze wherever they choose.

Italy

Women dressed as the witch Befana parade
AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images

In Italy, there is the legend of La Befana, a kind old witch who travels the earth giving gifts to children. It is said that the three Magi stopped on their way to Bethlehem and asked her for shelter for a night. She rejected them, but later realized she'd been quite rude. However, when she went to call them back, they had gone. Now she travels the world, searching, and delivering gifts to all the children.

According to folklore, on the night before the feast of the Epiphany in early January, Befana flies around on her broom, delivering presents. Much like Santa Claus, she leaves candy, fruit, and small gifts in the stockings of children who are well-behaved throughout the year. On the other hand, if a child is naughty, he or she can expect to find a lump of coal left behind by La Befana.

Romania

In Romania, people still observe an old fertility ritual which probably pre-dates Christianity. A woman bakes a confection called a turta, made of pastry dough and filled with melted sugar and honey. Before baking the cake, as the wife is kneading the dough, she follows her husband outdoors. The man goes from one barren tree to another, threatening to cut each down. Each time, the wife begs him to spare the tree, saying, "Oh no, I am sure this tree will be as heavy with fruit next spring as my fingers are with dough today." The man relents, the wife bakes the turta, and the trees are spared for another year.

Denmark

In Denmark, Christmas Eve dinner is a big cause for celebration. The most anticipated part of the meal is the traditional rice pudding, baked with a single almond inside. Whichever guest gets the almond in his pudding is guaranteed good luck for the coming year. Children leave out glasses of milk for the Juulnisse, which are elves that live in peoples' homes, and for Julemanden, the Danish version of Santa Claus.

Finland

The Finns have a tradition of resting and relaxing on Christmas Day. The night before, on Christmas Eve, is really the time of the big feast – and leftovers are consumed the next day. On December 26, the day of St. Stephen the Martyr, everyone goes out and visits friends and relatives, weather permitting. One fun custom is that of Glogg parties, which involve the drinking of Glogg, a mulled wine made from Madeira, and the eating of lots of baked treats.