As I prepare for my first holiday season in Margate, England, I’m searching for conventions and rituals that remind me of family to connect me from afar. From the resplendent glow of Vietnam’s Lantern Festival to the old-world charm of Germany’s Christmas markets, the winter holiday season overflows with cherished traditions from across the world passed down through generations that nourish the soul. These time-honoured customs connect us to the past and illuminate what truly matters during the often overwhelming festive season. Though oceans may separate us, familiar traditions anchor me to the spirit of the season and the memories of holidays past spent with loved ones.
As a Vietnamese-Canadian, the Full Moon Lantern Festival in the ancient city of Hoi An resonates deeply. Here, the festival transforms the streets into a kaleidoscope of soft light. Artisans meticulously craft ornate lanterns in the shapes of animals, flowers, and traditional symbols out of silk. As the sun dips below the horizon, a procession of children joins under handmade lanterns that seem to float down the river. This joyous celebration marks the close of Tet, the Lunar New Year, and brings families together to welcome renewed hopes and dreams for the coming year.
In Japan, the Joya no Kane bell ritual, which translates to ‘midnight bell’, draws millions to ancient temples on New Year’s Eve. As the inky night sky hangs overhead, families gather in their finest kimono, steaming cups of amazake in hand to ward off the winter chill. At the stroke of midnight, massive bronze bells reverberate through the darkness 108 times with a steady, resonant rhythm. The vibrations are said to cleanse the world of hardship and evil from the departing year. It is a time to reflect on memories of the closing year and look ahead to brighter days filled with the renewal of hope. When the final peals fade into the night, cheers erupt to welcome the dawn of a new year.
Crossing far over peaks and valleys to Europe, the spiced scent of mulled wine and roasted chestnuts lures visitors through cobblestone alleys illuminated by the warm glow of Germany’s fabled Christmas markets. Ornate wooden stalls brimming with hand-carved toys and decorations create a magical scene. As shoppers meander through the markets with cups of glühwein, the sound of holiday carols and lively chatter fills the icy air.
It’s a tradition that evokes a similar essence of Danish hygge. In the deep of winter, Danes will gather around a crackling fire, sipping warm cups of gløgg and nibbling on baked goods like æbleskiver and pebernøder. Friends and family will sit under soft blankets, playing board games or having meandering conversations in the gentle glow of candlelight. The Danes call this unique feeling of coziness, contentment, and camaraderie hygge. It’s a comforting antidote to the bitter cold and long nights of winter that prioritizes simple pleasures, warmth, and connection.
In Sweden, the festival of St. Lucia honours the coming of light during the depths of winter darkness. Led by the eldest daughter dressed in a flowing white gown with a candlelit wreath, families awake before dawn to the glow of her candles and a breakfast feast is served. The luminous processions symbolize the spreading of hope during the year’s coldest, darkest days. The candle crowns represent the fire that refused to take St. Lucia’s life when she was persecuted for her Christian faith in the 4th century.
During the bitter Icelandic winters, neighbours strengthen bonds of community over laufabrauð, or leaf bread. Women gather to bake this traditional flatbread embellished with intricate leaf-like patterns using special rolling pins. Sharing this delicate pastry over coffee, stories, and laughter warms hearts during the long nights.
For Italians, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the centrepiece of the Christmas Eve Vigilia. Family recipes passed down through generations are prepared with love for this meatless meal featuring seven types of seafood, from lightly fried baccalà to garlicky shrimp scampi, symbolizing the seven Catholic sacraments. Conversation and connections flow as easily as the wine during this evening, abundant with tradition.
These global customs, whether solemn, mirthful or whimsical, share an ability to conjure the childlike wonder within us all. The holidays serve as a time of reflection and nostalgia as we gather to share ancestral traditions integral to our collective experience. There is an unspoken magic that brings us back to what matters most. Though celebrations may vary, the spirit of joy, generosity, and anticipation for the future remain universal. These global customs speak to our shared humanity, reminding me I’m never alone as long as I carry traditions in my heart. Wherever the next holiday takes me, I know the familiar glow of lantern light and the cheer of bells in the darkness will guide me home. ■