by Maddy Stutz
Does your family give Christmas presents on December 25 or 5? Is June 24 just another day, or a holiday dedicated to dressing like a scarecrow?
Special holidays and celebrations are some of the best times to gather with your family to create lifelong memories, and there are thousands of traditions that families around the world cherish together.
Here are a few of the most colorful, spooky, and downright incredible traditions you probably didn’t know existed.
1. Christmas Eve and—Graveyards?
The cookies are fresh out of the oven, the presents are tucked under the tree, and the only Christmas Eve tradition left is a stroll through the graveyard! Right? Well in Finland, this is exactly how people celebrate the birth of Christ, and it’s not as morbid as it seems. On Christmas Eve, families place a single lit candle in the snow next to the graves of their loved ones. As a symbol of the resurrection, the candles are a reminder that ancestors will live again. So if you happen to pass through Finland on Christmas Eve, don’t be alarmed by the glowing cemeteries. It’s normal.
2. The Diwali Festival of Lights
The Diwali Festival of Lights is a five-day Hindu tradition celebrated on October 19. Families illuminate their homes using clay or oil lamps to give thanks for the past year while shining good fortune onto the next year. Intricate designs made from rice or flour are placed in a doorway or in front of a shrine to create a holiday that is truly stunning.
3. A Night of Feasting (not Thanksgiving)
Celebrated by Muslims worldwide, Eid Al-Fitr is a three day “break-the-fast” following the end of Ramadan in June. Families gather and load their plates with traditional dishes to celebrate the end of a 30-day dawn-to-sunset fast. To say the least, they’ve earned the right to chow down!
4. Happy Scarecrows?
This holiday just seems wild, but it’s definitely on my bucket list to experience in person. Originally a Catholic and Christian holiday, Festa Junina is celebrated by all Brazilians on June 24. What’s the defining characteristic of this holiday? Scarecrow costumes and setting stuff on fire. Families build huge bonfires in the middle of the street in front of their homes, dress up in “happy scarecrow costumes,” and eat lots of corn dishes. Count me in.
5. Here Comes the Sun, Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo
After a long, frigid winter, the best way to celebrate the beginning of spring is with a huge party! Maslenitsa is the longest-living Slavic holiday and is celebrated right before the Great Lent in March. It’s a weeklong holiday in which the Russian people chow down on crepes, cheese, and eggs. They spend a week partying for the last time before Lent and even build a giant effigy out of straw in the image of Lady Maslenitsa. They parade her around and then at the end of the week, you guessed it, they set her on fire.
6. Jolly Old Saint Sinterklaas
Holland gets a visit from Santa Claus a little early every year. On December 5, Sinterklaas comes all the way from Spain on a boat to deliver buckets upon buckets of toys to the Dutch children! Sinterklaas will pick a port, hop off his steamboat, and parade through the town while riding a white horse. His helpers, Zwarte Pieten (not elves), help him deliver presents to the children who have been good. And if you’re on the naughty list? Expect to be thrown in a bag and taken to Spain. The Sinterklaas doesn’t mess around.
7. Celebrating Mother Nature
Tu B’shevat is a tradition celebrated by Jews on the 15th day of the month of Shevat (January or February, depending on the Hebrew calendar). Its purpose is to celebrate the end of the rainy season and to emphasize the responsibility to care for and nurture the earth. People plant trees, eat fruit, and just all around celebrate the beauty and magnificence of our planet.
8. A Race up the Bun Tower
The Cheung Chau Bun Festival in Hong Kong has fascinating traditions born from a fascinating legend. According to folklore, during the 18th century, the island of Cheung Chau was nearly wiped out by a plague and invaded by pirates. A local fisherman brought an image of the god Pak Tai to the island and “drove away the evil spirits.” To celebrate, the Bun Festival was born as an annual celebration to ward off pirates and evil spirits! Coinciding with Buddha’s birthday in April, festival goers become vegetarian for a day, dress up as deities, parade floats, and climb three 60-foot towers made out of buns—as in hamburger buns. However, this practice was banned after two towers fell and injured 100 people in 1978. But in 2005, the towers were brought back, with professional climbers, climbing gear, and tutorials on how to conquer the giant bun towers. Oh, and people also burn paper effigies.
So here’s your challenge. Look at your family history chart, and find five countries of your ancestors’ origin that are not your own country of birth. Then do a little research, and find some of the unique holidays that your family likely cherished. Who knows, maybe your discovery will spark a new tradition for your own family to share this year!