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9 alternative traditions from around the world to absorb into your celebrations this festive season


When it comes to Christmas and New Year, my seasonal traditions are set in stone. I come from a long line of women who go BIG on Christmas. We start planning the Christmas logistics in late summer, but there are no decorations or anything overtly Christmassy until 1 December – and then it’s as if someone dropped a glitter bomb.

Image of Losar in Tibet by Mopop on flickr
There will always be one present to open on Christmas Eve (usually pajamas), a huge tin of chocolates (we all want The Purple One) and Brussel sprouts (if you eat them while holding your nose, you can’t taste them).
Such is the emphasis on Christmas that New Year’s Eve is usually a non-event, and I like it that way. My family isn’t particularly religious so this time to pause and reflect is especially welcome after the noise of the previous weeks.
Having said that, there’s always room for improvement and I’m open to shaking things up a bit this year by absorbing some of these festive traditions from around the world.
Mark the winter solstice with food, family and self-care.
In Japan, people take a long hot soak in a bath with yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) on the shortest day of the year. The ritual is thought to help protect the body against colds and keep demons and bad luck at bay. Also, it smells nice!
The Chinese Dongzhi Festival places the emphasis on family and food as the dark and cold start to give way to warmth and light. Join in by gathering your nearest and dearest to make and eat tangyuan (colourful rice balls filled with anything from sweet potato mash to chocolate), as is the tradition in southern China, or lamb dumplings as they do in the north. The round shape of the balls and dumplings symbolizes reunion and the family unit.
Go to the dark side
While we might be more used to the jolly ho-ho-hos of a traditional Dickensian/Coca-Cola Christmas, spare a thought for folks in places where celebrations take a darker turn.

Image of Krampus by Martin Brazdil on flickr

In Germany and Austria, Krampus rules on 5 December. This goat-horned demonic character is the yin to kind St Nicholas’s yang, striking pain and fear into little girls and boys. The Krampus legend is celebrated by people donning terrifying Krampus masks to maraud through the streets and whip bystanders with birch sticks – yes really!
Over in Iceland, the Christmas Cat strikes the fear of God into revellers on Christmas Eve. This huge black cat prowls the country gobbling up anyone who hasn’t received a new piece of clothing for Christmas. This sounds like an excellent reason to go shopping! Oh, and there’s also a mischievous gang of trolls…

Image of 'The Night of the Witches' by MikePScott on flickr

At first glance, Italy’s hag-like La Befana – a.k.a. the Christmas Witch – might look scary, but this is a classic lesson in ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. La Befana distributes sweets and gifts (or coal and sticks) to children on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany (5 January).
Talking of books…
Bookworms around the world can take a leaf out of one of these literary-themed traditions.
In Iran, the winter solstice is marked with Yalda, a night to gather indoors with family and friends, read poetry until the early hours and eat red foods, such as watermelon and pomegranate, which symbolize the dawn and coming spring.
The Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, or “Yule Book Flood”, is a Christmas Eve gift exchange dedicated solely to books. The evening is then spent reading and eating chocolate. This is my perfect Christmas party.
Ring in the New Year without Auld Lang Syne
I love a rousing rendition of the traditional Auld Lang Syne (almost) as much as the next person, but I’m looking for a way to mix up my New Year celebrations (or lack of) this year.
Losar, the Tibetan New Year, could be just what I’m looking for; it involves a bit of renewal, a bit of mysticism, lots of food and plenty of fireworks – without the awkwardness of finding someone to kiss as the clock strikes midnight. In Tibet, people cleanse their homes with burning juniper leaves and set off firecrackers, but what really sells it to me is the dough balls. Dumplings with various flavours, from coal and salt to chilies and rice, are made and shared and whatever you find inside is said to be an indication of your personality and what to expect from the coming year. Even better, Losar begins 5 February in 2019, eking out the seasonal celebrations even longer! Cheers to that!