La Befana – ItalyWhile we in the US expect Santa Claus to be bringing presents to good little girls and boys, in Italy, children eagerly await the visit of a witch! The legend of La Befana goes back to the birth of Christ – on their way to the manger, the three wise men got lost and stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask for directions. They asked her if she wanted to come with them, but she refused until they’d departed. Then, she saw a bright light in the sky and decided to follow it to the manger and bring gifts to the infant Jesus that were meant for her child who had died. She never found the manger, so every year on January 5th, Italian children wait for her to visit their houses to present them with gifts while she flies around on her broomstick searching for the Baby Jesus!
Saint Lucy’s Day – ScandinaviaSaint Lucy’s Day is a primarily Scandinavian holiday tradition that celebrates Saint Lucy (or Santa Lucia), a 1st century woman who was sentenced to be burned to death for her refusal to abandon her Christian beliefs but miraculously didn’t burn in the fire. In Sweden, the eldest daughter of each Swedish family dresses up as Santa Lucia in a white robe and wears a wreath made of candles on her head while serving traditional buns and coffee or mulled wine to her parents. This tradition has expanded to a more public celebration within the last century, and a Lucia is “elected” each year by the population of most cities in Sweden, who then travels around the city making visits and handing out pepparkakor (clove-cinnamon-ginger cookies).
Día de los Inocentes – Latin AmericaDía de los Inocentes is celebrated on December 28th in many Latin American countries, and serves as a sort of April Fool’s Day equivalent. The day itself originated as a remembrance of King Herod’s purge of all children under the age of two from his lands in an attempt to end the life of the then-young Christ child, who fortunately escaped the madness of the king. On this day, the same sorts of tricks and tomfoolery that goes on every year on April Fool’s Day run rampant throughout these countries, and it’s tradition for the joker, upon successfully tricking someone, to cry out “Inocente!” which can mean both “innocent” and “gullible” in Spanish.
Ōmisoka – Japan
Ōmisoka takes place on December 31st and is the second-most important day of the year in Japan, the most important day being the first day of the New Year. People gather together late in the day for one last bowl of toshikoshi-sudo or toshikoshi-udon – a noodle dish eaten regularly but specifically eaten on this day to usher out the old year and welcome the new. Many people choose to visit a local shrine or temple at midnight for Hatsumōde (the first shrine visit of the new year).
Many families also tune into Japanese television to watch the annual Kōhaku Uta Gassen. This music show, known more simply as Kōhaku, brings together the most popular recording artists of the year in Japan and separates them into teams of red and white based on gender – women are on the red team, and men are on the white team. These teams compete for the votes of the Japanese public, and before midnight, a winner is chosen!
Hope you all enjoyed this quick glimpse at other holiday traditions around the world, and best holiday wishes to you and yours!