I'm Australian, so my idea of a winter tradition is putting away the swimsuit and hoping my roof doesn't get blown off by hurricanes. But other places and cultures around the world put on a pretty spectacular show in wintertime, whether it be to welcome in the cold, perform rituals, do religious rites, or just have a good time. The dominant Western narrative around winter celebration is Christmas, and while there's a lot of cultural diversity just within that — French Christmases differ radically from American ones, for instance — many other places around the world have pretty spectacular celebrations of the nights getting cold, the hearths turning on, and everybody breaking out the mittens.
Some are better known than others. The Longqing Ice Festival, held outside Beijing, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the whole of Asia, and thousands of travelers worldwide go to check out gigantic palaces and sculptures made out of lit-up ice. (You should absolutely go.) But others are less widely spread, even though they deserve just as much attention. Some are centered on the winter solstice, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year, or the winter equinox, where the Northern and Southern hemispheres are equally illuminated by the sun. Traditions can often be traced back for centuries or even millennia; this is no Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
If you're feeling itchy feet during the dark days of winter, consider checking out some of these fascinating rites and rituals around the season worldwide.
St Lucia's Day, Sweden
The tradition of St Lucia in Sweden is directly related to Christianity, in particular to the legend of the martyr Saint Lucy of Syracuse, who died (apparently horrifically) at the hands of the Romans in the 4th century. St Lucia's Day, on December 13, is one of the highlights of the winter calendar in Scandinavian countries, and has to be one of the prettiest. It is, after all, a festival of light.
The youngest daughter from every Swedish and Norwegian family is dressed as Lucia, complete with long white robe, red sash, and a crown made of greenery and, often, lit white candles. Each town elects its own adult St Lucia, and the girls — and young boys dressed as "stars," also in all white — follow her in procession outdoors, singing traditional songs and carrying food. The lussekatt or Lucy's bun, a saffron confection, is traditionally eaten, and parties are sometimes held until daybreak. The St Lucia's Day celebrations are likely a transformation of old pagan Norse attempts to fight the long, dark winters through festivals involving fire and warmth.
Tibetan New Year, Tibet
Losar, the celebration of New Year in Tibet, is one of the most colorful cultural festivals worldwide, and is generally held in January or February depending on the Tibetan calendar. It's a time of renewal, house-cleaning and most of all, fire: firecrackers are let off, incense and juniper leaves are burnt, and lit torches are passed around huge public gatherings. It's one of the centers of Tibetan Buddhism, with crucial roles played by the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders.
Dough balls are made and handed out with ingredients hidden inside, containing everything from rice to chilies, coal or salt. What you find in your dough ball is a comment on your character and what you'll encounter in the year ahead. But the most famous culinary part of Losar is the art of colorful butter sculpting: small, highly intricate butter sculptures are sold for luck at markets round Tibet, while monks make giant, free-standing ones out of yak butter to be displayed in temples and homes.
Another New Year's celebration, but this one comes from the Ukraine, where the Orthodox New Year rituals are known as Malanka. The holiday, which is held on January 14, involves some of the most amazing costume-making in any country: people travel from house to house, singing traditional songs, while clad in enormous, hugely heavy costumes, some made nearly entirely of straw. Others wear ceremonial masks, traditional Ukrainian folk costume or clothes covered on every centimeter with streamers.
The origins of Malanka are slightly confused, but it's evident that it's turned into a modern folk masquerade, particularly in rural parts of the Ukraine, and that performers turn up in their thousands dressed as devils, goats, or bears. It's a kind of night of misrule, where the participants can play practical jokes, run amuck, and demand food or gifts from the people they come across. Traditionally, the troupe was led by a man dressed in women's clothes, playing Malanka herself.
Chaharshanbe Suri, Iran
Into getting slightly dangerous? You'll probably like Chaharshanbe Suri, then. It's the Iranian festival of fire — the name translates to "red Wednesday," because it's held on the last Wednesday before the coming of Iranian spring — and it's traditionally celebrated by fire-jumping. Bonfires are lit all night in public places, to fight off the forces to darkness, and people jump over them, singing rhymes that ask the fire to purify them and give them energy. They also run through the streets banging on pots and demanding treats door-to-door.
Another feast night, Yalda, is held by Iranians on the winter solstice, the longest and darkest night of the year, and is meant to guarantee and celebrate the coming of the new spring. That's a private festival, though, celebrated at home by reading poetry and eating red food like pomegranates, to symbolize the dawn.
Dongzhi Festival, China
If the thing you love most about winter is warming food, then get to China during the Dongzhi festival. It's held on the winter solstice too, and is designed to celebrate the coming of warmer, longer days — and traditional dumplings play a huge role across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It's held only six weeks before the better-known Chinese New Year, but for some it's the more important holiday. The emphasis is on family, so you'll have to have a family willing to take you in, but the dumplings are worth it.
The signature food of the holiday is tangyuan, glutinous rice balls colored brightly (they look a bit like Easter eggs) and cooked in sweet or savory broth. They're an amazing delicacy with a huge variety of fillings, from chocolate to mashed sweet potato, but you'll find them on menus all around China for Dongzhi. The round shape of the dumpling and bowl, it's believed, symbolizes the family as a unit.