Fantastic Festivities Around the World

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Diwali

Diwali, or Deepavali, is the Hindu festival of lights, celebrated by Hindus, Newar Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs every autumn by countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Malaysia, and India.

Many decorate with diyas (lamps) and wear new clothing. Fireworks are often set off, as well. While the details of the five-day celebration vary by country and religion, a single concept threads them together: the prevalence of good over evil, hope over despair, light over darkness.

Jolabokaflod

Let's wrap up with possibly the best Christmas tradition ever, one intrinsic to contemporary Icelandic culture: Jolabokaflod, or the "Christmas Book Flood." Iceland is known as one of the most well-read countries and communities; it isn’t hard to see why during the holiday season, when thousands of books are bought to be given as gifts on Christmas. The Icelandic tradition holds that families give each other a book on Christmas Eve, and then spend the better part of the next day reading.

The tradition began during World War II, when imports were restricted—paper was an easy commodity to keep bringing in, and thus the book became the preferred gift for all. Now, Iceland circulates the Bokatidindi, a free catalog of new Icelandic publications in aniticipation of the Flood, which begins in September, when book sales begin to soar. It certainly would be a delight to see books flood households everywhere.

Vernal Equinox Day

In Japan, the spring vernal equinox is celebrated with Shunbun no Hi, or "Vernal Equinox Day," usually on March 20th or 21st. The autumnal equal is usually celebrated on September 23rd (dates shift due to time zones), but the spring celebration has a special feel.

As winter ebbs, the promise of the new season is a good time for visiting families and birthplaces, for cleaning and organizing, and for praying for good crops to come. Hope is in the air.

Eid al Fitr

This special day is one of the two largest holidays in Islam and takes place the day after the end of Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. When exactly is that? Since the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, each lunar year is roughly ten days shorter than a solar year, which means the holiday moves up a few weeks each year.

Eid al Fitr translates to “Feast of the breaking of the fast,” and that is precisely what makes this holiday so meaningful to Muslims everywhere. Having spent the entire month of Ramadan fasting during daylight hours to rejuvenate their spiritual health and to focus on community, charity, and patience, Muslims are required to eat copious amounts of food on Eid al Fitr.

Hangul Day

The Korean alphabet of hangul was created in 1446, when the king of Korea declared the need for a written expression of their language. Koreans take great pride in hangul, and there is currently a move to propagate the 24-character alphabet to some of the hundreds of global spoken languages that don’t have an alphabet. It’s reportedly very easy to learn.

Therefore, Hangul Day is celebrated on October 9th in South Korea, and on January 15th in North Korea. While there are no grand celebrations that take place, many people do get the day off of work.

Kwanzaa

Most kids have heard the term Kwanzaa in school at some point when talk of the holiday season comes up, without knowing what its significance is. The holiday was actually created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, in an effort to unite African Americans through a belief of shared culture, community, and legacy. Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza meaning “first fruits,” and is based on harvest celebrations across Africa.

The holiday spans seven nights (December 26 to January 1), each night to be filled with songs, dances, storytelling and poetry, and a large meal. Each of the seven nights includes a candle being lit on the kinara (“candleholder”) by a child, and then the family discussing one of the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles: Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Now, you know about Kwanzaa for real.

Melon Day

On the second Sunday of August each year, the Turkmenbashi melon is widely displayed in Turkmenistan's capital city of Ashgabat. And, eating it—in copious amounts—is only a further honor, while celebrants also enjoy dance and music.

The day is a reminder of Turkey's fertile soil and its abundance of delicious fruits.

St. Lucia Day

Across Scandinavia, young girls are selected from most schools, towns, and villages to be that location’s “St. Lucia” for the season. Celebrating a young Christian girl who was martyred in 304 AD and known to have worn candles on her head while delivering food to persecuted Christians, St. Lucia Day is a festival of lights held every December 13, and it marks the beginning of the Christmas season in the country.

The young girls nominated to be St. Lucia dress in white gowns with red sashes and a crown of candles, and they often visit hospitals and the elderly to sing songs about the holiday. Boys and girls can also play dress up for the holiday, as Stjärngossar (star boys) or tärnor (Lucia without the candles). If dress up isn’t their thing, children can savor the delights of Lussekatts, "buns flavored with saffron and raisins," traditionally made for the holiday's breakfast. But, who wouldn't want to be a star boy instead?

Family Day

Family Day is celebrated in South Africa, in most Canadian provinces, Vietnam, Thailand, and in the Australian Capital Territory. In some countries, it's simply a day that offers events and activities to encourage “family time.”

This is a lovely sentiment and a true inclusive holiday (and another one that gets most people in these countries a day off of work). We vote to bring this one to the US for sure.

Basant Pachami

Between the end of January and beginning of February, kites of all shapes, colors, and sizes take to the skies in India and Pakistan. Basant Pachami, or Basant Kite Festival, occurs every year to herald in the beginning of spring in north India and the Punjab province of Pakistan. Introduced in the 1800s by Maharaja Ranjit Singh as a fun tradition during fairs, the tradition stuck and now people of all ages embrace the color yellow—dressing in it, using yellow ribbon, and decorating their homes with yellow flowers—on this vibrant festival.

Some foods that also take flight during this festival are gajjar ki halwa (“carrot fudge”), laddu (sweet golden balls made from a variety of flours, sugar, and ghee), and saffron rice. People really take their sunny dispositions seriously. So, let’s go fly a kite!

Dragon Boat Festival

China’s Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival, held around the summer solstice, is one of only four national holidays observed in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Commemorating the watery deaths of both an ancient poet (Qu Yuan) and an ancient premier, other origin stories claim the holiday originated from dragon worship. Many people race dragon boats on this day as a way of celebrating (or remembering).

Songkran

Songkran, the Thai New Year’s festival, occurs on April 13. The name Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word samkranti, meaning “astrological passage,” or more significantly, a time of transformation, a fitting term for the birth of a new year.

Many traditions abound on this holiday, but at the heart of it resides the notion of merit-making. In Buddhism, merit is associated with goodness, and to gain merit will bring good luck in this life and the next, leading toward enlightenment. Visiting local temples, offering foods to Buddhist monks, purification of Buddha statues, and doing good are intrinsic practices of merit-making.

Sa Paru

Somewhat similar to the Day of the Dead/All Souls Day festivals that take place in many Latin and Asian countries, Nepal’s Sa Paru is a way of remembering the departed . . . though it focuses solely on those lost in the past year.

Usually held in August, the event is a moving procession with a key figure: a cow (either real or a costumed human), which assists the departed on their journey to heaven.

O-Bon

The Japanese Buddhist festival of O-Bon, or simply Bon, is a reflective time of honoring the spirits of ancestors (and has been one for over 500 years). While different regions of Japan are split on when it should be celebrated (based on the solar or older lunar calendar), the most common date is August 15th. As such, people don yukata, or "light kimonos," to combat the stifling heat during the commemorations.

Paper lanterns decorate houses and offerings are made to temples, but the pinnacle of the event is the Bon Odori, or “Bon Dance,” a dance of joy meant to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of ancestors. The style of dance varies from region to region, but the joy is universal. The festival culminates with releasing the lanterns into a river, to guide spirits back to their realms, bidding them a fair "O-Bon Voyage."

Beer Day

Beer Day. Enough said?

Back in 1915, Iceland thought prohibition was a good idea (America followed suit five years later), and banned all alcoholic beverages. The ban was all but lifted in 1933, except for beer, which was restricted to a watered down, flavorless product. Real beer became legal again in 1989, and Beer Day is the celebration of that event.

On March 1st, the country makes up for the 74-year ban, as pubs stay open until 4am and organized “pub crawls” carry celebrants from one establishment to another.

Mid-Autumn Festival

While Midsummer’s Day is a recognizably European celebration, the Mid-Autumn Festival shines bright in the hearts of Chinese and Vietnamese tradition. Also known as the Harvest Moon Festival (or simply “Moon Festival”), this day occurs on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, “falling” on the night of the full moon during late September or early October.

Dating as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), the Mid-Autumn Festival offers people a chance to gather their families, give thanks for their harvests or successes, and feast upon mooncakes, "savory pastries with numerous fillings, like lotus bean or pork." Firecrackers and lanterns also light up the night, possibly to honor the luminous full moon, a symbol of rejuvenation.

Nyepi

In Bali, Indonesia, Nyepi (a silent, meditative holiday) envelops the tropical paradise for 24 hours, leading up to the celebration of the new year. This “Day of Silence” takes place in March, beginning at 6am, and is observed by Hindus.

There is no work, no entertainment, little or no lights, television, and radio, and the streets are mostly empty, as even non-Hindus are prevented from walking on the streets or beaches.

Nowruz

The Iranian (or Persian) New Year, Nowruz, is a widely observed holiday across Western and Central Asia, and by Iranians globally. Like many of the holidays on this list, Nowruz (which literally translates to “new day”) is a secular holiday with religious origins—in this case, Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions based on the teaching of Iranian prophet Zoroaster.

Nowruz takes place on the vernal equinox, and thus welcomes their new year on the first day of spring. As a result, Persians give a more concerted effort toward spring cleaning, or shaking the house, in anticipation of the holiday. Once the day arrives, they partake in a plethora of rituals and traditions, such as Haft Sin (the Seven S’s)—a table set with seven items beginning with Sin or S in Persian that have astrological connections to the solar system. Totally cosmic.

Friendship Day

Created by Hallmark Greeting Cards founder Joyce Hall in 1930, Friendship Day was a thing until it floundered in mid-century America. Even so, the idea slowly caught on in South America, Asia, India, and other places around the globe.

There is some evidence that social media is helping the idea flourish—think “Friendaversary” notices—but the US isn't on board yet with the July 30th date (right now, some calendars make note of it in August). Friendshipday.org suggests you can go camping or make a poster to formally celebrate.

Tu B'Shevat

Tu B’Shevat is a smaller Jewish holiday that literally translates to “15th day of the month of Shevat,” which is conveniently when this holiday takes place (falling on January 30th at sunset). Also known as the New Year of the Fruit Trees, the holiday has become recognized as an environmental awareness day to remind Jews of their responsibility and connection to nature, and trees are planted to commemorate the day as well.

The Tu B’Shevat seder (a special feast consisting of rituals, storytelling, drinking wine, and eating special foods) is multifunctional—it both serves as a reminder of the purpose of the holiday and also as a precursor for the Passover seder, one of the biggest holidays in Judaism.

World Press Freedom Day

In 1993, the UN General Assembly proclaimed May 3rd to be World Press Freedom Day. The day recognizes the importance of free press and free speech. While these can be taken for granted sometimes, this holiday is a good reminder of just how quickly these rights can disappear.

Every year, since 1997, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has awarded a World Press Freedom prize to a person or institution who has made a mark in journalistic freedom. From imperiled, imprisoned, and "disappeared" writers to institutions that work toward preserving their own healthy free press, this is a day of recognition that needs more recognition.

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