Winter Holidays Around the World

Author: Caroline Ashworth

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Snow has fallen, lights are up and it is time to start celebrating the holiday season! Notre Dame students come from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, and they have plenty of different holiday traditions for this season. 

Aubree Davis, a junior from Kaneohe, Oahu, mixes her Hawaiian culture with her Catholic faith and celebrates Christmas Hawaiian style. She looks forward to seeing the Christmas light display at city hall, where all the Christmas decorations are “Hawaiian-ified.” She said that Santa is “usually barefoot, throwing a Shaka, just to go with the way that things are on the island — very lowkey, go-with-the-flow.” 

“It kinda just fits the Hawaiian vibe.”

Mrs. Claus has a hibiscus in her hair, and the big Christmas tree is covered with starfish and other beach decor.

Davis also incorporates her Hawaiian culture into her New Year’s celebrations. “Anytime you eat Hawaiian food at home, it’s for a special occasion. We don’t eat it for every holiday,” she said. Davis and her family enjoy Hawaiian foods such as Kalua pig and rice, laulau (Kalua pig wrapped in tea leaf) and haupia (a coconut milk-based dessert). 

Angela Mathew, a junior from Mumbai, India, also celebrates Christmas in a warm area. Since “winter” back home only gets down to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a lot of Mathew’s Christmas traditions involve the outdoors. There are cribs outside of churches depicting manger scenes, and people will hang Christmas star decorations outside of their apartments. Midnight mass is also celebrated outside, as the weather is warm and the churches cannot hold the large crowds. 

Growing up, Mathew and her family would celebrate Advent. They would “not eat any meat and fish the whole of December until Christmas.” “We would have these Christmas parties where we would invite a lot of people who are not Christian,” she said, “because most of our friends were not Christian. It was always a thing that they would look forward to because no one else really had Christmas parties, and our apartment would be packed with 50 people.” Mathew’s family’s Christmas parties have a ton of food, including biryani (rice and chicken) and appam (a type of soft bread) with stew. 

Tia Devesh Mittle, a freshman who is also from Mumbai, is Hindu and celebrates both Diwali and Christmas. “Christmas is not connected to my religion,” she said. “We don’t believe in celebrating a holiday only if it’s related to my religion. I love celebrating a lot of holidays, regardless of whether they are Hindu festivals or holidays or not.” 

Diwali is the festival of lights. Celebrated over five to six days, each day is dedicated to celebrating something different.

Dhanteras, which celebrates wealth and prosperity, marks the beginning of Diwali. “We pray to the Goddess Lakshmi, inviting her to our houses to bless us with good fortune,” Mittle said.

To celebrate Diwali, people light diyas, burst firecrackers and clean their houses while lamps, lanterns and lights shine both inside and outside of houses. Mittle celebrates Diwali by wearing traditional clothes, having a puja (a worship ritual) at home, visiting the temple, eating Indian sweets and food and making rangolis, which are pieces of art that bring good luck and prosperity to welcome guests. Mittle said that on Diwali “people often visit each other’s houses.” 

“In our family, we go to our different houses and pray in the temple of each house, then eat in every house. We usually end the night by bursting firecrackers; however, because of the negative consequences of bursting polluting and loud, bigger crackers, we only light sparklers for the night,” she said.

Bhai Dooj is a day dedicated to celebrating the bond between brothers and sisters. “As a middle child, with an elder sister and younger brother, this day and festival holds a lot of importance to me,” Mittle said. “The sister, on this day, prays for the long and happy life of the brother as he promises to protect her every day. I usually put a tika on my brother’s head, and because he’s younger, he touches my feet as a sign of respect. My brother and I always argue on who has to give who a gift on Bhai Dooj, but we compromise by each bringing a present for the other.” 

The New Year’s celebration is called Naya Saal, and is also celebrated with a puja. 

Along with celebrating Diwali, Mittle and her family celebrate Christmas. They go to church in Mumbai on Christmas morning. On their way back from church, Mittle and her family pick up hot chocolate and cookies, and her aunt and uncle take everyone out for a family Christmas lunch.  

“My parents, siblings, and I first play secret santa, then go out for dinner to a hotel that always has a huge Christmas tree and is very well decorated,” she said, and (at) night, we drive around a famous street in Mumbai where all the hotels and buildings have decorations outside.” 

Every year, children from the Salvation Army Organization sing Christmas carols while collecting donations, and Mittle and her brother always join in on the singing. 

Across the world, in Nantes, France, Clarisse Renoux, a junior exchange student at Notre Dame, also celebrates the Christmas holiday. Even though Renoux herself is not Catholic, she celebrates Christmas with her family. In Nantes, Christmas is all around — there are fairy lights in trees, a huge Christmas tree on the main street and a Christmas market that sells chocolate or hot wine with chestnuts. French culture values rest and holidays, so Christmas is a time to relax and see family. 

For her Christmas appetizer, Renoux enjoys oysters and foie gras, which is duck liver on toast. Her meal usually consists of chicken, and for dessert she enjoys a bûche de Noël, which is similar to a Yule log. Renoux’s family has a special chocolate dish passed down for generations — a layered cake with chestnut and almond buttercream. 

While Christmas is spent with her family, Renoux rings in the new year with her friends, celebrating with parties, fireworks and champagne. She does a secret santa gift exchange with her friends at the New Year’s celebration. 

Renoux also eats crêpes to celebrate Chandeleur, which is a Christian holiday, even though she is not Christian.

Abigail Keaney, a junior from St. Albans, England, is Catholic and celebrates Christmas as well, but she also celebrates Bonfire Night, which is celebrated regardless of religion in the United Kingdom. She says that it has “become a secular holiday like the 4th of July, even if the origins are rooted in religion.” 

Celebrated on Nov. 5, Bonfire Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a group of Catholics, led by Guy Fawkes, to assassinate King James I, and the holiday is a celebration that the plot was discovered and the King survived. “Historically, children made effigies of Guy Fawkes to burn on bonfires as a popularly hated figure, but today the holiday is mostly just celebrated with big bonfires and fireworks,” Keaney explained in an email. “Today, it’s also associated with autumn food and drinks — cider, roasting marshmallows, etc. — and the original meaning has been mostly lost (it’s no longer seen as an anti-Catholic holiday), so it’s more just our day of fireworks.” 

There are food and drink stalls in front of the local cathedral, and Keaney goes to watch the bonfire and fireworks with her friends. Growing up, she would celebrate with her family by lighting sparklers at home to commemorate the day. 

No matter what holiday they are celebrating, Notre Dame students from around the globe value their religious, cultural and family traditions while enjoying the holiday season.