Winter Festivals: Christmas and its Alternative Celebrations

With winter now in the air and the biggest celebration of them all fast approaching, colder parts of the planet are gearing up. Christmas brings an array of festivities and traditions that have survived through the centuries, stretching across the globe from New Zealand to Alaska.

The world is a festive place, divided into two hemispheres, made up of incredible, diverse tribes and groups affected by climate, topography, and proximity to natural resources. These elements affect how various cultures have given historical thanks for their existence.

As diverse as all our cultures are, only parts of the temperate world are united by four seasons. Although winter is just like any other season, many northern and southern reaching climates herald this one like no other.

Most of those who live in these latitudes take Christmas for granted. However, this festival can have differences, depending on the form of Christianity.

As early as AD 200, theologian Clement of Alexandria speculated on the birthdate of Jesus, citing the time to be around 9 BC: The earliest recorded Christmas celebration is dated to AD 336 in Rome.

In the year 350, Pope Julius declared Christmas Day to be December 25, the same day as the Roman winter solstice and celebration of Saturnalia — for the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn. This became Sol Invictus, which bundled together various celebrations of sun gods that took place around the same time.

The majority of the world now holds Christmas Day on December 25. Most of the African continent, Caribbean nations, India, the Anglosphere, the Pacific Islands, North America, and a scattering of Asian and European countries all celebrate on this day.

Meanwhile, parts of western, southern, and Eastern Europe celebrate Mass on December 24 and Epiphany on January 6 or 7. Curiously, Ukraine is a rarity in that it has two Christmases. Once stemming from the multi-faith population in western Ukraine, the country now witnesses a celebration on December 25 and January 7.

As Christianity spread across Europe in the early centuries of the 1st millennium, so did Christmas. Germany was the first to record the use of a decorated Christmas tree, with the earliest versions made of dyed goose feathers.

Christmas has not had an easy ride, with the Puritans in Massachusetts banning the event in 1659 because of its loose ties to non-Christian festival days. They were also wary of the distraction caused to the hard work ethos of their already pious colony.

However, only some of the world's people celebrate winter the same way. Some still prefer to revert to secular practices. In contrast, others embrace their ancestors' cultures, turning back to the times before Christendom.

Many other cultures from the non-Christian world also celebrate winter festivals. Wherever we find ourselves in the upper and lower reaches of the globe, there will be some form of winter tradition to enjoy.

Here are some events happening this northern hemisphere winter and the next southern hemisphere winter in July.

Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, China.

In China's northernmost region of Heilongjiang sits the capital of Harbin, which lays claim to the greatest ice show on earth. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival takes place in late December and lasts for two months — or until the ice melts!

It began as the inaugural Harbin ice lantern festival, which recontinued after the Cultural Revolution in 1980. This snowballed (pardon the pun) into an extravaganza visited by millions each year.

The best description for the Harbin Ice Festival is a sprawl of dazzling, multi-colored ice palaces and other objects illuminating the night sky — like Elsa's ice palace in Frozen on steroids. All the ice produced comes from the frigid Songhua River, which also becomes the site of winter swimming for the hardier locals.

The Wild Hunt, Various Locations.

The origins of Yule stem from the Germanic tribes of northern Europe, and it is thought to be connected to a yearly event called the Wild Hunt. This tradition is still reenacted by certain groups across northern and western Europe.

The Wild Hunt is imagined as a chase led by a mythological character such as the Norse god Odin or even historical figures such as the Danish King, Valdemar Atterdag. The hunters are said to be the souls of the dead or ghostly animals — even valkyries or fairies.

This ritual is still observed in the eerie hills of Glastonbury, U.K. As autumn makes way for winter, the town assembles in its finest pagan outfits.

Otherworldly revelers follow a procession behind the Winter King to the famous Glastonbury Tor — regarded as the mythical Isle of Avalon, famous in Arthurian legend. There is much frolicking, pipe music, and Morris dancing for the entire night.

Winter Carnival, Puntas Arenas, Chile.

The best thing about Chile's Winter Carnival is its exotic location. In Puntas Arenas, visitors can experience a full-scale street carnival with dancing, drums, fireworks, and mesmerizing float displays in a cold climate. The only problem: it is in July.

One must assume that a simple beach holiday in Cancun would appeal to the masses in July. However, a winter street carnival full of revelers in full carnival feathers and leotards may be appealing for those adventurous types.

For a celebration not too dissimilar to its superstar Brazilian cousin to the north, the port town of Puntas Arenas, nestled on the southern edge of fjord land outside Tierra del Fuego National Park, provides a unique experience.

Krampusnacht, Germany.

In one of the scariest acts of Christmas, we have Krampusnacht. This is a curious celebration rife with contradiction and juxtaposition. It stems from early Christmas celebrations in Germany and the eastern Alpine regions south of Bavaria.

Krampus is an evil horned creature who assists jolly old St. Nicholas on his tour. In folklore, he stole away bad children, while St. Nick delivered presents to the good ones. This comes across as dark, though this was the medieval ages, so nothing strange there!

It does seem odd to celebrate an evil devil-like entity (which, like most northern European winter entities, comes from pagan times). Naturally, critics scorn such an unsavory character on what is supposed to be a celebration of goodness.

However, Krampus parades are now part of many countries' winter festivities — including America.

Dark Mofo, Tasmania

Another festival that follows the lead of early European paganistic festivals can be found in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart. The Dark Mofo was once labeled “The festival Sydney wouldn't allow.”

Dark Mofo was formed in 2013 and created to celebrate the darkness of winter solstice down under. It takes place in the cold month of June.

The festival brings together those of the darker persuasion, with activities such as naked solstice swimming, light shows, and live rock music on its schedule.

Its connections to ancient European pagan pageantry are clear, though this festival takes a modern twist.

However, it draws much criticism, especially the installation of giant, red inverted crosses hoisted around the city. Local church groups have called for its cancellation.

Furthermore, animal rights groups also protested the event when performance art involving a slaughtered bull was allowed to take place.

Wassailing, Various Places

The wassail is the traditional name for mulled cider and part of a tradition that reaches deep into British history. With its roots in the Dark Ages, wassail is thought to stem from old Norse for ‘good health'.

This explains such a common expression for making a toast or clinking glasses. As far back as Roman times, it was common to place a toasted piece of bread in one's wine to soften the acidity.

Wassailing takes two forms: singing and drinking. Tradition in Britain held that peasants would sing on the doorsteps of their lord's manor for a winter bonus or some form of a treat.

The obvious connection to carol singing shows how loved traditions were transposed into Christian traditions, with carol singers now just spreading cheer or getting candy in return.

Each winter, there is also an orchard wassail in western England. A wassail king and queen lead the villagers to the local orchards to bless the harvest with toast dipped in cider. This winter celebration continues across western England and even parts of America.


Humanists worldwide who didn't enjoy religious happenings all around them found a new expression of thankfulness in 2001. The New Jersey Humanist Network is the architect of what has become a secular alternative for those opposed to religious dogma or just for anyone alienated by Christmas mania.

The tradition is usually a family one, though instead of sharing gifts, adherents like to swap science books or profess their love of reason and fact.

HumanLight was formed to create a secular winter holiday for those who wanted to create their own meaningful traditions and to help express positive human values, hopes, and ideals.

It usually involves a meal with a group of fellow-minded individuals or family. Candles are lit to illuminate notions such as hope, compassion, and humanity.


Dreamt up by author Daniel O' Keefe in 1966, this winter celebration was designed as an antidote to the perennial commercial onslaught that accompanies Christmas every year.

Festivus started with O' Keefe's moniker “A Festivus for the rest of us.” This referred to those still present after the death of O' Keefe's mother in 1976.

The ritual involves creating an aluminum pole unadorned with any decorations — unlike a Christmas tree. Other parts of Festivus include the airing of grievances, feats of strength, and the curious phenomenon of the Festivus miracles.

This celebration was parodied in the Seinfeld episode “The Strike,” in which Frank Costanza claims ownership of the idea as an antidote to Christmas shopping. He then proceeds to terrorize George with his interpretation of the event.


A Scottish new year extravaganza, Hogmanay is an all-night affair that takes place each New Year's Eve and connects with the old Norse winter tradition of Yule. The name's origin is much disputed, though many believe it is from the old Norse or Frankish lexicon.

Each year, Scotland's major cities fill up with visitors to witness a spectacle like no other — local community members swing balls of fire down the high street. The balls are made of metal caging stuffed with flammable materials, and their owners twirl them around their bodies as they march through the town.

Another tradition is seeing in the new year with ‘first-footing'; this involves the first person to cross your doorway being greeted with gifts such as salt. The first footer is considered to bring in luck for the year ahead. Revelers also herald the new year by singing “Auld Lang Syne”, which is now common in much of the Anglosphere on New Year's Day.


Another winter celebration that made its first appearance in 1966 (see HumanLight), Kwanzaa was formed after the Watts Riots by Maulana Karenga.

Civil rights activist Karenga felt the need for African Americans to celebrate their culture in a predominantly white European Christmas backdrop.

Any divisive connotations were expelled later when Karenga decreed the celebration was not supposed to be in opposition to one's religious or non-religious beliefs.

The name stems from the Swahili expression,” Matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits,” and uses other Swahili terms to predicate the values behind it.

There are seven principles called Nguzo Saba, which relate to the seven principles of African heritage, including Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), and Nia (purpose). Each principle is witnessed on the seven days of Kwanzaa.

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