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Holiday Lights Around The World

December 20, 2017

Holiday Lights around the World

As winter returns and the days turn darker, people from all over the world join together to celebrate light. From ceremonial candle-lighting to raging, sometimes dangerous, bonfires, we share with you a few festivals of light from around the globe.



India - New Moon, Late autumn

Diwali is a five day festival celebrated by millions. On the new moon in late autumn, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs alike enthusiastically celebrate the festival’s theme - the triumph of light over dark, good over evil. In order to prepare for the holiday, many participants bathe themselves in oil, don fresh, new clothing, and decorate open spaces with rangoli, intricate designs meticulously crafted from vibrant flowers and powdered grain.  While there are many ways the festival of Diwali is celebrated, some of the holiday’s most common features are music and dancing, elaborate firework displays, and the blessing of homes and businesses with diyas or clay oil lamps.  Over the course of the five days, family and close friends come together to exchange gifts, honor their loved ones, and tell stories that illustrate light’s victories.

Bala Chaturdashi

Kathmandu, Nepal - Late November, Early December

In late fall, Nepalese Hindus flock to the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, the country’s largest temple to Shiva. During an all-night vigil, visitors chant, dance, and light oil lamps to honor the god. In return, he grants deceased loved ones a favorable place in the afterlife.  After a night of prayer, the observants begin the morning at the nearby Bagmati River. After a ceremonial bath, meant to renew the spirit, visitors walk through the Kailash forest spread satbij, or seeds and grain, along the way. It is believed that the dispersion and ultimate growth of the seeds helps to settle the restless souls of the departed.

Bala Chaturdashi, by Festival Sherpa
Karthigai Deepam

Karthigai Deepam

Southern India - Late November, Early December

Karthigai Deepam is a holiday observed by Tamil Hindus in Southern India. Unlike Diwali, Karthigai Deepam is celebrated on fall’s full moon. This is no ordinary full moon. In late fall, this moon shares the sky with the six-starred constellation, Karthigai, commonly known as the Pleiades. According to legend, each of the six stars of Karthigai represent one of the six celestial nymphs who raised the six holy children. Thanks to the diligent care of these nymphs, the children grew to eventually become the six faces of the much-revered Muruga, god of war and victory. On the evening of the festival, Tamil Hindus light clay oil lamps. The oil lamps not only celebrate Muruga’s triumphs, but ward off evil and usher in prosperity.

After the sun goes down, the people of Tamil bring out homemade firecrackers, or kartikai chutru crafted from branches, coconut shells and an enclosed piece of charcoal. Participants swing the contraptions in the dark, dancing and creating captivating patterns in the air.

Quema del Diablo

Antigua, Guatemala - 1st week of December

Guatemalans mark the start of the Christmas season with a ceremonial “burning of Satan.” In the weeks before the holiday, craftsmen sell paper mache devils and horned pinatas that are later taken to the streets and burned as effigies. It is believed that the burning process purges the community of evil spirits and offers renewal for the holiday. Historically, poorer communities were unable to afford elaborate effigies and resourcefully burned garbage, instead.  Much to the dismay of government officials, burning heaps of trash has become an integral part of the day’s festivities.

Quema del Diablo, by

Saint Lucy’s Day

Scandinavia - December 13th

St. Lucia is a popular figure known for her relationship to the poor and her role in aiding early Christians. According to legend, in an effort to bring as much food as she could to Christians in hiding, Lucia wore a wreath of candles upon her head so as to free both of her hands. To this day, Scandinavian families honor St. Lucy’s service on the winter solstice of the old calendar.  On this day, it is tradition for the eldest daughter of each family to dress in white and wear a candle crown while serving wine and saffron buns.

Saint Lucy's Day


International Jewish Community - Date varies; starts on the 25th day of month of Kislev (lunar and solar calendar)

Hanukkah is a celebration of the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and the miracle of a one-day’s supply of oil lasting eight. According to religious texts, the Temple was desecrated by occupying forces and traditional religious practices were banned. After a long struggle, however, the Temple was reclaimed and cleansed.

To commemorate this momentous occasion, the candles in the temple were lit with whatever kosher oil that remained. There was enough of a supply to last a single day and the process of making kosher oil takes an additional seven. But by a miracle, the oil lasted the full eight, keeping the temple illuminated. Members of the Jewish faith celebrate this miracle by playing the dreidel, lighting a nine-branched menorah, eating delicious, oily foods, and spending time with loved ones.



International Christian Community - December 25th

Christmas is an annual holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Throughout the season, or Advent, observers fast, decorate their homes, sing carols, and exchange small gifts. At Christmastime, it is customary for observants to decorate their home with evergreen, a symbol of the eternal life of Christ. However, over time it has developed from a tradition of placing wreaths and candles in the windows to include the beloved Christmas tree. The tradition of the Christmas tree was initiated in Germany as recently as the mid-1800s but rapidly became a worldwide phenomenon. To this day, many families gather to embellish trees of all sizes with ornaments and bright lights.  


United States - December 26th to January 1st

Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 as an opportunity for Black Americans of African descent to celebrate their West African roots as a community. Over the course of a week, participants meditate on seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, which include unity, self-determination, purpose, creativity, faith, cooperative economics, collective work and responsibility.

In preparation for the holiday, the home is decorated with colorful artwork, traditional cloth, and a kinara, a candelabra with seven candles - three red, three green, and one black. On each day of Kwanzaa, participants light a single candle and reflect on how the principles inform their daily lives.



Scotland - Dec 31st

Hogmany is observed in Scotland as a holiday to celebrate the New Year. On December 31st, Scots visit family and friends and exchange gifts.  While the holiday is very much about the visitors to the home, there is a special value attributed to the first guest or “first-foot” in the new year. (It’s an added bonus if the first footer is tall, dark, and handsome.) In regions of Northern Scotland, people flock to the streets and watch as participants swing fireballs, a large, roaring contraption crafted from newspaper, chicken wire, and kindling. In other regions, the night culminates with a ritual burning of a Viking longship.

Hogmanay Ferris Wheel
Hogmanay Fireworks


Eastern Europe, International - January 7th

Epiphany is a Christian holiday that commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. This day is so important as it is deemed the day that officially marks him as the Son of God. Epiphany is celebrated all around the world and in many different ways, but in some regions of Eastern Europe, it is tradition to light candles and bathe in the icy cold water of the outdoors.

Nozawa Fire Festival

Nozawa Onsen, Japan - January 15th

While there are a few fire festivals throughout Japan in the wintertime, one of the more notable is the boisterous event that takes place every year in Nozawa Onsen. Male villagers at the “unlucky” ages of 40, 41, 42 and 25 organize the night’s festivities which include the construction and subsequent incineration of a three-story wooden shrine. On the evening of the event, the 40-somethings rest upon the top of the newly-built shrine and the 25-year-olds guard the first floor. This is all after an afternoon of consuming sake. A battle ensues as festival participants attempt to break past the younger organizers and burn the shrine to the ground. Sound dangerous? Oh, it is. Designated members of the defense party refrain from the customary sake and act as sober guardians to ensure both fun and safety.

Nozawa Fire Festival
Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa

Scotland - End of January

At the end of January, Scots mark the end of Yuletide fun with a night-time procession in the streets. Amateur actors in themed costumes lead the way with torches in hand. Originally, the procession tradition included the raucous pastime of “tar barrelling,” or dragging flaming barrels lined with tar through the streets. Given its extreme hazards, communities gave up the old tradition and settled on the parade, alone. Often, the procession culminates in the burning of a viking ship - one might say there’s a theme here for the Scots - and a communal party with drinking and dancing.