Photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash
Eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve and a massive Yule Goat sculpture may be normal in certain parts of Europe, while a Snow Festival and Sky Lantern Festival may be typical in some countries in Asia. From traditions rooted in history to newer and unique festivities, how different European and Asian nations celebrate the winter holidays exemplifies the beauty of diversity. The cultural celebrations across the two continents demonstrate the vibrancy of cultures and heritage and teach us to appreciate our differences. Furthermore, the interaction between the two continents can be seen, for example, in the way Christmas is celebrated in Asia and how Lunar New Year is commemorated among the migrant communities in Europe. To honour these differences and interactions, this short article will explore some fascinating winter festivities in Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and South Korea.
I chose to write about these countries specifically because of my personal connection to them. I was born and raised in Bulgaria, after which I moved to the Netherlands, where I completed my undergraduate studies. Additionally, I have been interested in Korean culture and language for the past few years.
Christmas Eve in Bulgaria
Although Eastern Orthodox Christianity predominates in Bulgaria, each family celebrates the winter holidays in different ways. For some, the Nativity Fast (40 days of abstinence from food of animal origin aimed to purify people’s bodies and souls) or going to church on Christmas Day (25th of December) are musts, while for others, Christmas is more of a symbolic time to spend with family and exchange presents. Within my family, Christmas Eve (Бъдни Вечер, Budni Vecher) holds more memories and significance, alongside some interesting traditions.
To begin with, Christmas Eve is celebrated on the 24th of December because, according to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ was born at midnight on that day. Before everyone gathers at the dinner table, it is customary for the head of the household to walk around all the rooms in the house with incense. This is done to bless the family home and protect it against all evil.
Following this ritual, everyone gathers around the dinner table. The dinner does not include any animal products because of the Christmas fast. Meals have to be odd numbers: either seven for each day of the week or nine for the duration of the pregnancy. Typical meals are boiled beans, boiled wheat, сарми (sarmi, cabbage rolls) with rice or bulgur, ошав (oshav, dessert with dried fruit), тиквеник (tikvenik, similar to pumpkin pie), stuffed peppers and others. Additionally, garlic, walnuts, honey, onions, fresh fruits preserved from the summer, and wine can be placed on the table. The питка (pitka, traditional Bulgarian bread), which is always handmade and contains a coin, is a must. The eldest member of the family distributes it. The first two pieces are for the Virgin Mary and the house, after which each of the family members gets a piece according to their age. The saying goes that whoever gets the coin from the pitka will have luck for the next year.
Another custom is that no one may get up until dinner is over. Only the oldest can do so, as even then, they must be bent over while walking, which is done to ensure a fruitful new year. Once dinner is over, the dishes on the table are not removed because it is believed that either an unexpected guest or the deceased relatives of the family come to dine. The next day is Christmas, celebrated with presents under the Christmas tree and with dishes with meat and dairy products, as the 40-day Christmas fast is completed on Christmas Eve.
This is how Christmas Eve is traditionally celebrated in Bulgaria. There are differences in the ways that people celebrate, depending on their age and religious following. For example, I have never completed the Nativity Fast, but I always help with the preparation of the pitka and setting up of the dinner table.
Sinterklaas in The Netherlands
While Christmas Eve and Christmas are celebrated within families in the Netherlands, there is another winter holiday that takes priority, especially among children - that is Sinterklaas. During this holiday, celebrated on the 5th of December, Dutch families get together and exchange gifts (Séveno, 2022).
Sinterklaas is based on Saint Nicholas, who was believed to be a bishop in Myra (present-day Turkey) in the 4th century. Stories of his miracles, such as resurrecting young children, later spread around Europe, and upon his death, he was canonised as the patron saint of children by the Catholic Church (Séveno, 2022). Nowadays, it is said that he lives in Spain with his helpers throughout the year and comes to the Netherlands in mid-November for a celebration called intocht (or the arrival of Sinterklaas). Various cities throughout the country organise parades with various games and activities for the arrival, where Sinterklaas greets the children.
Once the Sinterklaas parade is over, it is time for Pakjesavond (or present night). For little children, this is the evening that Sinterklaas brings them presents, and often, they put their shoes by the fire or even the radiator and can expect a small gift, such as chocolate or toys (DutchNews, 2015). Older children and adults exchange gifts, and oftentimes this is combined with another Dutch tradition - “surprises” - or in other words, a present that is wrapped up and disguised as something else. Usually, alongside these gifts, people write humorous poems to each other, which the recipient should read aloud. Food is also an important part of the Sinterklaas celebrations. Dutch cookie-like confectioneries peppernoten, kruidnoten, and chocolate letters can usually be found in supermarkets starting in November and are the typical snacks for this holiday (DutchNews, 2015).
Lunar New Year in South Korea
Similar to Europe, Christmas is a national holiday in South Korea, and the country gets into the Christmas spirit with great light displays, adorned Christmas trees, and mountains of gifts in every shop (Travel Stained, 2022). When compared to other East Asian nations, such as China and Japan, Christmas is celebrated more extensively in South Korea since Christians make up roughly 25-30% of the population. For the more religious Koreans, Christmas in Korea is observed as the birth of Christ, and services are held among churches in the country. However, the sentiment is not shared by everyone, with the majority of the population looking at it mainly as a commercial holiday, far removed from the main point of Christmas. What is more, Christmas in Korea can be considered as more of a romantic holiday rather than a day to spend with family. It is frequently referred to as “Valentines with Santa” and many couples go on dates, such as dinner or ice skating, to celebrate this winter holiday (Wigg, 2015).
So, while Christmas in Korea is celebrated, (Korean) Lunar New Year (설날, Seollal) is a much bigger holiday during the winter period. This is one of the most important holidays in Korea and spans over three days, with millions of Koreans within and outside the country travelling back to their hometowns to be with their families. Seollal falls on the first day of the Lunar calendar, which is typically between late January and mid-February. The tradition of celebrating the (Korean) Lunar New Year dates back over a millennium. It pays homage to ancestor spirits and emphasizes the importance of family, which is done through an ancestor worship ceremony, called sebae (세배). This is the traditional bowing ritual, where younger people bow to their elders to express filial piety. This ritual highlights the importance of harmony and unity within the family in the new year.
Another important tradition is charye (차례). This involves male relatives serving food to ancestors and female relatives preparing the dish (Pickering, 2014). Charye is performed to express gratitude and maintain a connection with deceased ancestors, once again highlighting the importance of family and ancestors in Korean society. The food on Seollal differs by region, but typically, varieties of rice, soup, meat and seafood are present. Very common dishes are rice cake soup (떡국, tteoguk), which many Koreans believe brings longevity and good fortune, and savoury pancakes (전, jeon). Moreover, many families play traditional games, such as Yutnori (윷놀이). This game can be played by anyone, and it is not only a form of entertainment but also a way to pass down cultural heritage (90 Day Korean, 2016).
Overall, Seollal is a time for remembering ancestors, honouring the elderly, and maintaining harmonious family relations, and it has an integral meaning in Korean cultural heritage. It is interesting to mention that Korean Christians do not fully engage in the celebration of Seollal as it involves bowing to ancestors. However, the family gathering and the food remain the same. Nevertheless, it is celebrated as a rite of cultural passage by everyone.
These winter holiday celebrations, each with their own charm and uniqueness, show the cultural richness and vibrancy to be found in different corners of the world. Regardless of the different traditions and meanings behind these holidays, they foster a sense of joy and belonging and contribute to a more intricate and colourful world.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
90 Day Korean. (2016, January 24). Korean Lunar New Year in Korea. 90 Day Korean®. https://www.90daykorean.com/korean-lunar-new-year/
DutchNews. (2015, November 27). Ten things you need to know to celebrate Sinterklaas. DutchNews.nl. https://www.dutchnews.nl/2015/11/ten-things-you-need-to-know-to-celebrate-sinterklaas/
Pickering, B. (2014). Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year. Asia Society. https://asiasociety.org/korea/seollal-korean-lunar-new-year
Séveno , V. (2022, December 3). The Dutch Christmas? An expat guide to Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. IamExpat. https://www.iamexpat.nl/lifestyle/lifestyle-news/dutch-christmas-expat-guide-sinterklaas-netherlands
Travel Stained. (2022, December 11). Do Koreans Celebrate Christmas? 5 Strange Korean Christmas Traditions to Know About» Travel-Stained. Travel Stained. https://travel-stained.com/do-koreans-celebrate-christmas-traditions/
Wigg, S. (2015, December 31). Christmas in Korea: What Is It Like? 90 Day Korean. https://www.90daykorean.com/christmas-in-korea-what-is-it-like/#:~:text=Yes%2C%20Christmas%20in%20Korea%20is