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The Romans might have spawned early traditions associated with Christmas through spirited celebrations of Saturnalia (an ancient festival held to honor the god Saturn), but the urge to observe the winter solstice and hasten the return of sunnier skies began much earlier. During the darkest and coldest months (generally November through February), people in the Northern Hemisphere seek warmth from a cozy fire and friendly company. Here are 13 winter festivals worth toasting to.
Up Helly Aa, Scotland
Although the Shetland Islands are part of Scotland, they were raided and ruled by the Vikings for centuries. Viking influence remains present there today, especially in the town of Lerwick, where Europe’s largest fire festival is held on the last Tuesday of January. Torch-wielding participants are garbed in skins and furs, horn-helmeted, and heavily armed with axes and broadswords. The pageantry climaxes during the burning of a traditional dragon-prowed Viking ship, but the dancing and drinking can often last until dawn.
Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, China
The world’s largest winter festival is held in the city of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province. The two-month event attracts up to 15 million visitors annually, who flock there to experience a true winter wonderland featuring thousands of meticulously carved and beautifully illuminated ice and snow castles, towers, and sculptures, as well as an incredible ice slide.
Shab-e Yaldā, Iran
On the longest night of the year, Persians in Iran and all around the world gather with family and friends to celebrate the winter solstice. Celebrants enjoy red foods that represent the sun (such as pomegranates and watermelons), alongside nuts, sweets, and endless cups of tea. Throughout the festivities, people take turns blindly selecting a page from the poems of Hafez, and those verses are said to speak the future. One prediction that will always come true: The traditional music and merriment will last until midnight.
The Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo peoples of northern Arizona mark the beginning of the Wheel of the Year with the ceremony of Soyal. Intended to bring the sun back from its long winter slumber, the 16-day festival starts on the shortest day of the year in late December and is a time of prayer and purification before welcoming back the protective kachinas (spirits) with a great feast and dances.
Frozen Dead Guy Days, Colorado
In the tiny mining town of Nederland, Colorado, locals have a strange reason to celebrate. Every year in early March (which is very much still winter in Colorado), partygoers pay tribute to a Norwegian named Bredo Morstoel, who has been dead and frozen in a Tuff Shed for the last 30 years. For the last 20 years, the town has hosted a polar plunge, coffin races, a hearse parade, live music, and beer tents — all in honor of the resident they call “Grandpa.” It’s a chillingly spooky, fun time.
Québec Winter Carnival, Canada
As one of the largest, most beloved festivals in Canada, Québec's 10-day Winter Carnival in early February has an official Bonhomme mascot (French for snowman) and offers family-friendly festivities in historic Old Québec City. Also known as the Bonhomme Festival, the event features ice skating, hockey, curling, and canoeing through the icy Saint Lawrence River, as well as parades and snow sculpture competitions. And don’t miss checking out the ice hotel!
The yin of the cold weather and darkness gives way to the yang of warmth and light on the winter solstice in Japan — representing the balance and harmony of the year. Toji is when the Japanese gather with friends and family to mark the season. One tradition is to take a yuzu-yu, a hot bath with the lemony yuzu fruit, which is believed to protect one from sickness and ward off evil spirits. Simmered kabocha squash is also enjoyed during a traditional feast and eaten for good luck and prosperity.
St. Lucia’s Day, Sweden
This Christian festival of lights is celebrated throughout Sweden and Swedish-speaking regions of Finland on December 13, the day of the winter solstice on the old Julian calendar. Young girls (traditionally the eldest daughter in the home) don white dresses and candlelit crowns and serve sweets to honor Saint Lucia, who was said to bring food to persecuted Christians in pagan times. Processions and carols are common, as are lussekatts (sweet raisin and saffron buns).
Amsterdam Light Festival, The Netherlands
Long winter nights are the perfect backdrop for one of Europe’s best light festivals, which illuminates Amsterdam’s canals with light sculptures and displays from some of the world’s best artists. You can view the displays from a boat or simply stroll the waterways to take in the unique seasonal spectacle.
Dressing up like a demon, scaring people, and burning things may not sound very festive, but Busójárás is an annual tradition, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire and takes place in the Hungarian town of Mohács. Legend has it that a group of Šokac men from Croatia donned masks and scared intruders out of town. Today, the playful revelry is to celebrate the Šokci people and also to scare away winter.
Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival, Iceland
Winter nights are cold and dark — especially in Iceland. And since residents of the country can’t always rely on the northern lights to brighten up the season, they put on their own light show each February to celebrate the beauty of winter as the days begin to grow longer. Phenomenal light installations are scattered across the city of Reykjavik, and a plethora of cultural activities lure visitors to explore the beauty of the northernmost capital in the world.
St. Paul Winter Carnival, Minnesota
Minnesota is no stranger to winter, and the city of St. Paul has been celebrating the snowy season with their annual Winter Carnival since 1886. The family-friendly extravaganza features ice fishing, softball tournaments, and a snow and ice sculpture park at the state fairgrounds. Kids can participate in arts and crafts and everyone warms up with a cup of hot chocolate.
People living in Venice have been donning masks and celebrating the weeks leading up to Lent for more than 700 years. Candlelit palaces, glittering balls, and throngs of revelers are a hallmark of this elegant Italian celebration you don’t want to miss.