Local actors playing mischievous Yule Lads assemble at the geothermal lagoon by Iceland’s Lake Myvatn, December 8, 2018.
You know this part already: The holidays are different this year. In order to protect loved ones from a deadly virus, families around the world are avoiding gatherings, sometimes canceling beloved events altogether.
It’s hard. But this off-kilter season is also the chance to try something new, and this list is a multicultural invitation to mix things up.
Whether you’re soaking in a traditional Japanese New Year’s bath or dancing through the house to the rhythm of Bahamian Junkanoo music, try these activities to inject some sparkle into the long winter nights ahead.
Iceland: A visit from the Yule Lads
Lurking amid Iceland’s azure lagoons and steaming volcanoes are a long list of (possibly) mythological creatures, which range from tiny elves to enormous sea monsters.
And for 13 days before Christmas, tradition holds that a mischievous pack of troll-like figures known as the Yule Lads visit local children. According to lore, a different lad visits every night to reward — or punish — kids by leaving something behind in an empty shoe.
A lucky child might get presents or candy. If the Yule Lads disapprove, though, you’ll find a shoe filled with rotten potatoes.
Bring it home: Leave an empty shoe by your bedroom window, and see what the Yule Lads leave during the night. A different Yule Lad visits on each of the 13 nights before Christmas, starting with the sheep-harassing Stekkjarstaur on December 12. The final lad, Kertasníkir, comes on Christmas Eve.
United Kingdom: Watch sunset over Stonehenge
Enormous crowds gather in southern England to celebrate the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere — the winter solstice — at the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, joining local groups of pagans and druids for an ancient tradition.
The stones themselves frame a view of the winter solstice sunset, leading some researchers to believe the site was built to mark the passing seasons. And excavations at nearby Durrington Walls show evidence of huge feasts that likely occurred around winter solstice time.
Winter solstice celebrations in the United Kingdom have been resurgent in recent years, with caroling, costumes and processions by torchlight. Southeast of Stonehenge in the coastal community of Penzance, the six-day Montol Festival is a revival of Cornish traditions that far predate the arrival of Christianity in the British Isles.
Bring it home: Livestream footage of sunset on December 20 and sunrise on December 21 via the English Heritage Facebook page.
Bahamas: Dance all night
Bahamanians shimmy across the island to the sound of cowbells, drums and whistles for Junkanoo, a celebration that goes from December 26 through New Year’s Day.
Dancing troupes of up to 1,000 people flaunt colorful costumes and headdresses as they perform in parades that don’t even start until 2 a.m. The festivities continue well into the next day, with prizes awarded for the best dance moves and most spectacular outfits.
While the origins of Junkanoo are debated, many Bahamanians trace the celebration back to the era when enslaved people used “days off” between Christmas and the New Year for roving parties.
Bring it home: Put on your finest apparel and groove through your home — or the neighborhood — while blasting this Junkanoo playlist.
Italy: Feast your way into the New Year
A rousing blend of fireworks, bonfires, dancing and food rings in the New Year in Italy, where December 31 is celebrated as the feast day of San Silvestro. (The medieval saint died on December 31, 335 A.D.)
Food-loving Italians mark the occasion with a delicious meal, but there are special requirements for a New Year’s Eve dinner. The main course should include both lentils and pork: Lentils represent wealth, while pork symbolizes life’s richness.
Made with lentils and slow-cooked, pork sausage called cotechino, the classic New Year’s Eve dish is called cotechino con lenticchie, a savory treat that’s perfect with a bottle of Italian sparkling wine.
Bring it home: Put on a pair of red underwear — Italian tradition holds that they’ll bring good luck — and whip up a batch of cotechino con lenticchie.
Japan: Hot baths, long noodles and one epic song battle
Buddhist temple bells peal across Japan on ōmisoka, or New Year’s Eve, to mark the changing year. Each bell chimes 108 times, a single note for each of the human defilements recognized in Buddhism. (Think: ingratitude, envy and greed, along with 105 other unpleasant traits).
What follows all that ringing is the toshi no yu, the last bath of the year, which offers a symbolically clean start as you flip over the calendar page. Then, sit down for a steaming bowl of toshikoshi soba, a bowl of buckwheat noodles said to bring good luck and longevity in the coming year.
But it’s not ōmisoka without watching the Kohaku Uta Gassen song contest, now in its 71st year. The show pits teams of performers against each other in an epic battle that’s timed to end just before midnight.
Bring it home: Take a bath, then slurp a homemade batch of toshikoshi soba while you stream highlights of past Kohaku Uta Gassen performances.
Austria: Meet Santa’s evil twin
With curled horns, fangs and hooves, the legendary figure of Krampus is Europe’s terrifying answer to jolly Santa Claus. Instead of giving out presents, the mythological figure — believed to have roots in pre-Christian, European traditions — is said to scare “bad” children.
Today, Krampus parades are held in Austrian villages through the month of December, complete with creepy costumes and exploding fireworks, while onlookers stay warm with mugs of steaming spiced wine. Many such events have been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bring it home: Make your own Krampus mask from a hard hat (or just order one on Etsy). Then, curl up with a mug of hot gluehwein for a screening of the not-at-all traditional 2015 movie “Krampus.”
United States: Don an ‘ugly Christmas sweater’
Many of the United States’ most visible holiday traditions, like Christmas trees and dreidels, arrived in the country with immigrants. This one, however, is purely homegrown.
During the holidays, many Americans wear garish sweaters decked with reindeer, elves and other seasonal themes; they even attend “ugly sweater parties” where prizes are awarded for the most eye-catching garments. The third Friday of December — that’s December 18 this year — has been declared National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day, while yearly gift guides advise on the ugliest sweaters of all.
In the 1950s, holiday-themed “jingle bell sweaters” began to catch on, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that ironic, self-consciously ugly garments became hip. Now, they’re an American tradition.
Bring it home: Stage a contest of your own by inviting friends and family to a virtual ugly sweater get-together. There’s no need to buy a ready-made sweater: Decorate a plain sweater with ornaments, pom-poms, lights and tinsel for a DIY version.
Israel: Dine on doughnuts
Jewish communities around the globe feast on fried foods during Hanukkah, which begins at sunset on December 10 this year.
It’s no coincidence: The holiday marks an ancient miracle, when a group of Jewish rebel warriors watched a day’s worth of oil stretch for more than a week. Fried foods serve as reminders of the event.
And in Israel, one of the most beloved Hanukkah treats is sufganiyot, pillowy, yeasted doughnuts filled with jam or vanilla cream. It’s a traditional food that invites endless innovation; this year, there are even Mexican-style, sufganiyot-inspired paletas for sale in Tel Aviv.
Bring it home: Fire up the deep fryer to make sufganiyot with a recipe from famed cookbook author Joan Nathan’s book “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.”
Jen Rose Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Find her work at jenrosesmith.com, or follow her on Twitter @jenrosesmithvt.