We Americans have patriotic traditions like fireworks for Independence Day. As Catholics, our unique family celebrations mark holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Outside the U.S. many cultures have unique celebrations that blend ethnic traditions with Catholic holidays.
In Ireland, the biggest of all celebrations is the St. Patrick’s Festival, named for the country’s patron saint. The festival revels in Ireland’s rich culture and heritage with parades, dancing, music, food and plenty of pints of beer. Revelers can be found across Ireland, from small villages to big cities.
Western tradition notes that Jan. 6 is celebrated as Epiphany, known as Three Kings Day in much of Europe. Christians recall the three wise men coming to visit Jesus, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Epiphany is the climax of the Advent/Christmas season and the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Jan. 7 has become an official holiday – Russian Orthodox Christmas – which culminates in the observance of Theophany, the Feast of the Manifestation, the baptism of Jesus.
In South America, Catholics celebrate the Festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria, honoring one of Bolivia’s most beloved religious icons. On Feb. 2 parades and parties are held in her honor. Bolivian festivals combine a mix of Catholic and ancient local influences, such as Puno, the epicenter of Peruvian folklore.
New Year’s Eve in Brazil and Chile draws more than a million revelers to Copacabana Beach for one of the world’s largest celebrations. Fireworks, concerts and the religious celebrations of the Afro-Brazilian Candomble (dance to the gods) make for an unforgettable New Year’s Eve. In Chile, Valparaiso rings in the new year with a spectacular bang, setting off fireworks high above the city’s bay; Pablo Neruda used to spend New Year’s Even watching from his home high on a cliff.
Mexicans mark the Day of the Dead (Oct. 31-Nov. 2), an ancestral tradition that blends with Catholicism to create a special time to remember and honor loved ones by offering them an ofrenda, or offering, such as the fragrance of flowers, the light of candles, the aroma of special foods and the solemnity of prayers. It is also a time to joke and make fun of death through calaveras, or representations of the human skull; poetry allusive to a particular person, generally politicians; sugar, chocolate and amaranth skulls which are given to one another with a friend’s name so “they can eat their own death;” and special displays with skeletons representing daily activities.
During Advent, Christmas markets crop up in nearly every German town, large or small. The town squares are lit up and townspeople gather together, listen to brass-band music, drink beer and enjoy the hearty traditional fare of the region. Christmas markets date back to at least the 14th century.
On Nov. 22, Vietnamese Catholics mark the Feast of Our Lady of La Vang. The occasion recognizes the 1798 appearance of the Blessed Mother to a group of Catholic residents of Quang Tri who were hiding in the forest, trying to escape the king’s persecution. The Blessed Mother appeared to the group, offering them comfort. She was holding a baby; two angels stood at her side. After this first apparition, the Blessed Mother continued to appear in this same place many times throughout the period of nearly 100 years of religious persecution.
Some Italian religious customs have become worldwide traditions. Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly built a reproduction of the infant Christ’s manger in front of a church in Greccio, Italy in the 11th century; the tradition of creating a nativity scene outside a church has spread around the world.