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The Top 12 Holidays Everyone Should Know

These 12 holidays are marked widely across the globe — chances are, you celebrate at least one of them annually! This list doesn’t cover every holiday, of course, but it does give you a good overview of what to expect and plan for when working cross-culturally.

New Year's Day (January 1)

January 1 is the first day of the new year in the Gregorian calendar — and because this calendar is used by most of the world, New Year’s Day is one of the most celebrated holidays across the globe. Every country celebrates differently, but common festivities include special meals with family and friends, fireworks in the very early morning hours, and making promises to yourself known as “resolutions.”

Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year (varies, typically in January or February)

Lunar New Year is the biggest celebration in China and in the Chinese diaspora across the world. This all-out festival includes a week of activities (sometimes two weeks!), beginning with a traditional spring cleaning at home. Parades, fireworks, special cakes and dumplings, as well as traditions to increase luck and bring in prosperity, are all characteristic of this celebration. You’ll see red anywhere this vibrant holiday is celebrated — it’s thought to be auspicious and attract good fortune.

Valentine's Day (February 14)

Valentine’s Day is one of the oldest holidays in the Christian world: Its origins trace back to the very early years of the church and originally marked the feast day of a martyr (or martyrs) named Valentine. Some still celebrate Valentine’s Day as a religious holiday, but over the centuries it has become a largely secular occasion of romantic and platonic love. Children exchange cards and candy; lovers mark the occasion with sweets and gifts and perhaps a special meal; and in the United States, events like “Galentine’s Day” applaud the strength of female friendships. Red and pink are this holiday’s colors, which you’ll see splashed across shops beginning in late January.

Carnival/Mardi Gras (February or March)

Carnival — also known as Carnaval or Mardi Gras — is a freewheeling party that takes place about seven weeks before Easter and culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, which ushers in the 40-day season of sacrifice known as Lent in the Christian world. Wild parties and excesses of all sorts are a hallmark of Carnival, including colorful parades, inventive costumes, dancing, alcohol, and rich and sugary foods. Many countries celebrate this leadup to Lent, but some of the most famous include the American city of New Orleans, where it is known as Mardi Gras; and Brazil, where it is known as the Carnaval do Brasil.

Easter (varies, typically in March or April)

Easter is the most important day of the Christian calendar and marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Even before Christianity came into existence, people around the world heralded the arrival of spring with symbols such as rabbits and eggs — imagery that has made its way into many Christian observations today. Easter is the holiest of the Christian holidays, in which many observers head to church for special services. Families and friends gather to eat lavish meals to break the Lenten fast. Children dye and decorate chicken eggs, and confectioners mold rabbits out of chocolate. Easter is a time of rebirth and one of the most popular holidays in the world.

Diwali (October or November)

This festival is known by many names — Deepavali, Diwali, Dewali, or Divali — across India, where it is regarded as the biggest holiday of the year. For five days, millions upon millions of Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs light candles to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. They further mark the occasion by enjoying huge feasts with friends and family, creating intricate art called rangoli using colored sand, blasting fireworks, and decorating their homes. It is by far the largest holiday in India.

Christmas (December 25)

Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ, but this extremely popular holiday is celebrated by religious and secular people alike all over the world. In many countries, people prepare for Christmas by decorating their homes and businesses with twinkling lights, wreaths, bright shades of red, green and gold, and evergreen trees that are brought inside for the season and adorned with ornaments. Family and friends exchange gifts, make special meals, and attend church services. Children in European countries and in much of North America wake up and discover their homes have been “visited” by Santa Claus (also known as Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, or St. Nick), a character who brings gifts in the night.

Hanukkah (varies, typically in December)

This Jewish festival is celebrated for eight days and eight nights in honor of the retaking of Jerusalem from Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BCE. According to Jewish tradition, when the Jews went to rededicate their temple, known as the Second Temple, in Jerusalem, looters had ransacked the temple’s oil supply. However, when the temple’s lamp was lit, the oil that should have lasted for only one day instead lasted for eight days. Jewish people remember this miracle by lighting a menorah, a sacred candelabrum, at home over the course of Hanukkah. Other celebrations include lavish meals, gift giving, and religious rituals.

Ramadan (varies, based on Islamic lunar calendar)

This epic, month-long observance is one of the most famous holidays in the world. Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is marked with pre-dawn meals, all-day fasting, and nighttime feasts. It’s a time of prayer, reflection, discipline, and charity, and is the most sacred month of the Islamic year. The tradition dates all the way back to the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammad. At the end of Ramadan, the massive celebration Eid-al-Fitr kicks off the month of Shawwal with feasts, sweets, gifts, shopping, and special prayers.

Rosh Hashanah (varies, typically in September or October)

Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, is one of the holiest days in Judaism. It actually comes during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, but according to Judaism, it is the day when the Lord created the world. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a very important time in Judaism. After Rosh Hashanah comes the 10 Days of Awe, when God is said to decide who will live and who will die in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, at the end of the 10 Days of Awe, Jews have the chance to beg the Lord for forgiveness. No work is allowed on Rosh Hashanah; instead, it’s a time for quiet contemplation, religious services, and a special meal with family.

Yom Kippur (varies, typically in September or October)

Known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is the holiest of the holy days in Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur comes at the end of the 10 Days of Awe, when the Lord decides the fate of every person. In response, people ask forgiveness for their sins and atone for their decisions. Work is forbidden on Yom Kippur and many Jewish people attend synagogue services. This high holy day always follows Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Durga Puja (October)

This Hindu festival, also known as Sharodotsava or Durgotsava, is a 10-day festival to honor the goddess Durga and her victory over the demon Mahishasura. Puja refers to the rituals celebrants perform to honor the goddess. During Durga Puja, celebrants make offerings to dead ancestors, welcome and worship the goddess and other deities, pray, exchange gifts and food, and create highly decorative structures to house images of Durga, among many other traditions. Durga Puja is especially important to Bengali Hindus and several of the Indian states.

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