Cultural Holiday Traditions Celebrated Across Michigan

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December brings a month filled with holiday traditions and rich customs that take place in many different cultures. Aside from the movies and music, there a several events across the state that celebrate the holiday season. From Finnish Christmas saunas in the UP to lighting the Menorah in the D, everyone is encouraged to partake in the customs of another culture this Pure Michigan holiday season.

Sinterklaas Eve and Kerstmarkt

Holland’s strong cultural ties to the Netherlands have made the city a beacon for families of Dutch heritage. The holiday season brings two Dutch traditions to the west side of Michigan, Sinterklass Eve and Kerstmarkt.

The Dutch folk celebration of Sinterklaas is celebrated every year on December 5th. The celebration begins when Sinterklass, better known as Saint Nicholas, arrives at the Kerstmarkt on a white horse dressed in a bishop’s hat and red cape. Children and their families parade though town, carrying lanterns to Centennial Park, where Sinterklaas greets the crowd and lights Holland’s Christmas tree. After the Sinterklaas Eve celebration, guests can tour the Holland Museum or return to the Kerstmarkt for some holiday shopping and traditional food, drink and celebration.

Keeping with European tradition, Holland’s Kerstmarkt offers a venue for artists and specialty shop owners to sell their goods while shoppers enjoy traditional food, drink and entertainment. The wooden booths reflect the stalls of old-world European markets selling holly bushes, pine wreaths, jewelry, pottery, wooden toys, boxes and spoons. While Kerstmarkt has become a holiday tradition for many West Michigan families, shoppers from Chicago and as far away as Texas have made the trip to this memorable Christmas market. Kerstmarkt takes place at the 8th Street Marketplace weekends from mid-November to mid-December.

Szopka and Wigilia

Hamtramck is Michigan’s epicenter for Polish tradition year round. During the holiday season, people from all over the county visit the Polish Art Center in Hamtramck to browse the indoor winter wonderland. The Szopka competition is the main event at the Polish Art Center—Szopka are ornately decorated nativity scenes with roots that date back to 13th century Krakow. The colorful models made out of foil, paper, and candy wrappers are judged based on how elaborately they are built and decorated. They are on display at the Polish Art Center from the beginning of November all the way through the Christmas season.

Before families leave the Polish Art Center, they buy Oplatki wafers, handmade straw ornaments, which symbolize ancestry, and other items necessary for a proper Polish Christmas. Polish Christmas traditions center on the Wigilia, a traditional meatless Christmas Eve dinner celebrated at home where animals are “given the night off” and dinner guests pass around the Oplatki wishing each other well in the New Year. Every aspect of Wigilia tradition is rooted in the love of family and the birth of Christ. 

Finnish Christmas Saunas

More Finnish people live in the northwest part of the U.P. than anywhere else in the world, outside of Finland, and the Finnish culture there is prevalent. Christmas saunas are one of the oldest traditions in Finnish culture—it’s such an important part of the Finnish culture that it is common to have one built in the back yard. In fact, it's not uncommon to find many homes and cottages in the UP have saunas right on the property. Christmas saunas are associated with purity and is a time to enjoy peace and quiet and to cleanse the body and mind. After Christmas dinner, it is custom to bring treats to the sauna elf! To experience a sauna this season, visit the Second Street Sauna in Marquette. Opened in 1926, it is the longest continuously operated public sauna in Michigan. For only $5, guests can experience 45 minutes of relaxing and cleansing heat.

Hanukkah and Menorah in the D

During Hanukkah, the Jewish community gives thanks for the miracle of light. Everybody can celebrate the idea that the future can be brighter than the past and lighting the Menorah is a symbol of goodness among the bad.
Menorah in the D has become part of the Hanukkah tradition for many families in Michigan. For the past seven years, on the first day on Hanukkah, families from across the state and Midwest gather at Campus Martius in the heart of downtown Detroit, to light the 26-foot Menorah. The event includes family-friendly activities, complementary snacks, marshmallow roasting and a performance by the Detroit Pistons Extreme Team.

Mitzvah Day

For over 20 years, Detroit’s Jewish and Muslim communities have come together to participate in service projects and spread goodwill at 51 sites throughout Metro Detroit. On December 25, volunteers from the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Michigan Muslim Community Council come together to deliver toys to kids, prepare meals and play games with seniors, visit veterans, serve hot meals at homeless shelters and sort books for Bookstock. Mitzvah Day, the largest day of volunteering in the Jewish community, allows for Christians who regularly volunteer to take a day off and spend Christmas with their family. Learn more about the project and how you can get involved here!


On the first day of Rochester’s Big Bright Light Show, area businesses participate in the Creole tradition of Lagniappe, which means “a little something special.” In the mid-1800s, grocery store and shop owners would give a small gift to thank customers for their patronage. Mark Twain called Lagniappe “equivalent to the thirteenth roll in a baker’s dozen.” Downtown Rochester’s Lagniappe comes in the form of the Big Bright Light Show! Throughout December, families can partake in their Lagniappe with free carriage rides, street carolers, and a visit with Santa and his reindeer. Local businesses also continue to celebrate Lagniappe with special offers and giveaways.