Holiday Dance Traditions Around The World

Smithsonian Magazine
The Bear Dance from Romania

The winter holiday season ushers in a time of engaging in family and cultural traditions for many people around the world. In addition to celebrating in your own ways, learning about traditions that are celebrated in other cultures can broaden your view of what the holiday season means. In this post, we’ll share some holiday traditions from various European and Caribbean countries that involve — you guessed it — DANCE!

Ursul Dance (The Bear Dance) – Romania

The Origins

The Ursul dance dates before Christian times in the eastern region of Moldova.  The bear symbolizes a few things.  It was believed to be a sacred symbol, therefore the rural people had the Gypsies come into town and bring their bears to ward off evil spirits.  It was also believed that the bears fertilized the soil for the next year and symbolized rebirth:  the death of one year and the rebirth of another.  Another role of the real bear… dancing.  They put a full sized bear on hot, metal plates to make them jump up to entertain the people (the not-so-animal-friendly part of this post).


This tradition is still mostly found in Moldova.  Today, people dress up in bear skins and bear heads with red tassels on the shoulders.  There is at least one bear “tamer” and a group of musicians playing drums and flutes.  The bear “tamer” sings to the group of dancers and the dancers typically respond with a practiced routine.  A signature dance move consists of the people move their bodies from side to side to make the tassels spin around.  The bear dance now represents the end of the year.

Dancing Around the Christmas Tree – Denmark

There are two major holiday songs we hear repeatedly during this time:  “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee.  Love it or hate it, it will be very hard to escape hearing these songs right now.  How do these songs relate to the first tradition?  The lyric “rockin’ around the Christmas tree” is actually related to a tradition in Europe and was not created by Brenda Lee and her writers.  Denmark’s tradition takes place on Christmas Eve.  The Christmas tree was decorated with real candles on the branches (please don’t try this at home with real candles!).  Families lit the candles, and circled the tree by dancing or shuffling while singing Danish carols.  This tradition is still alive today, but not with real candles.

Jonkonnu, JonKano, John Canoe Festival – Jamaica, Bahamas & Belize

Often celebrated in Jamaica, Bahamas, and Belize, Jonkonnu is a festival full of dancing, music, and creative costumes.  It is celebrated between Boxing day to the days leading up to New Year’s Day.  For those who are unfamiliar with Boxing day, it is the day after Christmas (December 26th).  Though it is known that it originated in the United Kingdom it is not exactly sure why and how it was celebrated.  Many believe it related to the people who were well off and gave left over gifts and money to those in need either to their servants or to the needy residing in churches.

When Did it and How Did it Originate?

It originated during slavery times.  Africans were brought over to the Caribbean and brought their religions with them.  Christmas and New Year’s Day was the only days slaves had off.  The slaves used this time to celebrate.  It was believed that slaves found items around them to use as costumes and danced from house to house.  These decorations were anything they found around them, even animal parts to incorporate into their masks.

Who is John Kanou?

This up for debate, but there are two main theories.  The less popular theory, the name derives from the deity of the Igbo people that were taken from Africa and used as slaves. It is believed that they already established the tradition of having a parade and wearing masks.  Of the more popular theories, John Kanou was a West African prince who defeated the British.  He was a local hero from then on, and the people who were aware of his legacy continued to celebrate him when they were taken across the sea to become slaves.


Traditionally, you can find these festivals in the Caribbean between Christmas time and New Year’s Day.  This festival and parade is full of people dressed in colorful costumes, elaborate masks, and often walking on stilts.  Other performers are playing percussion to accompany the dancing.  Depending on the country, you may find different dance groups competing against each other during the festival.


Although people around the world have many differences in the holidays they celebrate and the traditions that they enjoy, we all share the commonality of the human condition, and benefit from connecting with others. Dance is one of the most powerful ways to form bonds with those you love – take some time to get up and move in your own way this holiday season!





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