From the end of October through the New Year and onto Valentine's Day, it's easy to forget that the holidays we celebrate are simply cultural constructs that we can choose to engage in — or not. The concepts and ideas we celebrate — like our spiritual beliefs and daily habits — are a choice, though sometimes it feels like we "have" to celebrate them, even if we don't feel like it.

Culture is ours to do with as we choose, and that means that we can add, subtract, or edit celebrations or holidays as we see fit — because you and me and everyone reading this makes up our culture, and it is defined by us, for us, after all.

If you want to add a new and different perspective to your life, there are plenty of other ways to recognize joy and beauty outside American traditions. From Scandinavia to Japan, India and Germany, the concepts below may strike a nerve with you and inspire your own personal or familial celebration or — as is the case with a couple of these for me — sound like an acknowledgement of something you have long felt, but didn't have a word for.



A hiker sits atop Trolltunga, or 'troll's tongue,' a famous rock formation in southwestern Norway. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Friluftsliv translates directly from Norwegian as "free air life," which doesn't quite do it justice. Coined relatively recently, in 1859, it is the concept that being outside is good for human beings' mind and spirit. "It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature," Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group, told MNN. Other than that, it's not a strict definition: it can include sleeping outside, hiking, taking photographs or meditating, playing or dancing outside, for adults or kids. It doesn't require any special equipment, includes all four seasons, and needn't cost much money. Practicing friluftsliv could be as simple as making a commitment to walking in a natural area five days a week, or doing a day-long hike once a month.


forest bathing

Spending time in the forest can lower stress. (Photo: Semmick Photo/Shutterstock)

Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means "forest bathing" and unlike the Norwegian translation above, this one seems a perfect language fit (though a pretty similar idea). The idea being that spending time in the forest and natural areas is good preventative medicine, since it lowers stress, which causes or exacerbates some of our most intractable health issues. As MNN's Catie Leary details, this isn't just a nice idea — there's science behind it: "The "magic" behind forest bathing boils down to the naturally produced allelochemic substances known as phytoncides, which are kind of like pheromones for plants. Their job is to help ward off pesky insects and slow the growth of fungi and bacteria. When humans are exposed to phytoncides, these chemicals are scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, relieve stress and boost the growth of cancer-fighting white blood cells. Some common examples of plants that give off phytoncides include garlic, onion, pine, tea tree and oak, which makes sense considering their potent aromas."


hygge and cozy winters

Hygge is a mental state of togetherness and coziness. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Hygge is the idea that helps Denmark regularly rate as one of the happiest countries in the world — Danes have regularly been some of the most joyful in the world for over 40 years that the U.S. has been studying them — despite long, dark winters. Loosely translated at "togetherness," and "coziness," though it's not a physical state, it's a mental one. According to VisitDenmark (the country's official tourism site): "The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family — that’s hygge too. And let’s not forget the eating and drinking — preferably sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life." Hygge's high season is winter, and Christmas lights, candles galore, and other manifestations of warmth and light, including warm alcoholic beverages, are key to the concept.

Still a little confused and wondering how you could cultivate hygge in your life? This Danish NPR commenter sums up some specifics: "Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life : a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day." Now that sounds do-able, doesn't it?


patina and the concept of wabi sabi

Wabi-sabi is an acceptance of the toll life takes on us. (Photo: markuliasz/Shutterstock)

Wabi-sabi is the Japanese idea of embracing the imperfect, of celebrating the worn, the cracked, the patinaed, both as a decorative concept and a spiritual one — it's an acceptance of the toll that life takes on us all. As I wrote about it earlier this year, "If we can learn to love the things that already exist, for all their chips and cracks, their patinas, their crooked lines or tactile evidence of being made by someone's hands instead of a machine, from being made from natural materials that vary rather than perfect plastic, we wouldn't need to make new stuff, reducing our consumption (and its concurrent energy use and inevitable waste), cutting our budgets, and saving some great stories for future generations." We might also be less stressed, and more attentive to the details, which are the keys to mindfulness.


kaizen or continuous improvement

The newer concept of kaizen is the idea of continuous improvement. (Photo: Santiago Cornejo/Shutterstock)

Kaizen is another Japanese concept, one that means "continuous improvement," and could be taken to mean the opposite of wabi-sabi (though as you'll see, it depends on the interpretation). It's a very new idea, only coined in 1986, and generally used in business circumstances. As this tutorial details, "Kaizen is a system that involves every employee, from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once a month or once a year activity. It is continuous. Japanese companies, such as Toyota and Canon, a total of 60 to 70 suggestions per employee per year are written down, shared and implemented." These are regular, small improvements, not major changes. Applied to your own life, it could mean daily or weekly check-ins about goals, as opposed to making New Year's resolutions, or a more organized path based on small changes toward weight loss, a personal project or a hobby.


Gemütlichkeit is a German word that means almost the same thing as hygge, and also has its peak usage during the winter. In fact, some linguists posit that the word (and concept) of hygge likely came from the German idea. Blogger Constanze's entry on the German Language Blog for "Untranslatable German Words" describes how the word means more than just cozy: "A soft chair in a coffee shop might be considered ‘cosy’. But sit in that chair surrounded by close friends and a hot cup of tea, while soft music plays in the background, and that sort of scene is what you’d call gemütlich."


jugaad or ingenuity

The concept of jugaad is an innovative fix to solve a problem. (Photo: Michal Zieba/Shutterstock)

Jugaad is a Hindi word that means "an innovative fix" or a "repair derived from ingenuity," — think a jury-rigged sled for snowy fun, or a bicycle chain repaired with some duct tape. It's a frequently used word in India where frugal fixes are revered. But the idea has further merit beyond figuring out solutions to get by with less. It also encapsulates the spirit of doing something innovative. As the authors of Jugaad Innovation write in Forbes, they see jugaad in many other places than the repair shop: "In Kenya, for instance, entrepreneurs have invented a device that enables bicycle riders to charge their cellphones while pedaling. In the Philippines, Illac Diaz has deployed A Litre of Light — a recycled plastic bottle containing bleach-processed water that refracts sunlight, producing the equivalent of a 55-watt light bulb — in thousands of makeshift houses in off-the-grid shantytowns. And in Lima, Peru (with high humidity and only 1 inch of rain per year), an engineering college has designed advertising billboards that can convert humid air into potable water."

Jugaad's idea of frugal innovation can definitely be applied in the individual life — what about setting aside a half a day twice a year where everyone in your family fixes something that needs repair? You'll save money, spend time together, test problem-solving skills, and get a sense of accomplishment from repairing instead of buying new.

I'd like to integrate some of these ideas into my own life. Over the last few years I have dropped Christmas and Easter (I've been an atheist for over 25 years now) and replaced them with a Solstice celebrations; I have remade New Year's into a quiet, reflective time (the antithesis of a party); and have incorporated an appreciation and gratefulness aspect into my almost-daily meditation routine. I've kept Thanksgiving, though mine is vegetarian, so the focus is on the harvest and thanks and not killing a turkey. And I celebrate Halloween some years, when I feel into it, and not if I don't. And forget Valentine's Day!

Because I don't love some of our existing holidays, I'd like to add celebrations to my list — luckily I need not come up with them by myself, but can look to other cultures for inspiration. I actually started practicing hygge last winter and I felt it really helped me through the darkest days of the year. I may formalize it a bit by creating a "start" and "end" date to the practice. Wabi-sabi is also very appealing to me, as I tend towards perfectionism (which also tends to make me miserable), and it's an idea that seems like it might become part of my seasonal cleaning and organizing time (along with Jugaad).

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.