The holiday season is upon us, and festive songs are filling the airwaves everywhere we go. Most of the songs playing in grocery stores and on radio stations are popular hits like “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (which is the best-selling single of all time). But many of the holiday songs we hear don’t reflect the wide variety of wintery tunes streaming in other parts of the world. A stroll through MIM’s Geographic Galleries will quickly remind you of the amazing and diverse cultures and traditions that exist in other countries.

Many global holidays are celebrated this time of year, such as Toji, Japan’s winter solstice celebration; Trongsa Tshechu, a Buddhist festival in Bhutan; and Saint Lucia’s Day, a festival of lights observed in several Nordic countries. There are countless wonderful wintertime holidays from every culture, and you can learn more about them at MIM’s upcoming ’Tis the Season Signature Event.

There are many great holiday songs and traditions to be discovered. Let’s take a trip and explore 12 popular songs from around the globe. Some are interesting takes on familiar favorites, while others are unique creations!

Written by Grammy-winning Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, this Yoruba holiday song is rooted in tribal drumming rhythms. The lyrics focus on Betelehemu—or Bethlehem, where Jesus was born—as the singers express praise and thanks. Frequently accompanied by drumming and choreography, the song is commonly sung during choral programs. The Tabernacle Choir sang the song during its 2012 holiday concert.

Lebanon—“Talj, Talj”
This beautiful hymn, the title of which translates to “Snow, Snow,” did not become popular until the 1960s, when Lebanese singer Fairuz, considered by many to be one of the most famous singers in the Arab world, recorded her stunning version. Though the main part of the song’s refrain mentions that “snow is falling on the world,” the lyrics tell the story of Jesus’s birth.

Israel—“Ner Li”
“Ner Li,” or “I Have a Candle,” is a simple Hanukkah song that is popular in Israel. Commonly arranged for voice and piano and sung in Hebrew, this traditional song is sung by families during Hanukkah. The song is also performed as an instrumental, like in this fantastic solo flute performance from Boaz Meirovitch at the Israel Philharmonic.

China—“He Xin Nian”
“He Xin Nian,” which translates to “Celebrating the New Year,” is a very popular tune during the Lunar New Year, traditionally celebrated in several countries in Asia around late January to early February. This simple yet beautiful song focuses on wishing others a happy, healthy, peaceful, and prosperous new year and incorporates the imagery and sounds of typical new year celebrations, like fireworks.

Australia—“Aussie Jingle Bells”
This song is a down-under twist on a well-known classic, with alternate lyrics sung over the traditional melody. December falls during the summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, so this version of the song has lyrics about warm-weather activities instead of snow-filled winter imagery. Take the chorus, for example: “Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way / Christmas in Australia on a scorching summer’s day, hey! / Jingle bells, jingle bells, Christmas time is beaut / Oh what fun it is to ride in a rusty Holden Ute.” (The Ute was a utility coupe built by Australian automaker Holden. It was sort of like an El Camino.) One of the most popular renditions of “Aussie Jingle Bells” was performed by Colin Buchanan and Greg Champion on their holiday album Aussie Christmas with Bucko and Champs.

New Zealand—“A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree”
Like Australia’s take on “Jingle Bells,” this is New Zealand’s version of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It switches out the original’s gifts for things that better fit New Zealand’s culture and traditions. For example, the partridge was replaced by a pukeko, a species of bird found throughout the country, and the pear tree was replaced by the ponga tree, a large type of fern. Other Kiwi-inspired items include 11 haka lessons (the traditional Maori war dance) and two kūmara, a sweet potato–like vegetable grown in the region.

Venezuela—“Mi Burrito Sabanero”
In Venezuela, Colombia, and a few other Latin American countries, one of the most famous Christmas classics is about a little donkey named Burrito making its way to Bethlehem. “Mi Burrito Sabanero” is traditionally sung by children and has a Latin rhythm reminiscent of salsa music.

Venezuelan musician Hugo Blanco wrote the song in the early 1970s for a Christmas album from Topo Gigio, a children’s puppet show famous in Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries. The original recording of the song flopped, but a rerecorded version featuring the Venezuelan Children’s Choir was a hit throughout much of Latin America. Several remixed versions of the song have made it even more well known.

Spain—“Un Año Más”
“Un Año Más” is a popular holiday song by the Spanish pop group Mecano. Originally appearing on the group’s 1988 album Descanso Dominical, the song is a reflection on the past year and a celebration of what’s to come—a common theme in many New Year’s songs around the world. It references the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, one of the best-known and busiest public squares in the city. The square is home to the famous clock of the Real Casa de Correos, and New Year’s revelers gather there to eat “Las Doce Uvas de la Suerte”—“the 12 grapes of luck”—with each toll of the bell at midnight.

France—“Petit Papa Noël”
“Petit Papa Noël,” or “Little Father Christmas,” was recorded in 1946 by French singer Tino Rossi for Richard Pottier’s film Destins. It sold more than 30 million copies around the world and is one of the most played French Christmas songs of all time. The song paints the picture of a wintery scene as a child sings to Father Christmas (what French children call Santa Claus). The song’s narrator kindly reminds Father Christmas to remember his toys when he visits and to dress warm for the cold weather. The light-hearted song has been covered by several superstar English-speaking singers, including Josh Groban and Mary J. Blige.

Ireland—“The Wexford Carol”
The “Wexford Carol” is a beloved traditional Irish Christmas carol also known as “The Enniscorthy Carol,” as it was originally collected by folklorist Grattan Flood in Enniscorthy, a town in Ireland’s County Wexford. The lyrics, said to date to the 12th century, highlight the story of Jesus’s birth and the journey to Bethlehem. The song has been arranged and recorded by myriad singers, instrumentalists, and choirs around the world. The version by American country singer Alison Krauss and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is very popular.

Sweden—“Räven Raskar Över Isen”
This Swedish seasonal song, which translates to “The Fox Hurries Across the Ice,” is traditionally performed as a singing game while dancing around the Christmas tree. This carol is also often performed around a maypole at Midsummer, the late June holiday celebrating the summer solstice. The opening verses alternate between the flickornas visa (the “girls’ song,” where the participants curtsy) and the pojkarnas visa (the “boys’ song,” where the participants bow).

Austria—“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”
While “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” translated in English as “Silent Night,” is now popular worldwide, its origin is less known—but remarkable.

As the story goes, young Austrian priest Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics in 1816 as a simple poem. The next year, he was transferred to a new church outside of Salzburg and asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a school choir director and organist, to write music for the lyrics. On Christmas Eve in 1818, the friends sang “Silent Night” together for the first time in front of Mohr’s congregation, with Mohr playing his guitar. An organ builder and repairman working at a church took a copy of the six-verse song to his home village, where it was picked up and spread by two families of traveling folk singers who performed around northern Europe.

The composition continued to evolve and was translated into more than 300 languages and arranged for many voices and ensembles. It has been sung in churches, in town squares, and even on the battlefield during World War I during a temporary truce on Christmas Eve.

The original manuscript was lost for decades, and some speculated that the music had been written by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. However, in 1995, the original manuscript was found in Mohr’s handwriting, with Gruber named as composer.

Regardless of the holiday being celebrated, music is a major part of the festivities. Despite the cultural, linguistic, and religious differences around the world, music is a common thread that connects us all. If you’re looking to add some of global classics to your rotation this holiday season, MIM has created a special Global Holiday Spotify Playlist that highlights several versions of the songs featured in this post.


We hope you’ll visit soon to celebrate the holidays at MIM. Join us for our ’Tis the Season Signature Event on December 10 and 11 or a holiday concert, and spend time with friends and family exploring what’s new in the galleries. We’re open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Christmas Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Happy holidays!