Feast Day of Santa Lucia, Beginning of the Christmas Season, December 13
According to legend, Santa Lucia, a fourth-century Sicilian virgin, wore a wreath of candles to light her way as she brought food to Christians hiding in dark tunnels to escape persecution. (The story is particularly appealing to Swedes, whose country is dark during much of the winter.) Her generosity is reenacted every year on the morning of December 13, when the eldest daughter of each Swedish family, dressed in a white gown (usually with a red sash, representing the blood of the martyred saint) and an illuminated crown, brings a tray of saffron buns and hot coffee to her parents in bed.
The essence: The ritual evokes Lucia's spirit of compassion and hope in bleak times.
An Open Door, a Loaf of Bread, and a Dark-Haired Man, New Year's Eve
The Irish light a candle and, at the last stroke of midnight, throw open their front doors to welcome the New Year, and they hope that a dark-haired man will be the first person to cross the threshold, a good-luck omen. In some places, women beat the door with loaves of bread while yelling, "A Happy New Year!"
The essence: The bread ritual ensures ample food in the coming year (and that dark-haired man doesn't sound so bad, either).