Skip to content
Animal Symbolism in Holidays Around the World - Safari Ltd®

Animal Symbolism in Holidays Around the World

Throughout history, animals have always played an important role in our lives, from cultural holidays to national symbols and as signs of luck and good fortune. From the Easter Bunny to the animals of the Chinese zodiak, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular animal symbols for several holidays around the world.

 

On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer...
Due to their association with Santa Claus and his sleigh, reindeer, or caribou, have become iconic symbols of the Christmas season. These majestic creatures have been featured in many holiday poems, stories and movies throughout the years. Most people familiar with Christmas holiday have heard the poem, “The Night Before Christmas", by Clement C. Moore.
Hailing from arctic regions, it’s not surprising that reindeer would come to be associated with a winter holiday. Reindeer are prominent features in stories and legends of arctic peoples; from Canada to Siberia, reindeer have been revered as a source of food and respected for their strength and resilience.

 


Donkeys are another animal that is often associated with Christmas. According to Christian teachings, donkeys were used by Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem for Jesus' birth, making them an important part of the nativity story.

 


The Lunar New Year is a prominent celebration in many Asian cultures, and animals play a significant role in celebrations. Each new year is represented by one of 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, rooster, dog, pig, and monkey). The zodiac animals each represent different traits or characteristics and are said to influence the fortunes of people born under that animal's sign. The animal for 2023 is the rabbit, people born in a Year of the Rabbit are said to be affectionate and appreciate peace and tranquility. In the Vietnamese Zodiak, a cat is featured instead of a rabbit, so 2023 would be Year of the Cat.

In addition to the zodiac animals, other animals are also associated with Lunar New Year celebrations. For example, fish are a popular symbol of abundance and prosperity. Red envelopes filled with money are often given as gifts during Lunar New Year, and they are often decorated with images of fish to represent good luck and fortune. Dragons also play a big part in Lunar New Year. These legendary creatures are seen as powerful symbols of strength and good luck. Dragon dances are performed during Lunar New Year celebrations to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. 

 

Groundhog Day is a quirky holiday celebrated at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania since 1886. On this special day, Punxsutawney Phil (the most famous groundhog, but far from the only one!) emerges from his burrow and predicts whether winter will end early or if there is still some chilly weather ahead. If Phil sees his shadow, it's six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow, and you can expect an early spring! The roots of Groundhog Day go back to times of old in Germany when February 2nd was known as Candlemas, and a badger was used instead of a groundhog. German immigrants eventually brought the tradition with them when they settled in Pennsylvania, where they began using Marmota monax, the groundhog, to predict spring's arrival.

 


Along with Easter eggs, rabbits are an iconic feature in Easter celebrations in many countries around the world. Where did the Easter bunny idea come from? This imagery has been around since the 16th century. Originating in Germany, it is believed that a white rabbit, “Osterhase”, brings baskets filled with brightly colored eggs to children on Easter morning. Rabbits are also commonly viewed as symbols of fertility and new life, which makes them perfect for this springtime celebration marking the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

Lambs have also long been associated with Easter, and are often used as symbols of the holiday. Lambs are seen as a symbol of innocence, purity, and the renewal of life that comes in the springtime.

 


In Thailand, the celebration of Songkran Day marks the traditional New Year. During Songkran Day celebrations, many people in Thai communities release birds and fish into their natural habitats as part of the Buddhist belief that releasing animals brings good fortune.

 

In Thailand, reverence for monkeys dates  back some 2,000 years, when the Monkey King Hanuman's feats of strength and courage inspired myths that prevail today. The Monkey Feast Festival is held to commemorate the help that Hanuman, the Monkey King, and his army provided to the divine Prince Rama in his quest to save his wife, Sita. On the last Sunday of November, people in Lopburi, Thailand put on a memorable spectacle where thousands of monkeys come to feast on an incredible spread of food displayed in the ancient temple ruins of Phra Prang Sam Yot.  Locals view the monkeys with respect and as symbols of good luck. Offering piles of fruit and banquet tables containing several tons of treats are a way to pay respect to these sacred primates.


Cows are revered in India and are associated with the Hindu God Krishna. As sacred animals, cows are honored during the festival of Diwali or Deepavali. Hindus paint cows in bright colors such as red, orange, or blue and give them special treats. This tradition signifies respect and gratitude for bovines that are providers of milk, labor, and fertilizer.


Another significant animal in India is the majestic elephant. When the significant holiday of Ganesh Chaturthi comes around each year, temples and homes are filled with joyous celebrations, and elephants are the stars of the show. To celebrate and acknowledge the deity Ganesha, taking the form of an elephant god, displays of reverence for these pachyderm is evident throughout temples and Hindu mythology.

 

Bald eagles are an iconic symbol of America’s independence and freedom. The imagery of these majestic birds can be seen in celebrations throughout the United States on Independence Day each year.

 


Throughout history, black cats are believed to have been imbued with mystical powers and have often held spiritual and religious significance. In ancient Egypt, cats were considered sacred gods, with the goddess Bastet often depicted in art with a black cat’s head.
Early Europeans often believed that witches were able to transform themselves into black cats. The black cats association with witches makes them a popular symbol of Halloween. In some places, black cats are often seen as a sign of bad luck. However, in other cultures, such as Muslim societies and Japan, they are admired and even seen as a symbol of good luck and protection from evil spirits. In Thailand, in the Ban Nai folk religion, cats are used in rural rain making ceremonies during the dry season.




Animals enrich our celebrations and provide an important link between humans and nature. It’s fascinating to learn about how different cultures embed animals and animal symbolism into significant holiday traditions. By understanding the history of animal symbolism, we can perhaps gain deeper appreciation for cultural traditions and how they continue to shape life across the globe.

What is your favorite holiday animal? We love to see your celebrations. Tag us @safariltd on social media to have a chance for your social post to be featured.

Related Toys and Products:

What Do You Celebrate? Holidays and Festivals Around the World Book

Safari Ltd. Reindeer Toy

Safari Ltd. Asian Elephant Toy

Rabbit Products

Lamb Toys

Chinese Dragon Toys

Chinese New Year Colors Book

Donkey Toys

Usborne Peek Inside The Nativity

 Nativity Super TOOB®

Christmas Designer TOOB®

Christmas Products

Monkey Toys

Cow Toys

Koi Toy

Fish Toys

Cat Toys

 Ancient Egypt TOOB®

 Glow-in-the-Dark Halloween Designer TOOB®

Eagle Toys

 

 References:

SafariPedia

 Vadala, Jeffrey, The Wild World of Cat Beliefs, Yale Human Relations Area Files, August 29, 2019 https://hraf.yale.edu/the-wild-world-of-cat-beliefs/

Wikipedia, Lunar New Year,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_New_Year

Bryner, Jeanna & Bradford, Alina, Reindeer and Caribou: Facts about Majestic Deer, Live Science, December 16, 2021 https://www.livescience.com/56310-reindeer-facts.html

Hinduism’s Sacred Animal, PBS Nature, June 4, 2008 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/holy-cow-hinduisms-sacred-animal/1811/

Petsco, Emily, 6 Fall Festivals Around the World That Celebrate Animals, Mental Floss, Sep 13, 2019 https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/558101/fall-festivals-around-world-celebrate-animals

Previous Blog 10 Must-Have Animal Toys for Preschoolers & Their Development