Another holiday season is here, and you’re probably looking around for the best holiday gifts. Gift shopping can be tricky for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for those who want their gift to stand out.
Forget this year’s latest round of electronic gadgets. Why not pick out something truly unique, perhaps a handmade item from another culture?
If you know any world travelers, or someone who appreciates different cultures, check out these unique holiday gifts from around the world.
Often called nesting or Russian dolls, Matryoshkas were first carved in 1890 by a Russian craftsman. Scholars believe he may have found inspiration from some East Asian figures, but no one is really sure where he got the idea from. Whatever the case may be, this is a great holiday gift for anyone who loves colorful collectibles.
Stacking dolls are easy to store, and when you want to put them on display, you can take them all out and line them up. If you collect them, they can really turn your bookshelf into a panoply of color. They come in a variety of colors, forms, and subjects, some of which are fun and comical, or even relate to pop culture.
When it comes to German craftsmanship, few things are as recognizable as the cuckoo clock. Cuckoo clocks have been made for centuries in the Black Forest region of Germany. They often operate with a pendulum, but now you can find battery powered ones. Every hour there is some musical accompaniment, and on some of them there may be some mechanical dancing animals or people.
They make tasteful wall decorations that are fun conversation pieces, while also adding a cultural European note to your home. Of course, they also tell time! A cuckoo clock is an expensive, well-crafted holiday gift that creates a really thoughtful impression.
In Africa, masks have played a huge role in storytelling, dance, and culture. The masks tend to be formed from interesting geometric forms and earthy colors, sometimes punctuated by bright tones.
For those looking for a more natural touch to the wall, or perhaps an intriguing juxtaposition against some of their more traditional western decorations, African masks can be a really cool-looking holiday gift.
It may sound like an exotic restaurant, but Alebrije are actually brightly colored statues from Mexico. The figures were inspired by a psychedelic vision of Mexican artist Pedro Linares in the 1930s. They can be made from paper-mache (like a pinata) or wood, and often have strange, exciting forms that combine human and animal shapes.
If someone you know would like an awesome splash of color in one of their rooms, an Alebrije might be the perfect holiday gift to give their home a little celebratory Latin flair.
Lucky Cat Bank
These are officially called Maneki-neko, and they’re a traditional Japanese good luck charm, often placed at the entryway to a business. The waving gesture of its arms is actually supposed to be beckoning for customers, and that’s why you’ve probably seen them a lot at restaurants.
Most everyone is familiar with the lucky cat, even though it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. It’s a great holiday gift for those who love collecting Oriental trinkets and decor, but most people actually find them cute and endearing, so a lucky cat coin bank is a safe-bet gift idea that’s fun and unique.
For those who love the earthy look of indigenous crafts, a dream catcher is a great holiday gift. Though dream catchers are viewed as a Pan-Indian craft, they are actually specific to the Ojibwa (or Chippewa) north of the Great Lakes. They actually don’t have much to do with dream catchers, and are actually viewed as as sort of magical spiderweb that catches harmful influences.
To that end, the dream catcher is more of a preventive charm, traditionally made from willow hoops and animal sinews. In Indian circles, the dream catcher has become a symbol of hope and healing—so this might just be a holiday gift with a lot of positive energy.
This unique robe is the national dress of Japan, and is worn on ceremonial occasions. There are certain rules about wearing a kimono the right way, such as the way the belt is tied, but if you’re just wearing it around your home for comfort, you won’t need to worry about all that.
Kimonos tend to have beautiful and colorful patterns such as flowers, cranes, and possibly dragons. If you know someone who loves collecting unique items from the Far East, or wearing exotic clothing, a kimono might just be the perfect holiday gift for them—especially if they like to pour green tea.
These magical figures are carved from cottonwood root, and used to teach Hopi youngsters about the immortal beings who bring rain and act as messengers between the human and spirit worlds. The Hopi people, who dwell in the American Southwest, believe the kachina spirits dwell on what is today called Humphrey’s Peak, and pay the pueblos a visit every year to dance, bring rain, and give gifts to the children.
Kachina dolls come in a wide variety of fantastic shapes and colors, all of which carry a particular symbolic meaning. The forms and colors carry strong connotations of the Southwest, and make a great holiday gift for anyone who likes the look of the desert in their home.
Puppets are used in the traditional shadow-puppetry of Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia. These shadow plays use light and leather puppets to create Wayang, a unique form of storytelling that might depict everything from local legends to Hindu epics. There are different styles of puppets; some are two-dimensional silhouettes, while others are three-dimensional dolls.
If you know someone who has traveled to Southeast Asia—Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, or Cambodia—a Balinese puppet is a unique holiday gift to give them, one that will bring back the spirit of tropical adventure and colorful cultural experiences, while giving their home decor an exotic and spicy touch of excitement.
Totem poles represent stories or events, and each face on the figure—such as a person, raven, bear, salmon, or astrological body—is a character in the story. These monumental carvings dot the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, which has supplied the cedar wood from which they are carved and painted.
The art of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples is quite unique in its use of poly-chrome ovals and circles to create images—in fact, their visuals are almost exclusively composed of nested round shapes. A small totem pole makes a great holiday gift for woodsy special someone searching for unique accent piece.
Ireland is known for four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, whiskey, and (did you know) sweaters. The Aran Jumper comes from a small triplet of Islands off the coast of Western Ireland, and has become famous the world round. The off-white patterned body was usually knit with uncsoured wool, which retained its natural oils and made it water resistant.
Having a furry raincoat is great if you’re fishing in the choppy waters of the North Sea, but it’s also a great gift for anyone who wants something cozy and classy to wear in the Winter. It is believed that the knitted patterns come from ancient Celtic art, but the knitting technique for the jumper was not invented until the late 1800s. In the 1950s they started becoming popular outside of Ireland—and they look great on men and women.
Fans are used to create cool air, but in many cultures they carry an artistic significance—especially in Japan and China, where fans have been a cultural accessory for the last several thousand years. The Chinese have used fans for dancing, sometimes inscribing the fan surface with poetic calligraphy. Japanese fans were heavily influenced by Chinese fans, though the folding fan was first invented in Japan.
Eventually the folding fan made its way back to China. It used all over Asia in dance, ceremony, and even in martial arts like Kung Fu. Portuguese traders brought the fan back to Europe, where it also took off as a way to cool down and show off status. They can be displayed on the wall or on a stand, and since many of them are embellished with ink prints or calligraphy, a hand fan makes a great holiday gift for anyone who wants a unique accent piece.