10 Unusual Global Christmas Traditions
Snow falls from the sky, shops sell their Christmas wares, and the sweet fragrance of gingerbread houses fill the air—'tis the season! In the United States, there are plenty of Christmas traditions around to keep everyone happy. Gift giving, holiday meals and ornament-covered trees are in abundance everywhere.
While the modern version of Santa and his hardy reindeer might be entirely American now, the way we observe the festive season has been influenced by cultural traditions from all over the world. Some of these customs might seem familiar to you, depending on your family’s heritage, while others will appear downright strange. Here are just a few of the more unusual Christmas traditions practiced across the globe.
Keep them in mind while you wait for jolly old Santa Claus—himself a rather quirky tradition, what with the living year-round at the North Pole with a workforce of toy-making elves and flying reindeer—to deliver presents on his midnight sleigh ride. They'll make you appreciate the bounty you receive even more.
The Devil and St. Nick Pal Around the Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic, it isn’t uncommon to see jolly old St. Nick (similar to Santa Claus) walking around the streets with a devil during the holiday season. The unlikely pairing stems from the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas Day, celebrated on December 5. St. Nick (Mikuláš) wanders around town with an angel and a devil (čert) by his side. If children have been good, he rewards them with a treat; if they have been bad, they’ll have to deal with the (costumed) devil. If you’re ever in Prague this time of year, just watch how the kids freak out and cry when the devil meanders on by.
The Catalonian "Pooping" Log
Who would ever have thought that Christmas and pooping would go together, but apparently they do. Thankfully, we’re not talking about real poop here. In Catalonia, Spain, if you spend Christmas with friends, you just might come across the custom of the “caga tio.” The caga tio is a log with a funny face painted on it, filled to the brim with Christmas goodies (a bit like a piñata). When Christmas rolls around, children sing loudly and whack the log with sticks until the log “poops” out all of the treats tucked inside. After the presents fall out of one end of the log, they’re collected and distributed to the waiting children.
The Giant, Burning Swedish Christmas Goat
In Sweden, a giant goat is burned as a sacrifice during the Christmas season, but don’t worry—those quirky Swedes don’t set fire to an actual goat. (At least we hope.) They make do with a straw effigy instead. Known as the Gävle Goat, this creation is built every year in the town of Gävle. It’s a traditional thing to do, but the burning of the goat isn’t traditional at all, at least officially. It seems whenever vandals get the chance, they set the straw goat ablaze. The goat gets burned down just about every other year. Maybe the town just needs to employ better security measures.
Iceland’s Evil Christmas Cat
Yep, you read that right: there are evil Christmas cats lurking about Iceland. And here you thought global Christmas traditions were all fun and good cheer. It seems the Jólakötturinn Christmas cat keeps its eye out for lazy boys and girls who don’t have any new clothes. New clothes are given to industrious, hardworking kids during the holiday season. But when this menacing feline spots a lazy child dressed in old rags, it just might devour the poor boy or girl. It’s a pretty safe bet that Icelandic children work their little hearts out when told to do so, especially this time of year.
Hidden Brooms in Norway
Christmas in Norway appears to have something in common with Halloween in America. According to Norwegian folklore, bad spirits and nasty witches drop by the house on Christmas Eve in search of good brooms to ride. (Everyone knows witches only want the best.) In order to keep these evil apparitions at bay, the men head outdoors and fire their guns into the air, frightening the witches off. Meanwhile, the people left inside hide all of the brooms from sight. Witches hanging around the home means bad omens for the folks living there, and no one wants that. Christmas should be about giving and good fortune, right?
Austria’s Creepy Krampus
Krampus is one scary Christmas villain. Some have likened this Christmas bully to an “evil Santa.” He wanders around various Austrian towns on the night before St. Nicholas Day, which falls on December 5 (same as in the Czech Republic). And just what is this ugly-looking Krampus fellow up to, you might be wondering? Why, he’s out searching for naughty boys and girls to stuff inside his large sack. Of course, these days Krampus (really just a guy dressed up in a costume) only swings his chains around and gives children a scare. The Austrian government apparently frowns upon Christmas Krampus kidnappings. Just be thankful this frightening Christmas tradition doesn’t take place in your neck of the woods.
The Gray Mare of Wales
The Mari Lwyd, or the “gray mare,” is a longstanding Welsh custom that begins around Christmastime and extends through the New Year. The tradition makes use of a horse skull, a white sheet of some sort and wassail-singing groups. A “horse” shows up at the home or the pub, the singers sing for a while, and then a debate ensues between the Mari Lwyd group and the people being visited. The verbal jousting (the pwnco) is a back-and-forth full of witty sayings and rhyming taunts. When the talking ends, another song is sung, and then the singers usually come inside for some more fun.
Christmas Cemetery Visits in Finland
In the winter, the Finns can use any light they can get. The days are typically short, and very cold. During the Yuletide season, Finnish families often head out to the cemeteries and light candles in order to remember the departed. Christmas Eve is an especially popular time to swing by the burial grounds. In addition to the family remembrance, people visiting the cemeteries are usually treated to a sea of glowing candles, which can be an exceptionally beautiful sight, particularly at night.
KFC Christmas Meals in Japan
In Japan, fried chicken and Christmas go together like milk and cookies. This probably seems like an odd tradition to you. The custom actually got started because of a KFC marketing push. In the 1970s the company began advertising itschicken as an essential component of the Japanese Christmas holiday season. KFC was so successful in its endeavors, in fact, that modern Japanese Christmas consumers order their buckets of fried chicken well in advance of the holidays. Sometimes special traditions have deep, national roots, and sometimes, well, savvy corporations artificially create them.
The Christmas Pickle
The idea of the “Christmas pickle” probably originated in Germany (it doesn’t seem to be there anymore), but has since spread across Europe and even made its way to North America. It’s a fairly simple, yet wildly entertaining custom. A pickle-shaped ornament is placed on the Christmas tree, although usually not in plain sight. When the children wake up on Christmas morning, the first boy or girl to locate the pickle is rewarded with an extra present. Not too shabby a deal, if you ask us. Find the pickle, get the reward.