Christmas is a holiday that is celebrated around the world. While it may have started as a solely Christian festival, people from all over have embraced it over the years and added their own traditions along the way. Whether you see it as a religious holiday, something commercial, or celebrating another festival like Hanukkah, or even nothing at all, you’re sure to be interested in these unusual Christmas traditions around the world.
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Unusual Christmas Traditions Around The World
Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, is celebrated all over the world. Every country has its own special Christmas traditions, no two countries do it the same way. Here are 18 interesting insights about Christmas traditions and celebrations from around the world.
1. Krampus, Austria
In most countries Father Christmas, Santa Claus, or Saint Nick brings children presents for Christmas, but Austria is also home to his evil accomplice. The half-goat, half-demon Krampus is said to wander the streets carrying a wicker basket in search of badly-behaved children. While St. Nicholas rewards good boys and girls with sweets, apples, and nuts, Krampus the beast-like demon creature is said to capture the naughtiest children and whisk them away in his sack. The folktale is popular throughout Austria, southern Germany, Hungary, and even northern Italy, where you can see people dressed as the Krampus walking the streets in the first week of December.
2. Yule Goat, Sweden
Christmas traditions in Sweden symbolize the Yule Goat which dates back to the 11th century. It was said to be a companion of Saint Nicholas, who had the power to control the devil (like the Krampus). Legends believed that instead of his sleigh, Santa rode the Yule goat to deliver presents. By the 19th century, the goat had become the giver of gifts, and people would dress up as goats to distribute them. Every year a gigantic straw goat statue gets erected in the square about a month before Christmas to be burned down every year. The unlucky goat has been burned down by vandals 29 times since it was first put up in 1966. Today, the Yule Goat is mostly a Christmas ornament that can be found on trees and erected with straw in towns across Sweden.
3. Disguised Mummers, Latvia
Mummers (or street actors, can also be friends and family) who disguise themselves as animals or macabre characters in Latvia. They then go from house to house within their community during the twelve days of Christmas to drive away the evil spirits with music and traditional songs. They even give a variety of informal performances that may include dance, jokes, or recitations. In return, families offer Christmas traditions food and drinks. The mummers are expected to stay disguised, and in addition to the masks, they hide their voices to avoid being recognized. Once the mummers are identified, they remove their disguises and spend some social time with the hosts eating the food offered to them. Then they travel as a group to the next home to continue the process.
4. La Befana, Italy
Italy is home to one of the quirkiest Christmas traditions of all to bring everyone in the festive season. While Italian children are visited by Santa Claus (or Babbo Natale) each Christmas Eve, they get another visit on January 5, the eve of the Epiphany. According to legend, Befana was a witch who didn’t give a gift to baby Jesus in the manger. To repent, she now gives gifts to all children, who leave out some wine and food for her. There is a similar figure in Russian folklore, where Babouschka, meaning old woman brings gifts to children. In Rome, you’ll find shepherds dressed in traditional sheepskins and wool cloaks playing the bagpipes usually in pairs in honor of the traditional shepherds. It’s quite the spectacle to see them break out the tunes in squares and piazzas across the regions.
5. Hiding Brooms, Norway
One of the most unorthodox Christmas traditions can be seen here in Norway. This is a tradition that dates back centuries and people still believe in them. According to Norwegian folklore, witches and evil spirits come out on Christmas Eve to do some mischief. So families hide their brooms to stop them from being stolen for a midnight ride. Sometimes they even burn spruce logs in the fireplace to stop them from coming down the chimney. Another Norwegian tradition is to serve “riskrem,” a chilled rice pudding with berry sauce, for dessert. The Lady of the family places a single blanched almond inside the rice pudding, and whoever finds it first will get a gift. It’s believed to bring good luck and prosperity.
6. KFC Dinner, Japan
Christmas isn’t a big deal in Japan, apart from gift-giving and light displays. It isn’t even a national holiday, however, they do have an unusual Christmas Eve dinner. Its citizens have found an interesting way to celebrate by going to meet a white-bearded man. If you are thinking it’s Santa, then you are wrong. Thanks to a festive marketing campaign in the 1970s, Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii (or “Kentucky for Christmas”) where fried chicken was promoted as the perfect Christmas meal. This has become a firmly established holiday Christmas tradition in the country since then. Families from all over the country head to their local KFC for some festive fried chicken. An estimate of over 3.6 million Japanese population celebrates the Christmas holidays with a KFC “party barrel” of fried chicken dinner tradition. You will find many strolling down Tokyo’s epic streets with a KFC bucket in hand.
7. Giant Lantern Festival, Philippines
With celebrations starting from September through January, the Philippines has the longest and most lavish Christmas season in the world. Each year, on the Saturday before Christmas Eve, the city of San Fernando holds the Ligligan Parul Sampernandu, the Giant Lantern Festival. Several villages compete to build beautiful and elaborate paper lanterns. These Christmas lanterns are called ‘parols’ and are made of bamboo or paper. Initially, the lanterns were simple creations around half a meter in diameter, made from Japanese origami paper and lit by candle. But today, the lanterns are made from a variety of materials and, have grown to around six meters (20 feet) in size. They are arranged in intricate patterns with vivid colors and illuminated by electric bulbs that sparkle in the sky. People from all over the country and across the globe come in to be part of this festival.
8. Throwing Shoes, Czech Republic
There are various superstitions associated with the official holiday, especially for young single women hoping for love. On Christmas Day in the Czech Republic, unmarried women throw a show over their shoulders towards the front door. If the shoe lands with its toe towards the door, she will get married in the following year. However, if the heel points toward the door, she’ll remain single. Another big celebration held here on Christmas Eve is a traditional feast that serves fried carp. Many households, buy the fish live weeks before Christmas and, keep it in their bathtub until it’s time for the feast. Some make a meal of the fish, and some release the carp into a river on Christmas Eve to avoid animal cruelty.
9. The Caganer, Spain
The word ‘caganer’ means ‘the shitter’ in Catalan, which is one of the most original elements of Christmas traditions. In the Catalan region of Spain, nativity scenes frequently have an unusual addition. The Caganer can be found tucked away into a small corner and is traditionally a man with his pants rolled down and caught in the act of defecation. There are several explanations for the origin of Christmas traditions here. Though its origins have been lost in time, he started to appear in the 18th century and can often be found wearing traditional clothing and hats. Now, you can even find Caganer versions of popular celebrities. People believed that the deposition is the fertilization of the earth with which it became fertile and yields food, hence joy and happiness came in with Christmas.
10. Spider Webs, Ukraine
Ukraine’s strangest holiday Christmas traditions involve spider webs on a Christmas tree instead of Christmas decorations. This is a heartwarming story. According to an old legend, a poor widow and her children found a Christmas tree in their garden but didn’t have money to decorate it. The children were sad that they couldn’t decorate it, so the mother hung some fruits and nuts on the tree hoping that it would make her kids smile on Christmas day. However, when they woke up the next morning, it was covered by a spider’s web, which turned into bright silver and gold in the morning light. In honor of this Ukrainians hang spider web-shaped decorations for Christmas on their trees as it’s thought to bring them good fortune. Next time, think before you try to brush the cobwebs away!
11. Yule Lads, Iceland
In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, 13 Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar) visit children across the country. Children place their best shoes by the window before going to bed. In the morning, they’ll either have received candy or gifts if they’re good or be greeted with shoes full of rotten potatoes if they’re bad. Each of these troll-like characters has a different personality, though they were all originally pranksters who also left rotting potatoes for naughty children. Their names are Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), Giljagaur (Gully Gawk), Stúfur (Stubby), Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker), Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper), Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker), Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper), Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper), Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer).
12. Christmas Eve Saunas, Finland
Saunas are a way of life in Finland, so it’s no surprise that it’s also a part of Christmas. On Christmas Eve morning, Finnish families eat a porridge made of rice and milk topped with cinnamon, milk, and butter. At the end of the day, it is customary for family members to warm up in a sauna together. Many homes have their own saunas and on Christmas Eve it is a place to connect with long-dead ancestors. It is one of the oldest Christmas traditions which is a way to relax and clean up before the evening’s festivities. After this session, they head out to celebrate and the spirits of their ancestors take their place.
13. Roller Skating Mass, Venezuela
There are many ways to get to church: walking, driving, or public transport, but none are as unique as the tradition followed by the people of Venezuela. In Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, the residents head to church for mass each Christmas morning – so far, so normal – but they do so on roller skates. These Christmas traditions and customs are so popular that the city’s streets are closed to traffic so that people can skate to churches safely. From December 16th until Christmas day people wake up early, grab their skates and go to a place, usually a plaza, where a mass known as Misa de Aguinaldo is celebrated. Originating in the ’60s, this tradition is still very popular in Venezuela even today.
14. “Kalle Anka,” Sweden
Swedish people know exactly what they will be doing on the afternoon of Christmas Eve each year, the answer is “watching television”. Their Christmases are planned around an unusual television special. In the afternoon, people gather around to watch Donald Duck. This dates back to the 1960s when televisions were new and played only two channels (one of which played Disney cartoons). One of the most popular is a 1958 Christmas special called Kalle Anka och Hans vänner önskar God Jul or “Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas”.
15. Christmas Pickles, Germany
Christmas trees can be found around the world but in Germany, families have an unusual addition to their ornaments. They hide a pickle ornament somewhere within the branches of the tree, and the first child to find it gets a special present. Hiding a Christmas pickle among the branches of the tree is supposedly a centuries-old German tradition that many have never heard of. Some believe that this Christmas tradition was passed down through the generations from Old World Germany and others believe the pickle is in honor of an American Civil War soldier who was saved from starvation by eating a pickle on Christmas Eve.
16. Radish Carving, Mexico
Every December in the Mexican city of Oaxaca crowds gathers to celebrate the Night of the Radishes or La Noche de Rábanos. It is a vegetable carving competition between artists who use radishes to make sculptures. The festival starts on the 23rd morning, but you need to wait until night to see the winner and finished masterpieces. Participants get very creative here, from buildings to monsters, monuments to famous personalities, everything is etched. Replicas of Michelangelo’s La Pietà and da Vinci’s The Last Supper have been made with radishes. You have to see it to believe it. Everyone uses vegetables grown by the government to ensure fair competition. The first official contest was conducted in 1897 and since then it’s been a tradition in Mexico.
17. Little Candles Day, Colombia
Little Candles’ Day or Día de las Velitas in Colombia is one of the most popular Christmas traditions that take place during the Christmas season. The celebrations take place on the night of December 7th every year in honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. Candles and paper lanterns are lit and placed in the windows, balconies, and front yards of the residents. The tradition of lighting the candles has grown so much that entire towns and cities across the country have started following this tradition. This public holiday unofficially kick-starts Christmas celebrations across Colombia.
18. Christmas Cracker-Pulling, United Kingdom
Beautiful Christmas crackers were invented in 1846 by Tom Smith, a London sweetmaker. Initially, these tasty Christmas sweets were to be wrapped in a twist of fancy-colored paper. But the idea became one of the best-known Victorian Christmas traditions in England. Small festive notes and paper crowns were added to it. These crackers are pulled during Christmas dinner or parties. Whoever gets the larger end of the cracker earns the right to keep the contents of the cardboard tube. A south Dublin school holds the record for pulling the longest Christmas cracker (1077 people) simultaneously in one line. Isn’t it one of the most unique European Christmas traditions that you have ever heard of?
Did we miss any of your favorite Christmas traditions around the world? Do let us know in the comments below. Merry Christmas!
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Latvia and Estonia, the two countries in the northeastern region of Europe claim to have been home to the first Christmas tree that dates back to 1510.