Towards the end of November, countries across the world start preparing for the Christmas season. While homes and fir trees are decorated with lights and people rush to buy gifts for their loved ones, countries across the globe celebrate the festive time with their own unique customs, traditions and stories. Here are some of the quirkiest Christmas traditions from around the world.
Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon being who carries a wicker basket on his back. This basket is quite unlike Santa’s sack, however, as the mystical creature is out to fill his crate with badly behaved children and take them to the underworld. The scary figure is a well-known part of holiday folklore in countries between Hungary and northern Italy, particularly in Austria and southern Germany. Many cities have an annual Krampuslauf, during which men dressed as Krampus run through the streets carrying torches. Krampus parties are starting to become popular in the USA, with celebrations taking place in cities such as New York and Portland.
Norwegians once believed that witches and evil spirits would come out on Christmas Eve, and families started hiding their brooms, mops and brushes before going to bed on Christmas Eve so that the witches couldn’t steal them. Sometimes, spruce logs are burned in the fireplace to prevent witches from coming down the chimney, and men occasionally fire shotguns into the air outside to scare off evil spirits.
The Yule Goat is a longstanding Christmas tradition in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The goat started out as a visitor who checked in to see when the Christmas celebrations were over, but through the years it evolved into a Santa-like figure who gave out presents on Christmas Eve. Today, particularly in Sweden, large straw versions of the goat are erected in towns across the county. The village of Gävle is famous for its unlucky goat, which has been burned down by vandals more often than it has survived since it was first erected in 1966.
Christmas Mass in Bolivia is quite the spectacle. An old story has it that the night Jesus Christ was born, a rooster crowed at around midnight to announce the birth. In acknowledgement of this belief, Bolivians flock to church to celebrate Misa del Gallo, ‘Mass of the Rooster’.
According to an old Ukrainian saga, a poor widow and her children once found a Christmas tree growing in their yard but didn’t have any money to decorate it. They put the tree inside their home, and when they woke up on Christmas morning, a spider’s web covered the tree. The youngest child opened a window and daylight shone on the web, turning it into silver and gold. In honour of this legend, Ukrainian people often decorate their trees with plastic spiders and webs. To see a spider web on Christmas morning is said to bring good luck.
There are a number of Christmas traditions in the Czech Republic that are said to predict whether a woman will get married in the following year. On Christmas Day, an unmarried woman throws a shoe over her shoulder, towards the front door. If the shoe lands with the toe pointing towards the door, she will marry within the next year, but if the heel looks towards the door, she will remain single for another year.
The Caganer is a male figure that frequently shows up in Catalan nativity scenes and is depicted with his pants rolled down, living up to his name, which means ‘the defecator’. This odd traditional figure is also seen in other regions of Spain, as well as in Italy, France and Portugal. Surprisingly, the Caganer is a symbol of good luck, as his stool is believed to fertilise the land and promote a good harvest the following year. The original Caganer is an elf-like figure wearing traditional clothing, but in recent years, it has become common to see Caganer versions of celebrities sold at Spanish Christmas markets.
In Italy, children are visited by Santa Claus (Babbo Natale) on Christmas Eve, but also by La Befana on January 5, the eve of the Epiphany. According to the legend, the witch turned down an invitation from the Three Wise Men to visit baby Jesus in the manger, and quickly regretted her decision. The story says that she still flies around looking for baby Jesus and giving gifts to children to make up for her mistake. Children often put out a glass of wine and some food for her.
In Iceland, 13 Yule lads carry out the role of Santa Claus. One the lads visits children on each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, and each lad has a different personality. Children place a shoe in their bedroom window each evening, and if they’ve been well behaved, the Yule lad visiting that night will leave candy or small gifts. The lads were historically depicted as somewhat frightening, leaving rotting potatoes for naughty children, but their image has softened over the years.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, but Japanese people do have their unique version of Christmas Eve dinner. Thanks to a wildly successful marketing campaign in the 1970s, Japan has come to associate Christmas Eve with Kentucky Fried Chicken. According to the story, KFC got the idea from an expat customer who bought KFC chicken for a holiday party, as turkey isn’t widely available in Japan. The company ran with the concept, marketing its chicken as a traditional meal for the festive season. Over the years, the idea has somehow grown beyond a commercial campaign to become a firmly established holiday tradition.
January 6, King’s Day, marks the Three Wise Men’s visit to baby Jesus. Mexicans celebrate the holiday with a ring-shaped sweet pastry with candied fruits called Rosca de Reyes. Each loaf has a Jesus figurine baked into it, and tradition says that whoever finds the small toy within their piece is to host a party on Candlemas Day (February 2) and serve the traditional tamales.
In Latvia, mummers (amateur actors) dress up as animals such as cranes, goats, wolves, bears or horses, or as macabre characters that symbolise death. The mummers are required to stay incognito, cover their faces with masks and disguise their voices to ensure that no one in their neighbourhood recognises them. They go from house to house to drive evil spirits away with music and traditional songs. Families welcome them into their homes and offer them food and drinks in return. Should they identify a person regardless of their disguise, the mummer has to uncover their face.
On the Saturday before Christmas Eve, San Fernando in the Philippines spreads the message of light and hope with Ligligan Parul, the Giant Lantern Festival. The festival is rooted in the early 20th century and has widely grown in popularity. Today, several villages participate and compete to build the most beautiful lantern. They measure almost six metres (20 feet) in diameter and are constructed of bamboo or steel frames, handmade paper and up to 5,000 light bulbs, which are arranged in intricate patterns and shine in mesmerisingly vivid colours.