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Graham Green looks at the world's weirdest Christmas traditions

Strange Christmas Traditions

By Graham Green

Christmas is almost here, which means most of you are scrambling to think of presents to buy for family and friends before you give up and just buy them a gift card. While the annual Christmas Braai may be the common tradition in sunny South Africa, countless other bizarre, weird but all wonderful Christmas traditions abound around the world. Here's but a few...


Although much of Japan is not Christian, Christmas is still widely celebrated by shopping, decorating and...eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Why KFC you might ask? Well, way back in the 1970s, KFC effectively hijacked Japanese Christmas when the company launched an ad campaign promoting “Kentucky for Christmas.” It was so successful that today, some people order their Christmas chicken dinner weeks in advance, and the meal (which comes with cake and champagne) costs as much as R600.


Greenland is not so hot on incorporating American fast food chains into their Christmas meals. Instead, some Greenlanders like to make kviak. It’s a traditional meal made by placing several auks (arctic birds) inside a sealskin, removing as much air as possible, sealing it with grease and letting the birds ferment for several months. Apparently, it’s very tasty, but ... with apologies to Greenlanders everywhere, KFC kinda sounds better.

Catalonia, Spain

In Catalonia, Spain, Christians decorate their homes with a Nativity scene much like we South Africans do but with one notable exception. They include a Caganer which is a small figurine of a man 'shitting' on the ground. Explanations for this tradition range from that the Caganer symbolizes fertilization and rebirth to that it’s just funny. And you thought myrrh was a crappy gift for the baby Jesus.

The Caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas tradition that involves defecation. They also have the Tio de Nadal. The Tio de Nadal is a small log that is often covered with a red blanket and decorated with a smiling face. From the Feast of the Immaculate Conception though Christmas, children present the log with food. On Christmas, they beat the log with sticks to get it to “defecate” gifts which is mostly sweets and nuts.


Children in Italy receive gifts from Santa Claus on Christmas, but they also get an extra visit from the witch La Befana on the eve of Epiphany Day on January 6. The legend is that Le Befana was a woman who gave the three wise men a place to sleep as they went to visit the baby Jesus. After they left, Befana tried to seek out the child herself, but could not find him so she remains searching to this day. But along the way, she delivers presents to good children and lumps of coal to naughty ones.

Caracas, Venezuela

On the early morning before Christmas Mass, most of the streets in Caracas, Venezuela are closed off to vehicle traffic so that churchgoers can roller skate to Mass. Old and young all participate, and some people with houses close to churches open their homes to visitors and offer coffee and food.


Good children in Iceland are rewarded with new clothes on Christmas Eve for all their hard work earlier in the year. But if a child has not worked hard enough, he will be consumed overnight by the Yule Cat who prowls for children that are still in old clothes. No wonder people in Iceland are so industrious.


After Estonians finish getting their houses in order for receiving guests on Christmas Eve, many people celebrate by going to the sauna. It’s customary to be nude while attending the sauna; so when you think you had an awkward Christmas Eve with your parents, just remember that someone in Estonia probably had it worse.


Small goat figurines made of straw have been a Christmas tradition in Sweden for generations, but in 1966 the town of Galve decided to erect a 33-foot-tall goat in the town square. The goat is built every year, and almost every year the goat is torched by arsonists. It happens so frequently that the arson become a tradition itself. You can follow the goat on Twitter to check on its status and watch a video of the burning from 2012.


Krampus is the terrifying demon companion of Saint Nicholas in Austrian folklore. While Saint Nicholas delivers presents to good children, the demon Krampus searches for naughty kids to torment with sticks or to carry back to his lair to kill them. On Krampusnacht in early December, several selected men dress up as the demon and parade around town scaring kids.


There aren’t many Christians in Iraq, but the few who are there light piles of thorn bushes on fire on Christmas Eve to predict the next year’s future. If the thorns burn to ashes, the family will be blessed with good fortune. While the thorns burn, members of the family jump over the fire three times and then make a wish for the coming year.


Norwegians used to believe that witches came out on Christmas Eve and would look for brooms to ride. Today, families still make sure to hide all the brooms in the house before going to bed. Luckily for the kids, Norwegian witches can never seem to remember to buy (or make) their own brooms like they do elsewhere in the world.


Some parts of the United States hide a pickle in the Christmas tree, and whoever finds it is rewarded with a gift or good fortune the following year. The common belief is that this tradition originated in Germany, but there is little evidence to support that. Berrien Springs in the state of Michigan have an annual Christmas Pickle Festival in early December in which the highlight is “the Grand "Dillmeister" passing out fresh pickles along the parade route.”

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, some cities in America set aside one day/night for SantaCon, a citywide bar crawl where all participants must dress up as Santa. It has become incredibly popular in cities like New York, and last year the gathering collected over R600 000 for charities. But, It’s success has also earned this tradition the ire of many of the city’s grumpier citizens, and these days some bar owners want to ban the Santas from their establishments.

In some Louisiana parishes along the Mississippi River, residents light giant bonfires as a way to guide Papa Noel (Cajun Santa Claus) to children’s homes. Papa Noel shares much in common with Santa Claus, except that kids are told he rides a pirogue (a small boat) instead of a sleigh. And instead of reindeer Santa's vehicle is pulled by alligators.


On Christmas morning, families in Portugal have a small meal known as the Consada. Extra plates of food are placed at the table as an offering for the departed souls of loved ones. The tradition originated from the idea that providing food would show their loved ones that they hoped they were doing well in the afterlife.


On December 6, Germans leave their shoes outside hoping for an early visit from Saint Nicholas. If they have been good, their shoes will be filled with treats and small gifts. If they have been bad, they will find a small tree branch in them.

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic has a rather offensive Christmas tradition for unmarried straight women. On Christmas Day, a single woman will throw a shoe behind her back towards the door. If the shoe lands with the toe facing the door, she will marry within a year! If not, she will continue to be a disappointment to her family until she can learn to keep a man. (or throw a shoe properly.)


Although the tradition mostly died out after the church discouraged it because of the drunkenness that often ensued, the Mari Lwyd tradition is being revived in Wales these days. A Mari Lwyd is a horse skull placed onto a stick and adorned with ribbons and other decorations. It is carried from house to house or pub to pub by a group of men who challenge citizens to a contest of improvised poems. After the contest, the Mari Lwyd party is admitted and given food and drink, and the inhabitants are rewarded with good luck.


On Christmas Eve, Latvian families are visited by a group of mummers. The mummers are men dressed like animals who sing and dance. They are then invited into the house and given food and drink, and in return they remove evil spirits.


On the week before Christmas, some Guatemalans will sweep and clean their house and place all the dirt and garbage into a small pile. It is believed that the devil lurks in the dirty areas of homes, so they will place an effigy of the devil on top of it before lighting the pile on fire.

Remedios, Cuba

In Remedios, Cuba, citizens celebrate Las Parrandas de Remedios when the town’s folk split into two groups called the El Carmen and the San Salvador. Each side has been secretly working all year to decorate a large float that will be unveiled on Christmas Eve. During the unveiling, each group also challenges the other with dance and music. Throughout the night, the groups parade down the streets, playing music and lighting elaborate firework displays.


During the 12 Days of Christmas, it is believed the Kallikantzaroi emerge from under the Earth to terrorize parts of Greece. The Kallikantzaroi are goblins that author John Tompkinson describes as “drunken yobs coming out of a pub.” Once on Earth they break furniture, urinate on plants and cause general mischief.


On Christmas Eve, many families in Finland make a trip to the local cemetery to light candles by the graves of their loved ones. The cemeteries can be very crowded that day, but the atmosphere is quiet and formal. Since the cemeteries are so widely visited, they are well-maintained and the result is a beautiful scene of snow-covered gravestones lit by thousands of candles.


Some parts of Slovakia still participate in a rather Pagan Christmas Eve tradition that is meant to predict the success of next year’s harvest. After a bowl of kutia (boiled wheat with honey, raisins and nuts) is prepared, someone will throw a spoonful at the ceiling. The larger the mess, the larger the harvest! Then comes the tradition where someone that the family doesn’t like that much has to clean it up.


In some parts of Ukraine, families don’t decorate their trees with tinsel, they decorate it with fake spider webs. This tradition comes from the legend that a poor family went to sleep on Christmas Eve with an undecorated tree. When they woke up on Christmas morning, a spider had spun an elaborate web to decorate the tree. Luckily for the spider, the family interpreted this as an act of kindness and not a depressing and scary discovery on Christmas morning.


English families have celebrated Christmas by making Christmas pudding since the middle ages. And this is one of those traditions that South Africans have also picked up on. Although many puddings can now be purchased at a store and reheated, it used to take several days to make. When preparing the pudding, every family member would take turns stirring it from East to West (clockwise) to symbolize the path the Magi took to meet Jesus.


Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7 and call it Genna or Ledet. To celebrate, there are events such as horse racing, dancing and a game that closely resembles field hockey played between two young teams. Later in the day, church services are held. Gifts are still exchanged, but it is a much smaller part of Christmas than in other countries.


It’s an ancient Bavarian belief that evil spirits need to be driven out at the end of the year by loud noises. Men in the Bavarian Alps still honour this tradition by dressing in lederhosen and firing several 500-year-old mortars in the mountains simultaneously.


There is an old Dutch story from the 1800s that describes Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) who was one of Saint Nicholas’ helpers. Since he was a Moor from Spain, he was often depicted as black and actors portraying him would wear black shoe polish on their faces. Today, the character is widely criticized for being racist, and there are several court battles seeking to ban the character or, at least, modify his appearance.

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