A different Christmas: Surprising traditions from around the world
This year Christmas is going to be a bit different – much less holding loved ones close and certainly no adventures under the mistletoe. Though it may feel like a wrench, perhaps it’s an opportunity to devise new traditions. What better time to explore the broad-ranging and often bizarre Christmas customs happening worldwide? Here is some of humankind’s festive best.
Japan: Christmas KFC
Families in Japan queue around the block for Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat at Christmas. The tradition is purported to have come about because few Japanese homes have a year-round necessity for an oven (local cuisine doesn’t call for one), so chowing down courtesy of the Colonel is an approximation of the Western tradition of Christmas roast turkey.
Catalunya, Spain: The original Christmas poo
Tió de Nadal, the Christmas log – not to be confused with a Yule log or bûche de Noël – is a Catalan tradition whereby children feed a log (hollowed out, with eyes, stick legs and a red hat) each evening on the run-up to Christmas. He is kept warm under a blanket, and on Christmas Eve the children wake him up, singing songs and hitting him with sticks to persuade him to eject sweets.
Venezuela: Rolling around the Christmas tree
In Caracas, Venezuela residents travel to church on Christmas Day on roller skates. Many roads are closed to traffic on Christmas morning so that Christians can roll en masse to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also traditionally tie a skate lace to their big toe to hang out of the window so that passersby on their way to mass can pull on the string to wake anyone who has overslept!
Iceland: Killer kitty
In snowy Iceland a giant cat is said to roam at Christmas time. The ferocious feline originated as festive incentive for farmworkers: those who were pulling their weight would receive a new set of clothes, and those who didn’t would be devoured. To this day, Icelandic families give each other new clothes in the festive season to avoid being Christmas dinner.
Italy: La Befana the festive witch
Just after the Christmas festivities are over, La Befana the witch pays a visit to children in Italy. On the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany (5th January), she flies by to fill their socks with sweets and presents if the’ve been good, or a lump of coal or dark sweets if they’ve been bad. Like Father Christmas, La Befana comes down the chimney and families leave wine and treats to sustain her on her journey.
Austria: Bad Santa
Austria in December could be mistaken for Halloween anywhere else: it’s common to see revellers in terrifying masks frightening kids and adults alike. In fact they are dressed as Krampus (or Knecht Ruprecht), Santa Claus’s evil accomplice who is said to wander the streets on the hunt for naughty children.
Ukraine: Cobwebs at Christmas
In one of the more touching festive traditions, Ukrainians decorate their homes at Christmas with shimmering spiders’ webs in reference to the folktale about a widow who was too poor to decorate a Christmas tree for her children. The story says that the spiders took pity on the family and spun beautiful webs all over their tree for the children to find on Christmas morning.
Mexico: A radishing display
On 23rd December in Oaxaca, Mexico, people celebrate Noche de Los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes), when radishes are carved into elaborate designs and scenes as part of a unique festive tradition. The practice stems from the colonial period, when the Spanish introduced radishes to the area. Traders at the Christmas market would create sophisticated displays (beautifully carved due to the Oaxaca’s long wood carving tradition) to attract customers.
Norway: Broom-thieving witches
According to Norwegian folklore, mischievous spirits and witches take flight on Christmas Eve to wreak havoc on sleeping households. Before they go to bed, families in Norway traditionally hide any cleaning tools that could be used as brooms so that the witches won’t fly off on them.
South Africa: Christmas caterpillars
A final bonus without a folklore origin: in South Africa, instead of passing round mince pies, families traditionally snack on fried Emperor moth caterpillars!