Christmas in the UK is generally considered to be a magical time of the year; a holiday season and time of merriment, and an opportunity to relax and share good food and exchange gifts with loved ones. For a short time of the year there is a cosy winter glow and, whether people celebrate a religious festival such as Christmas or Hanukah or a more secular occasion, each country and sometimes region has its own traditions.
Whatever our religious beliefs, Christmas is widely enjoyed and we have our own familiar Christmas traditions, but we’ve found some frankly quite odd Christmas practices around the world … and not all of them in good taste!
So, this Christmas, be good and warm up the sauna, put on some new clothes, hide the broom, be nice to spiders, have your ransom ready and order KFC … I’ll explain.
Yuletide Lads, Grýla and the Christmas Cat – Iceland
Sheep-Cote Clod, Gully Gawk, Stubby, Spoon Licker, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Door Slammer, Skyr-Gobbler, Sausage-Swiper, Window-Peeper, Door Sniffer, Meat Hook and Candle Beggar are the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous prankster trolls from Icelandic folklore. They are the precocious children of Grýla, part-troll and part-animal ogress living in the Icelandic mountains.
In the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, the Yule Lads come down in the mountain in search of mischief, while Grýla searches for naughty children to boil in her cauldron. In 1746, parents were banned from tormenting their children with stories about the Lads but nowadays their tricks are less harmful, more likely to leave a gift in a shoe placed in a window for the thirteen nights before Christmas.
Grýla’s cat, known as the Christmas Cat, prowls Iceland on Christmas Eve eating anyone who isn’t wearing a new article of clothing.
Hiding brooms – Norway
In Norway, people believe that evil spirits and witches arrive on Christmas Eve. Norway’s Christmas Eve tradition of hiding their brooms in the safest place in the house dates back centuries, to a time when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out at Christmas to find brooms and ride them away.
Legend of the Christmas Spider – Ukraine
Spiders’ webs are considered lucky in the Ukraine, and Ukrainians often decorate their Christmas tree with spiders and spider webs. Thought to be the origin of tinsel, this tradition comes from a folktale where a poor wide and her children couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. Their fortunes were turned when they awoke the next morning to find the tree covered with beautiful cobwebs that had been turned to silver and gold by the sunlight. They never lived in poverty again.
KFC (Kentucky Fried Christmas) – Japan
With few Christians in Japan, Christmas in not widely celebrated and it isn’t recognised as a religious holiday. Even so, Japanese schools will often close although business generally carries on as normal. Some familiar traditional customs have crept in from the US, such as exchanging Christmas cards and presents, but it is more often considered a time of spreading happiness.
KFC has promoted fried chicken as a Christmas meal since 1974 and it has become a custom practiced by an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families ever since.
Pickle in the Tree – USA
Decorating the Christmas tree with a Christmas Pickle is considered by some as a German tradition, although few Germans even know about it. Our own Woolworths stores imported German glass ornaments from 1880, which often depicted fruit and vegetables. The Christmas Pickle is an American tradition where a tree decoration in the shape of a pickle is hidden in the Christmas tree’s branches, the finder receiving a reward or good luck over the new year.
Krampus Night – Germany and Austria
Krampus is the ghoulish evil accomplice of St Nicholas, a demonic creature that roams the streets in December frightening children and rewarding all the good little boys and girls. German and Austrian naughty children are put in his sack and whisked away in a crate to the underworld.
Krampus is known in folklore in countries from Hungary to northern Italy, where cities celebrate Krampuslauf, during which young men dress up as the Krampus and run around the streets clattering bells and chains carrying torches. There is an annual Krampus parade in Vienna and the USA has taken on the idea, with Krampus parties taking place in New York and Portland.
St Nicholas and Farmhand Rupert – Germany
In the middle of the night on 6th December, Nikolaus leaves treats, such as chocolate and toys, for all the good children in Germany, particularly in Bavaria. In exchange for a poetry recital, song or picture drawn by the child, St Nicholas will give out sweets or presents.
Nikolaus’s companion, ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ (Farmhand or Servant Rupert), will often accompany him. Farmhand Rupert is dirty-bearded devilish character who wears dark clothing covered in bells, who carries a stick or whip to punish naughty children.
The Gävle Goat – Sweden
The Yule Goat’s origins lie in the 11th century, when a man-sized goat figure was led by St Nicholas, who had the power to control the devil. Over the years the Yule Goat has been reinvented, for a long time an excuse for young men to dress as a goat man while pulling pranks for gifts but by the 19th century he had become the giver of gifts.
Thor reputedly rode a chariot pulled by a pair of goats and this giant version of the traditional Swedish Christmas straw goat has been built every year since 1966. On the first Sunday of Advent, the 13 metre high and 3.6 tonne Yule Goat is built in Gävle’s Castle Square.
The tradition has borne the custom of people trying to sabotage it. It has been burned down on 29 occasions, been hit by a cruising car and been the subject of kidnap attempts. It has even toured the Chinese twin town of Zhuhai. If you want to monitor its progress this year, a webcam is placed at Castle Square, where you can follow the Gävle Goat from the first Sunday of Advent until after New Year or until the day of his notorious fate.
Little Candles Day – Colombia
This widely-observed tradition marks the start of the Christmas season in Colombia. Dia de las Velitas is celebrated on 7th December, the eve of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mary and a public holiday. Candles and paper lanterns are placed in windows, on balconies and in front yards. Landmarks, homes, tombs – sometimes even whole towns and cities – are lit up with elaborate displays and in some neighbourhoods people compete to create the most impressive light show.
Cavalcade of Lights – Canada
In Canada, Toronto’s Cavalcade of Lights has marked the beginning of the holiday season since 1967, when it marked the opening of the new City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The stunning display of lights and fireworks is combined with outdoor ice skating and live music.
Festive Sauna – Finland
Christmas Eve afternoon marks the start of Christmas in Finland, with closed shops and no public transport. In Finnish folklore, the spirits of dead ancestors came to bathe in the sauna after sunset, and warming up the sauna is an ancient custom. Finnish homes are often equipped with a sauna and it is customary for Finns to take a respectful sauna before heading out to attend the evening celebrations, leaving the dead ancestors in their place.
Shoes by the Fire – France and Netherlands
Akin to our Christmas stockings – in both France and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes or socks by the fire for Santa to fill with presents and sweets.
Galette of Kings – France
On the twelfth day of Christmas, the feast of Epiphany, the French enjoy the galette des rois, or cake of kings. Whoever finds the hidden charm within the cake is king or queen, winning the right to wear the crown and choose their partner.
St Nicholas and Pere Noel – Belgium
The Belgians have two Santas, St Nicholas and Pere Noel. St Nicholas keeps in the background, keeping an eye on the unsuspecting children.
Black Peter – Denmark
This Dutch character has quite understandably become controversial in recent years, but Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is traditionally a black-faced elf dressed in Renaissance clothing, who accompanies Santa during his annual visit. The Moorish character from Spain first appeared in 1850 in a book by a school teacher from Amsterdam.
Paying the Ransom – Serbia
Christmas gifts are not a Serbian tradition, but gifts are given on the three Sundays before Christmas Day. The three holidays are marked by the binding of legs using a belt, scarf or such, requiring the bound person to ‘pay the ransom’ with gifts to secure release.
On Detinjci, three Sundays before Christmas, adults tie up their (or their neighbours’) children; a week later, on Materice, children tie up their mother. The man of the house gets the same treatment the following week, on Oci.
Tió de Nadal (poop log) – Catalonia
Tió de Nadal, the Catalan Christmas log, is made from a foot-long hollowed log, in more recent times sporting a smiley face, stick legs and red hat. From 8th December, the log is looked after by children, who feed it with treats each evening and cover it with a blanket to keep it warm.
On Christmas Day the log is persuaded to defecate by beating it with sticks, while singing the song of Tió de Nadal, which loosely translated reads: “Poop log, poop nougat, hazelnuts and mato cheese; if you don’t poop well, I’ll hit you with a stick”. When the log obliges it is thrown in the fire. Hmmm.