Christmas is celebrated around the world—but that doesn’t mean it’s celebrated the same way everywhere. Not even close. If you’re used to a North American Christmas, these traditions might seem a little…quirky.
You thought Santa Claus was all presents and ho ho ho, didn’t you? Well, his more traditional European counterpart, St. Nicholas, often has a slightly less jolly companion, specifically to punish bad children in cruel and unusual ways. The most terrifying of these scary sidekicks is Krampus, who is a half-human, half-goat demon who follows St. Nicholas around and either beats naughty kids with birch sticks or just sticks them in a sack and carts them off to hell. Many Alpine towns hold Krampus parades, where people dressed as Krampus show off elaborate costumes and terrify/delight spectators.
If anything could make receiving socks for Christmas appealing, it’s the giant Christmas cat of Iceland. According to Icelandic lore, this enormous feline—known as Jólakötturinn in Icelandic—lurks in the countryside at Christmas time, ready to devour anyone who hasn’t received any new clothes by Christmas Eve.
For those who aren’t fans of man-eating cats, never fear—there’s also a Christmas goat. A pre-Christian symbol of the god Thor, later symbolizing the devil in medieval plays about St. Nicholas, the Yule goat was repurposed as a gift-giving figure in Scandinavia. Most frequently seen as a small Christmas tree ornament made of straw, the Yule goat also makes a supersized appearance every year in the Swedish city of Gävle—and promptly gets burned down by sneaky vandals, no matter how much the town tries to protect it. This happens every single year—or, at least, it certainly seems like it. Only 14 goats out of the last 50 goats have actually survived to see the whole holiday season.
For some reason, poop and Christmas are inextricably linked in Catalonian tradition. Families set up the Tío de Nadal (Christmas log) or caga tío (pooping log), which is a hollow log with a smiling face that, if it’s well taken care of, will poop treats like nuts, nougat and candies on Christmas Day. According to tradition, the tío must be half covered with a blanket, beaten and encouraged to poop with a specific song. The children of the household go into another room to pray, while the adults hide goodies under the blanket.
Another poop-related tradition is the caganer, (literally, “the pooper” or, more accurately, a slightly ruder word), a figure that appears in nativity scenes dressed as a Catalan peasant and posed in the act of defecating. There’s no definitive explanation for why this figure made its way into an otherwise holy scene, although nativity sets in southwestern Europe do traditionally include other characters representing various village folk.
Mari Lwyd is a Welsh tradition with pre-Christian origins that has a poetry-spouting horse’s skull carried through a village challenging neighbours to rhyme-offs. No, we’re really not kidding. The skull, which is mounted on a stick, is carried by a villager draped in a sheet. If you lose the poetry contest with the skull, you have to give it food and drink. Although the tradition was said to be dying out, it has made a resurgence in some towns.
In Greece and other southeastern European countries, nasty goblins called kallikantzaroi run amok during the 12 days of Christmas, causing mischief and mayhem by tipping over furniture, spoiling food and peeing in gardens. While they usually live underground—where they spend their time chopping down the Tree of Life with a giant saw—the world is dark enough during the Christmas season that they’re comfortable venturing out and wreaking a little above-ground mayhem. Ways to stymie the little beggars include leaving a colander on your doorstep, where the kallikantzaroi will stop to count the holes, marking your door with a black cross on Christmas eve, or burning shoes in the fireplace.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
For a slightly more modern tradition, we turn to Japan—where, although only a tiny fraction of the population celebrates Christmas, there is a very specific dinner to be had on Christmas eve: Kentucky Fried Chicken, or, as it’s called at that time of year, “Christmas Chicken.” Following the example of a group of foreigners who couldn’t find turkey at Christmas and substituted KFC instead, the company decided to promote the finger lickin’ good treat to the rest of Japan as a special Christmas treat. Now, Japanese families order their Christmas feasts (which include cake and wine) months in advance to avoid the rush. And each year, KFC reports their highest sales volume of the year on Christmas eve.
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