In the UK, we have so many traditions to help us celebrate Christmas: some that have been handed down year after year that we all celebrate; some that we create with our family that mean nothing to anyone else.
But did you know that lots of other countries have their own weird and wonderful ways of celebrating the yuletide season that are entirely different to those of the UK? Here are 12 of our favourites – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas!
The Swedish tradition of “The Yule Goat” is one that has changed over the years. It originally dates back to the 11th Century, when folklore told of Saint Nicholas led a man-sized goat figure that could control the devil. This “Yule Goat” then became popular in the 17th Century as a costume for young men to dress up as and run around pulling pranks and demanding presents. By the 19th Century, the goat had changed from bad to good, and became the giver of gifts – men would again dress up as him and give gifts to their families.
Today, the Swedes no longer dress at The Yule Goat, but instead hang him on their trees as a traditional ornament. In some of the larger cities, giant versions are built out of straw and red ribbons. A classic example is Gävle, where every year in the Castle Square, they erect a 13m tall version that has now become a target for modern-day pranksters, who try to burn it down. This has happened 37 times since it was first erected in 1966!
Austria has taken the idea of the Naughty or Nice List one step further with a tradition that might scare even the bravest of souls. Whilst St Nicholas rewards the children who’ve been good with treats and presents, a beast-like demonic creature known as “The Krampus” roams the city streets frightening children and punishing the bad ones by whisking them away in his sack. During the first week of December, young men dress up as the Krampus, frightening children by ringing bells and clattering chains.
So, if you’re of a nervous disposition, it might be worth avoiding Austria at the start of next December!
In Norway, people hide their brooms. This may sound a little odd to us, but there’s a very simple reason for the Norwegians. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to the time when people believe that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve, looking from brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in what they consider to be the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.
As well as Father Christmas, Germany has a long-standing kinship with St Nicholas. On 6th December, Nikolaus travels by donkey in the middle of the night, and leaves little treats like coins, oranges and toys in the shoes of good children. He’ll also visit them at home or at school and reward them in exchange for reciting a poem, drawing a picture or singing a song. However, he can often bring “Farmhand Rupert” or “Knecht Ruprecht”, a devil-like character dressed in dark clothes, with a dirty beard and dressed in dark clothes, who carries a stick or small whip and punishes the naughty children who misbehave.
The Dutch version of St Nicholas is Sinterklaas – you’ll recognise him with his long white beard, red cape and mitre. In the days leading up to 5th December, Dutch children eagerly place their shoes by the fire in the hope that Sinterklaas with fill them with small gifts in the night. Traditionally, carrots are left in the shoes for the Sinterklaas’ horse, Amerigo.
Never mind the night before Christmas – in Italy, all the action takes place the night before 5th January! According to Italian legend, an old woman called Belfana visits all the good children to fill their stockings with candy and leave them presents. Just like Santa, Belfana enters the house through the chimney and the children leave out special treats for her, usually wine and local delicacies.
A hangover from pagans celebrations, the “Mari Lwyd” or “grey mare” is an old midwinter custom. Still taking place every New Year’s Day Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, the tradition involved the arrival of the horse and its supporters at the door of a house or pub, where the party sings several introductory songs. Then comes a battle of wits, or the “pwnco”, where the people inside the house and the Mari party outside exchange challenges in rhyme. At the end of the challenge – which takes as long as creativity holds out – the Mari party is allowed to enter, with another song. The horse is not a real one, though – it’s made of a horse’s skull attached to a pole. The puppeteer is concealed in sheets, and sometimes has a contraption to work the horse’s jaw.
In San Fernando in the Philippines every year on the Saturday before Christmas Eve, the Giant Lantern Festival is held. “Ligligan Parul Sampernandu”, to give it it’s proper name, attracts spectators from across the Philippines and the world. Eleven villages or “barangays” compete for the title by creating elaborate and ornate lanterns. When the festival started, the lanterns were simply creations around half a metre wide: today, they are made from a variety of different materials and can be up to 6 metres wide.
The start of the Christmas season in Colombia is marked by “Día de las Velitas” or “Little Candles’ Day”. In honour of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, people place candles and paper lanterns in their windows, balconies and front yards. The tradition of candles has grown, and now entire towns and cities across the country are lit up with elaborate displays. Some of the best are found in Quimbaya, where neighbourhoods complete to see who can create the most impressive arrangement.
In Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, hordes of townsfolk make their way on Christmas morning mass on roller skates – yes, roller skates! The tradition is now so well-established that many of the city’s streets are closed to traffic from 8am on the day, so that the skating congregation can get to church safely. It’s even said that children will sleep with one lace from their skates tied around their toe, the other skate dangling from the window so that their friends can wake them up with a friendly tug on the lace.
Japan is not a country that specifically celebrates Christmas, but one quirky tradition that’s emerged over recent year is the KFC Christmas Day Feast! (Yes, this is true…we’re not making it up!).
It was the brainchild of Takeshi Okawara, the manager of Japan’s first ever KFC restaurant. A few months after the opening in 1970, he came up with the idea to sell a “Christmas party barrel”, inspired by the traditional turkey dinner, but with fried chicken instead. By 1974, the promotion had gone nationwide under the banner,” Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakki” or “Kentucky for Christmas”, and it’s now estimated that over 3.5 million Japanese families tuck into a KFC for their dinner.
So now you understand why Okawara went on to be the CEO of KFC Japan for 20 years!
In Spain, they have a particularly peculiar tradition. On 8th December, a log with spindly legs and a kindly face is put out in the home. Called a “Caga Tió”, the children of the house are encouraged to ‘feed’ the log, cover him in a blanket to keep him warm, and generally look after him.
On Christmas Eve, the blanket is removed to reveal sweets and treats for the children – but as “Caga Tió” translates as “Poo Log” – yes, you’ve guessed it – the sweets represent the poo from the log! How festive!!
And one more thing – if that wasn’t strange enough, guess what happens to the log once he’s pooed? Yep, he’s unceremoniously chucked on the home fire to keep the family warm! Be thankful you’re not a poo log!