The Most Bizarre Christmas Traditions Around the World
Let’s face it: Holiday traditions are weird. We bring trees inside, encourage kids to sit on strangers’ laps, and get excited about a fat man in a suit breaking in on Christmas Eve. And let’s not even get into the Elf on a Shelf idea. But if you think the traditions celebrated in the United States are strange, the ways people celebrate around the world will blow your mind. Check out some of these bizarre ideas and see if you can figure out in which country they originate.
First: Where do citizens set fire to a goat effigy?
1. Sweden: Oh Christmas goat, oh (flaming) Christmas goat
In Sweden, Santa Claus did not always ride in style with eight tiny reindeer. Residents of that country believes he once rode a festive Christmas goat. So, in 1966, the town of Gävle decided to erect a giant Yule goat. Well, the huge, straw goat proved too tempting for some local revelers, who burned it down on New Year’s Eve. Despite posting guards, installing security cameras, and making the goat out of less flammable materials, the goat statues have gotten torched 35 out of 50 Christmases.
Next: Where do naughty kids get disemboweled?
2. Germany and Austria: Frau Perchta comes for the bad kids
In Germany and Austria, a witch named Frau Perchta hands out small gifts to good kids and punishments to the bad during the 12 days of Christmas. Frau Perchta looks like a witch with an animal face and a long robe. If she finds a child who has been well-behaved, then she may feel inclined to leave him a small gift. If she discovers a naughty child, then she gets out her knife. For such infractions as not spinning enough straw, working on the holiday, or not celebrating enough, she will rip out your organs, replace them with garbage, and serve you up for that night’s feast. Talk about feeling “stuffed” after dinner.
Unless children want to fall prey to Perchta, they should leave out milk or porridge for the creature. This could have sparked the American tradition of leaving out milk and cookies for Santa Claus.
Next: Where did the tradition of hanging stockings by the chimney come from?
3. Italy: La Befana drinks wine and leaves coal for bad kids
In Italy, children fear the Christmas witch La Befana. According to legend, on the night of Jan. 5, La Befana comes down the chimney and judges all the children. Expecting her visit, the children all leave socks attached to the mantle. She fills the good kids’ socks with goodies, and the bad kids’ socks with coal. While her origin story varies, the most popular one states that Befana gave the Three Kings directions to the Baby Jesus, and decline their invitation to join them. She later thought better of it, but never caught up to the trio. Now, she flies her broomstick around on the eve of the Epiphany, still seeking the child.
Much like Santa Claus, families leave La Befana food and drink to sustain her. The food varies regionally, but every family leaves her a glass of wine, making La Befana the classiest of Christmas characters, so far.
Next: Where does a raggedy man literally whip kids into shape?
4. Pennsylvania, by way of Germany: Belsnickel scares children
According to The Morning Call, the raggedy-dressed Belsnickel visits Pennsylvania Dutch children a few days before Christmas. He tosses candy and nuts on the ground to tempt children, while calling on each one to recite a poem, Bible verse, or Math equation. Greedy kids who dive for the candy might get swatted with the switch he carries, and good ones get rewarded with a handful of treats. The Belsnickel exists to warn children they still have time to shape up for Christmas, and in modern times, the switch exists as just a threat.
Originating in German and Rhine traditions, the name Belsnickel comes from the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. Fans of The Office might remember The Office’s version, too.
Next: Where does an old hag and her cat eat the poor kids?
5. Iceland: Gryla and the Yule cat keep workers in shape
In Iceland, a cannibalistic, horrifying giantess named Gryla and her Yule cat stalk children during the Christmas season. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Gryla stuffs naughty kids into her sack for eating later. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her Yule cat, Jólakötturinn, looks for kids not wearing new clothes. The fashion critic eats poor kids who don’t have new clothes, legend says. In that country, kids who have finished all of their clothing before Christmas get new duds, but lazy children do not.
Next: Which country’s Nativity set features a defecating kid?
6. Spain: The Caganer defecates all over Christmas
In Barcelona, the Caganer represents a unique addition to the Nativity scene. The BBC reports that Catalan Christmas displays feature a little figurine, usually hidden off to the side, with his pants down. Dating back at least two centuries, the Caganer represents fertility and a good harvest. The Caganer never goes in the front — that would be disrespectful. But buying a Caganer in the shape of a public figure like Prince Charles, Spider-Man, SpongeBob SquarePants, or even Donald Trump can be considered high praise by some households. Legend has it, the original little shepherd boy had no other gift to give the Baby Jesus, so he fertilized the ground as his gift. These days, your presence is a better present than that one.
Next: Where do the Yule Lads wreak havoc?
7. Iceland: The Yule Lads leave treats — but not always sweet ones
Not only do Icelandic children deal with the Gryla, but they have 13 Father Christmases to please. Smithsonian Magazine explains that the Yule Lads, merry but mischievous little guys, take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Children place their shoes on the windowsill in anticipation of their visit. Good children get treats, but bad ones get rotting potatoes. Today, the tradition is mostly fun and games, but it wasn’t always. In 1746, the government banned parents from torturing their kids with monster stories about the creatures, but today, their tricks seem mostly harmless.
Next: Where do people grab an old sheet and a skull to participate in this tradition?
8. Wales: Mari Lwyd looks scary, but sounds like fun
Mari Lwyd, which means “gray mare” in English, involves a skull, an old bed sheet, and songs. In Wales, the pagan holdover custom involves the arrival of a horse and attendees at the door of a house or pub, where they sing several verses of an introductory song. A battle of wits (or a pwnco) ensues, which involves the party outside and the people inside exchanging verse, insults, and other creative parries as long as both can hold out. When one falters, the Mari enters the house and brings luck for the New Year. Supposedly, the Mari scares away any bad spirits for the year ahead, and often gets quite feisty with those inside the house.
Next: Which culture celebrates with a pooping log?
9. Catalonia, Spain: Caga Tio literally poops out treats
In Catalonia, Caga Tio or Tio de Nadal brings presents for Christmas, the same way Santa Claus brings them in the U.S. According to Atlas Obscura, children “feed” the log starting on Dec. 8, and it “grows” each day, covering it with a little blanket to keep it warm. On Christmas Eve, the children beat the log with sticks, singing traditional songs encouraging it to defecate treats instead of stinky, well, other stuff. After the log is sufficiently whipped, the family reaches under the blanket to retrieve the presents. In Spain, it’s a good thing if Christmas goes to s**t.
Next: Where does this demonic creature steal away wicked children?
10. Germany: Krampus beats bad kids and steals them away
Although the tradition of Krampus has now spread worldwide, it all started in Germany centuries ago. As National Geographic explains, Krampus began as a counterpart to the kind, generous Saint Nicholas, and would “swat” bad children away. Folklore dictates that Krampus shows up the night before Dec. 6, or Krampus Night, also the night before St. Nicholas Day. Kids leave out their shoes for the good Saint to leave treats, or for Krampus to leave a rod for bad behavior.
In modern Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, drunken men dressed as devils take to the streets for a Krampuslauf — a Krampus Run in which people get chased through the streets by the “devils.” That’s one way to burn off those holiday cals.
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