The other weekend, after attending a menorah lighting at a local tea house, my husband and I joined a parade of monsters talking down the sidewalk. There were vicious satyr-like manimals with sticks in their hands and wicker baskets on their back, threatening to carry away naughty children. This was the Krampus Walk, Richmond, Virginia’s version of an Austrian Christmas staple. If you’re a good child, Father Christmas brings you presents. If you’re bad, Krampus will whip you with switches or snatch you away.
Christmas may be one holiday, but the ways people celebrate it around the world are countless. Mayhem has always marked celebrations around the winter solstice. In Roman times, December brought Saturnalia, a festival that reversed the social order: masters served dinner to their slaves, the rich gave gifts to the poor and to each other, and everyone went out in disguise—including slaves disguised as free men—to gamble and drink. Back when Christmas was more about drinking, America had monsters too. In the 1600s, early Bostonians celebrated Christmas disguised as animals, as members of the opposite sex or with face paint, in order get drunk and disorderly without being recognized. Caroling at the time meant dancing. Wassailing meant going door to door demanding food, alcohol and money. The annual debauchery got so bad–think public orgies—that from 1659 to 1681, Massachusetts’ Puritans banned Christmas altogether.
When you hear about the holiday legends and lore of the old country, it’s not hard to see why people got into last-day-on-earth-style partying. For example, in Basque communities, which you learned about in episode # Meeting New Peoples, an overweight man who wears a beret, smokes a pipe, and dresses like a Basque farmer named Olentzero comes to town on Christmas Eve to deliver children’s holiday gifts. Although Olentzero is now a beloved character, he used to have some more violent aspects to his personality. Originally, he went around town with his sickle cutting the throats of people who ate too much on Christmas Eve.
Characters that dole out holiday punishments are common not only in the cold, dark lands of northern Europe, but even in fair-weathered placed like France, where Pere Fouttard, father whipper, is on patrol. Krampus may be an actual monster, but one version of Pere Fouttard is that he murdered three children and hid their bodies in pickle barrels. St. Nicholas brought them back to life, which was one of the miracles that earned his sainthood. As penance, Pere Fouttard must serve Santa forever.
The character Belsnickel emigrated from southwestern Germany and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.
Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. That is some Thai demon level horror. Like Krampus, the frightening countenance of Perchta may show up in Christmas parades in Austria. Perchta’s story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, who you’ll hear about later.
One character doesn’t care if you’ve been minding your p’s and q’s. Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). Back in the time when all clothes were handmade, to encourage children to do their chores, parents told the tale that the Yule Cat would eat anyone who didn’t have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas. A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It may come as no surprise that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.
One of Iceland’s most renowned figures associated with Christmas made her first appearance in ancient Pagan times. An especially terrifying figure, Gryla is a giant troll with hooves for feet and sports an impressive thirteen tails. This lady-troll is in a perpetual bad mood due to her insatiable hunger…for children. Each Christmas, Gryla comes down from her mountain to hunt for bad children. She places them in a sack and drags them back to her cave where she cooks them in stew. Gryla’s wrath is not reserved solely for human children, but she has been through three husbands, two of which she killed because they bored her. Sounds like real mother material, right?
The Yule Lads are the thirteen sons of Gryla and each is known for a particular habit or characteristic. Most of them are depicted as mischievous pranksters and petty criminals, prowling the town each night on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas. They are: Sheep Cote Clog – A peg legged sheep fancier; Gully Gawk – hides out in ditches then runs into your cow shed and lick the foam off the milk in the milking buckets; Stubby – is unusually short and likes to steal pie crusts; Spoon Licker – licker and thief of spoons; Pot Scraper – thief of leftovers; Bowl Licker – hides under your bed waiting for you to put down your bowl so he can steal and yes, lick it; Door Slammer – Oh, did you just fall asleep? Not for long! This guy slams doors all night; Skyr Gobbler – a thief of skyr, a type of yogurt; Sausage Swiper – truth in advertising; Window Peeper – same; Doorway Sniffer – Uses his incredibly large nose to sniff through doors for traditional leaf bread; Meat Hook – This fellow always brings a hook along with him so he can steal meat, and be terrifying I assume; Candle Stealer – He follows children around so he can steal their candles, leaving them in the dark.
The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be when it’s Christmas time in Wales. In its purest form, the tradition of Mari Llwyd involves the arrival of the horse and and a group of people at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses. Then comes a battle of wits in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song. What I forgot to mention is the horse in this scenario is actually a horse’s skull attached to a pole, wrapped in white fabric and sometimes decorated with tinsel and baubles. The person operating the horse is concealed by sheets, and sometimes has a contraption to work the horses jaw!
In the Philippines, the Giant Lantern Festival (Ligligan Parul Sampernandu) is held each year on the Saturday before Christmas Eve in the city of San Fernando – the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” Spectators from all over the country and across the globe to the eleven villages that take part in the festival. Competition is fierce as everyone pitches in trying to build the most elaborate lantern. Originally, the lanterns were simple creations around half a metre in diameter, made from Japanese origami paper and lit by candle. Today, the lanterns are made from a variety of materials, have grown to around six metres in size and are illuminated by electric bulbs that sparkle in a kaleidoscope of patterns.
Going to Christmas mass is more fun in Venezuelan. In the capital of Caracas, citizens make their way to mass on roller skates every year on Christmas morning. 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.
Ukraine’s strangest festive tradition is not one for arachnophobes! Where we would have baubles, tinsel and stars, Ukrainians use decorations that mimic the natural formation of spiders’ webs shimmering with dew. The tradition goes back to a folktale about a poor widow who could not afford to decorate a tree for her children. The spiders in the house took pity on the family and spun beautiful webs all over the tree, which the children awoke to find on Christmas morning. Spiders’ webs are also considered to be lucky in Ukrainian culture.
There are some home-baked tradition that are odd when you look at them objectively, like watching a fireplace on TV. The Yule Log, a giant hunk of wood meant to burn all through the holiday, is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The Yule Log on TV is a relatively new tradition for those who have no fireplace to burn their own log. From 1966 until 1989, WPIX would interrupt its regularly scheduled programming on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, “to bring you the warmth, good cheer and friendliness of a yule log fire accompanied by the most beautiful and familiar christmas carols.” So for 24 hours acros Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a 17 second loop played.. The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, but a carpet fire during the first filming made the mayor wary of a reshoot that was needed a few years later because the film stock had deteriorated, so the loop seen now was filmed in California.
In some parts of the country, the ornaments would be incomplete without a sparkly pickle. The pickle was the last ornament hung on the Christmas tree and then the first child to find the pickle got an extra present. Legend has it that it comes from an old German tradition, which seems to scan since Germany is responsible for much of our holiday habits, courtesy of Victoria and Albert, and my grandfather’s people do love their pickles. Like Elf on the Shelf, this modern tradition was made to seem old. In the 1880s Woolworth stores started selling glass ornaments imported from Germany and some were in the shape of various fruit and vegetables, including bump green pickles. The lack of bona fides notwithstanding, The American city of Berrien Springs, MI, self-proclaimed Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, has an annual pickle festival held during the early part of December.
Sometime American makes a stronger showing than you’d expect in other countries’ holidays. Although Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, families from all over the country head to their local KFC for a special Christmas Eve meal. Back in 1974, the American fast-food restaurant KFC released a festive marketing campaign in Japan. The seemingly simple slogan “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) spawned a national tradition that still thrives to this day. You can expect to pay a premium price for the 11 herbs and spices on the biggest sales day of the year. A KFC Christmas dinner clocks in at around 3,336 yen (£20). Bonus fact: the official KFC Twitter account only follows six men named Herb and the five Spice Girls. The person who noticed it, or at least broadcast their discovery, was awarded a portrait of himself getting a piggy-back ride from Colonel Sanders. Speaking of Twitter
Grandfather Frost is the Slavic equivalent of Santa Claus, wearing a long red fur coat and fur-trimmed hat, carrying a magical staff. Instead of sneaking down chimneys to deposit gifts before disappearing into the night, he shows up at New Year’s parties to give kids their gifts. He’s also accompanied everywhere by his granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. I wasted a fair amount of time on a Google image search for snow maiden headdress and I’m no sorry at all; it’s a great asthetic. Grandfather Frost had a tough time in the Soviet Union, though. After the Russian Revolution, he didn’t come at all for a few years due to a ban on religion and any Christmas-like New Year’s traditions. Joseph Stalin reversed the ban in 1935, but he ordered that Grandfather Frost wear a blue coat so that no one would confuse him with the Western Santa Claus.
Remember that Ethiopian famine-relief song “Do they know it’s Christmas?” With about 350 million Christians living in Africa, I’m going to guess “probably.” Christmas in Africa has managed to keep more of its spiritual meaning and is markedly less commercialized than in other parts of the world. Most Christians in Ethiopia belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who also celebrate Christmas on the 7th January. They call it “Ganna”. They also fast, but only for Christmas Eve. At dawn of Ganna people traditionally wear white cotton clothes, similar to a toga, with colourful stripes at its ends. People who live in cities are more likely to stay in their western style clothes, though. Each Ganna, thousands of people pilgrimage to Lalibela to Bet Maryam (Church of the Virgin Mary). The most important dish eaten at Christmas meal in Ethiopia is a spicy meat and veggie stew called “wot,” served with injera bread. IF you’ve never had Ethiopian food, do. It’s like culinary S&M, the spices are painful but you keep going back for more.
Egyptian Orthodox Christians or Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. They fast during the 43 days before Christmas abstaining from meat, fish, eggs and milk. After a long late-night Christmas evening mass, people go home and feast on lam stew and everything else they hadn’t been allowed to have. The most famous Coptic church service is held by the Coptic Pope in Saint Mark’s cathedral in the Abbassia district of Cairo. On Christmas day families visit their friends and neighbours. Children get small amount of money called “El ‘aidia”. They use the money to buy sweets and toys.
In Malawi, children go house to house singing Christmas songs and dancing. Especially for the occasion, they wear simple clothes made of leaves. In Zimbabwe there is a tradition where children bring little presents to children who are in hospitals or for any reason can not come to church. Why don’t we have our kids doing that? Somebody start a social media trend immediately! Families like to celebrate with their neighbors on On Christmas Day. Adults have a party in one house and children enjoy themselves in another one. Let’s *not do that here.
Christmas in South Africa is marked with a feast that could include turkey, suckling pig, mince pies, yellow rice, etc., with puddings, naturally. Caroling on Christmas Eve is very popular in towns and cities. In Madagascar, Christmas is the time of mass baptism of children, as well as a tradition of visiting elders and other highly respected people in certain community. Church is the place to be on Christmas Eve in Democratic Republic of Congo. Choirs sing Christmas carols and religious plays are performed. These plays begin with the creation and the Garden of Eden and end with the story of King Herod ordering the killing of the baby boys, which actually sets up the plot of the Nativity but is largely ignored or forgotten. People in Ghana also revel in songs and plays during mass. After going to church again in the morning, everybody hurries home to exchange presents. During Christmas meal people in Ghana eat stew or okra soup that you might have heard of; it’s called gumbo.
One of the most popular Christmas traditions in Nigeria is decorating of homes and churches with palm fronds. According to an old belief, palm fronds symbolize peace, so the hope is that the fronds will bring peace and harmony to their lives. Apart from Christmas carols and midnight mass people in Nigeria have the traditional “Ekon” play. The performers dance from home to home carrying a fake baby. Home owner accepts the doll and gives presents to the group. Then the doll is returned to group who continues their “journey”. In Gambia, there is a special Christmas parade of fanals, lanterns shaped like houses and boats.
In Sierra Leone and much of Gambia, towns and villages celebrate with masquerade parties, extending the celebration beyond the those of the Christia n faith to include the whole community. As much a social event as it is a religious one, Christmas across the region brings friends and family together for food, sport, and gifts. Liberia flips the script on Christmas. Instead of Santa, you’re more likely to see Old Man Bayka, the county “devil” who, instead of giving presents, walks up and down the street begging for them on Christmas Day. And instead of hearing the usual “Merry Christmas” greeting, expect to hear Liberians say “My Christmas on you.” It’s basically a saying that means “please give me something nice for Christmas.”
In China, only about one percent of people are Christians, so most people have only a passing familiarity with Christmas. It’s something they’ve seen in Western TV and movies. Because of this, Christmas is typically only celebrated in major cities, with trees, lights and other decorations on the streets and in department stores. Santa Claus is called ‘Shen Dan Lao Ren,’ Old Christmas Man, and has grottos in shops like in Europe and America. The post men might dress up as Santa when delivering letters before Christmas! More young people are celebrating Christmas in cities where Christmas parties are becoming popular and it’s also a time where young couples will be gifts for each other, a bit like Valentine’s day. While they’re popping in malls, Christmas trees in people’s houses are rare. If people do have a “tree of light,” it is normally a plastic one and might be decorated with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns. Ironically, most of the world’s plastic Christmas Trees and Christmas decorations are made in China. Bonus fact: the first successful artificial Christmas tree was made by a company that manufactured toilet brushes. A tradition that’s becoming popular is giving apples on Christmas Eve, is giving apples. Many stores have apples wrapped up in colored paper for sale. The word for apple in Mandarin is “píngguǒ” (苹果) which sounds like the word for peace.
Not to be confused with Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas), Nikolaus travels around Germany by donkey in the middle of the night on December 6 (Nikolaus Tag) and leaves little treats like coins, chocolate, oranges and toys in the shoes of good children, particularly in the Bavarian region. St. Nicholas also visits children in schools or at home. If they want sweets or a small present, they must recite a poem, sing a song or draw a picture. It’s not all fun and games, though. St. Nick often brings along Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert). A devil-like character dressed in dark clothes covered with bells and a dirty beard, Knecht Ruprecht carries a stick or a small whip in hand to punish any children who misbehave. Do you think they classify any children as middling or average? Like Christmas purgatory; you haven’t been good enough for gifts but you haven’t been bad enough for a whipping. Or is it a clearly defined line? And if it is, do you think there were kids keeping track to make sure they stay just this side of the line. These are the things I think about when I’m home alone and the power goes out.
All the action takes places on the eve of January 5th in Italy. According to folklore, an old woman named Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their stockings with candy and leave them presents if they’ve been good. Bad kids get coal or in Sicily, a stick. Just like Father Christmas, Belfana enters through the chimney and is left treats by the children who live there, typically wine and local delicacies. Unlike Mrs. Claus, though, Befana is depicted as a standard-issue warty, big-nosed witch. On the topic of women who get around, according to Norwegian folklore, Christmas Eve is the day when mischievous spirits and witches take to the skies for mischief and general tomfoolery. Since witches prefer brooms for transportation, it is tradition for Norwegian families to hide any cleaning supplies attached to sticks where the witches won’t be able to find them. So if you don’t feel like sweeping on Christmas, tell your partner you’ve gone Norwegian.
Little Candles’ Day, Día de las Velitas, marks the start of the Christmas season across Colombia. In honour of the Virgin Mary, 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 compete to see who can create the most impressive arrangement.
Every Christmas, families around Sweden gather around the television at 3pm sharp, to watch Donald Duck. Everything on Christmas is planned around the television special, and more than 40% of Sweden’s population still tune-in like clockwork. The tradition dates back to the 1960’s when televisions were a new commodity in Sweden and only two channels aired – one of which played Disney cartoons at Christmas. It may be a quirky tradition, but a whole nation coming together to watch Christmas cartoons together? #countrygoals
Thought all Christmas trees were created equal? Think again. The Kiwis are all about the pohutukawa, a beautiful tree that is native to New Zealand with gnarled roots, and bright crimson flowers. The first mention of the pohutukawa tree came from Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter in 1867. He described locals decorating their churches and homes with the brightly coloured branches on Christmas. Today the pohutukawa tree is a recognised symbol of Christmas around New Zealand and is featured on Christmas cards, decorations, and even in the Christmas carols that children sing at school.
The second most outlandish Christmas tradition on this list, meet Tió de Nadal, the Christmas log. Tió de Nadal is made from a hollow log, with stick legs, a smile, and a red hat. Every evening between December 8th and Christmas Eve, the children feed the log small treats with water, and leave him under a blanket to keep him warm. On Christmas Eve, things get weird. Children are tasked with beating the log with sticks while singing traditional songs which include amazing lyrics such as “Poop log, Poop nougats, Hazelnuts and mato cheese, If you don’t poop well, I’ll hit you with a stick, Poop log!”. After Tió de Nadal is properly beaten and serenaded, the log magically poops out presents and candy, meaning they fall out a hole in the back. After all the treats are out Tio de Nadal is considered useless and thrown in the fire for warmth.
Some traditions are created deliberately and some develop organically. The Swedish tradition of the Yule Goat dates back to at least the 11th century where there are mentions of a man-sized goat figure, led by Saint Nicholas, who had the power to control the devil. By the 19th century, the goat became the good guy – a giver of gifts. Instead of Father Christmas, men in the family would dress up as the goat and give gifts to the entire family. Since 1966, a 13-metre-tall straw Yule Goat has been built in the center of Gävle’s (yev-lay) Castle Square for the Advent, but this Swedish Christmas tradition has unwittingly led to another “tradition” of sorts – people trying to burn it down. Since 1966 the Goat has been successfully burned down 29 times – the most recent destruction was in 2016. Burning the goat is fully illegal, but that doesn’t stop people. In 1976, the yule goat was hit by a car and caught fire. In ‘79, it was torched before it even made it to Castle Square. In ‘88 people started a betting pool for what day the goat would burn down, which it did. In 2001 an American tourist burned the goat down after being tricked by some local friends into believing it was a legal tradition — he spent a few weeks in jail and they wouldn’t give him his lighter back. In ‘05, vandals dressed as Santa Claus and gingerbread men fired a flaming arrow at the straw goat. In ‘06, the city fire-proofed the goat, or so they thought, because it burned down. In ‘09, webcams were added to surveil the goat. These were taken offline by a denial-of-service attack and the goat was burned down. In 2011, they hosed the goat down with water so it would be covered with ice, but persistent vandals managed to burn it down anyway. Luckily for the goat, the fire department is only a few minute away, close enough that they thwarted three attempts in 2014 alone. In 2016,m it was burned to the ground in the few hours between my favorite YouTube host Tom Scott filming a piece in front of it and him arriving home at Heathrow airport. If you want to see how the Goat fares this year when it goes up on December 1st, you can follow its progress on the Visit Gävle website through a live video stream.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Remember how I said the pooping log was the second-most strange custom? The winner for most unusual Christmas tradition is a Nativity scene character from the Catalonia region in Spain, the caganer. There are many theories at to what it symbolizes, but many believe It’s considered bad luck for crops to leave him out of the Nativity. The caganer is placed near the rear of a Nativity scene, often behind the barn, because he’s squatting, having a poo. Traditionally, the Caganer is depicted as wearing a traditional Catalonian red cap and white peasant shirt, although figures modeled to look like celebrities, politicians, and even the Pope are also popular. Basically, if they have a Twitter account, someone made a Caganer of them. Thanks for spending party of your day with me.