The holiday season is an exciting time all around the world and every culture celebrates a little bit differently. You might be surprised to learn what some children fear each year around the holidays or what takes the place of Santa Claus in another country's folklore.
What may seem totally normal to those living in the US can actually be seen as pretty bizarre to the rest of the world. Many US traditions seem to have lost sight of the true meaning behind Christmas and now feature everything from TV screens as fire places to Presidential ceremonies about a Turkey.
Whatever country you look at, their traditions will seem normal to them because it’s what they have grown up with, but to an outsider there is a lot to be learned about the meaning behind them and why they continue today.
If you are considering heading abroad for the holidays this year you may want to make sure you do some serious research into the country’s customs to avoid being completely clueless on arrival. Here are 15 of the weirdest holiday customs from around the world, and 10 that we do in the US that are just as weird (if not more).
25 Around The World: Here Comes...Krampus?
Originating in Germany, this early December Christmas tradition is basically the anti-santa. Krampus is half goat, half demon, and he was created to instil fear in the hearts of Children.
The night of December 6th (Krampusnacht), legend states that Krampus comes out in search of naughty children. While the well behaved children will wake on December 6th to see presents in their shoes from St. Nicholas, the bad children will find a rod from Krampus, or worse, will be collected by him and taken back to his lair.
It may be an effective tactic for making children behave but surely it’s a little traumatizing for kids to believe that this is their fate should they put a toe out of line.
24 Around The World: Rollerblading in Venezuela
The capital of Caracas is doing Christmas right, making the most of a green Christmas by still finding a way to glide rather than walking.
Venezuelans in this city strap on their rollerblades on Christmas morning each year and take to the streets to skate to mass, as 70% of the population (Metro.co.uk) is Catholic. The government actually closes the streets until 8:00 am on Christmas day in order to make sure it’s safe for families to enjoy the holiday tradition together and get to mass without too much difficulty.
23 Around The World: German Pickles
There might be some pretty weird things out there on people’s Christmas trees be it ugly school photos in a holiday frame or baked goods on a string, but the German Christmas Pickle tops the list.
The glass pickle shaped ornament was traditionally hidden last, after the rest of the tree had been decorated. On Christmas morning, the child who found the pickle first would either receive an additional present or be the one to open his or her gifts first. For adults, being the first to spot the pickle is thought to be good luck.
22 Weird But We Do It: Braving Black Friday
Nothing says Happy Holidays like wrestling your neighbour for the last purse on sale. Obviously this is not true, but in America the prelude to Christmas is Black Friday.
Taking place on the Friday after Thanksgiving, massive lineups begin at malls and shops as early as 5:00am as hopefuls wait to be the first inside for their pick of the sale items. While deals can practically be a steal, it’s not exactly a tradition that aligns too well with having given thanks for everything you already have at your turkey dinner 12 hours earlier.
21 Around The World: An Icelandic Yule Cat
Ever wonder why you always buy a new outfit for the holidays? Perhaps it derives from the legend of the Icelandic Yule Cat.
Jólakötturinn, as it’s called in Iceland, is another enforcer of good behaviour through fear. Traditionally, those who finished their chores in time for Christmas received new clothes for the occasion while the lazy folk, did not. The Yule Cat, big as a house, is said to lurk in the Icelandic countryside on Christmas Eve and will eat anyone who did not receive new clothes for Christmas. There never was a better incentive to go shopping.
20 Weird But We Do It: Encouraging Elf On The Shelf
This is a super creepy tradition akin to some ideas of European countries. This little elf doll that is widely available for purchase, is set out by parents at the beginning of December to watch the behaviour of young children.
Elf on a shelf moves around the house, sitting and watching over kids, allegedly returning to the North Pole to report back to Santa. Elf on a shelf is a surefire way to get your kids to behave for the nice list, but it is definitely a creepy addition to your mantle.
19 Around The World: Ukrainian Spider Webs
Christmas trees are decorated annually all around the world, but in the Ukraine, the decor is a little bit different. Seeing trees covered in ornate cobwebs and sparkling spiders is extremely common and features an interesting symbolism.
The story goes that a poor widow and her children had grown a Christmas tree from a pine cone, but once it was big enough to be decorated for the holidays they realized they had no means to decorate this tree. In the night before Christmas, spiders heard the children crying over the lack of funds for the tree and went to work and decorated it themselves.
The family was elated to awake and see the beautiful webs that had be spun, shimmering in the sun to make their tree as lovely as anyone else’s.
18 Around The World: Jolabokaflod In Iceland
Jolabokaflod, meaning “Christmas Book Flood” is a brilliant Christmas Eve tradition in Iceland that the rest of the world should take note of. Each year on Christmas Eve, Icelandic families exchange brand new books with one another and spend the rest of the evening cozy inside, reading.
This tradition came from WWII when paper was one of the only things not in short supply, and thus made books a viable gift option (Countryliving.com). This encouragement of literature in every household could explain why one in ten Icelanders have published a book.
17 Weird But We Do It: Mall Santas
You wouldn’t let a stranger on the street hold your kid, so why do we bring them to the mall and force them to sit on the lap of a strange man while they cry, then take a photo to document this traumatic experience?
Let’s face it - even kids who love the magic of the holidays and firmly believe in Santa are freaked out by a man that they don’t know especially when he’s in a bright red suit and his face is obscured by a bushy white beard. If your kid really doesn’t want to sit with Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas, perhaps it shouldn’t be forced.
16 Around The World: Ganna In Ethiopia
Ethiopians celebrate Christmas on January 7th and as part of Ganna/Genna, they attend an Ethiopian Orthodox Church service with their families. They fast the day before and will dress all in white for this occasion, moving in a procession around the church as part of the ceremony.
Boys and men play a game by the name of Ganna on this day as well which is similar to street hockey. Following Christmas, Timkat is celebrated on January 19th which is for the baptism of Christ (People.howstuffworks.com).
15 Around The World: Dutch Gifts In Your Shoes
In the Netherlands Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) comes on the Eve of December the 5th, in time for St. Nicholas’ day on December 6. Said to live in Spain, Sinterklaas arrives at a Dutch port, but will deliver gifts to children, leaving them inside a shoe that has been left by the fireplace or windowsill.
His helpers, who are known as the Zwarte Pieten, are rumoured to collect bad children in their sacks and take them back to Spain. The evening celebration of Sinterklaasavond (Eve of Sinterklaas) is more widely practiced in the Netherlands than the traditional celebration on St. Nicholas' day. A knock on the door during Christmas Eve dinner may reveal that Sinterklaas has deposited a sack of gifts on the doorstep to be opened that night.
14 Weird But We Do It: Attending Santacon
This event, taking place annually in New York City, is certainly not your average holiday tradition but if you’re looking for a place to dress up and unwind for a fun day, maybe it’s for you!
This is literally a convention of people who want to dress up like Santa and hang out. It’s not an event for kids, it’s a place for adults to get into the holiday spirit, dress up and have a good time. There’s no drinking allowed and a dress code of red is encouraged. The conventions guidelines include things like “address your fellow Santa as ‘Santa’” and tell you not to dress as an elf, as they are not treated well at this event.
13 Around The World: Flying Witches In Norway
In Norway, a unique Christmas tradition is that on Christmas Eve, all broomsticks are hidden out of sight. It’s thought by Norwegians that the night before Christmas, bad witches and spirits will come out, and if there are broomsticks to be found, they will take them and fly them through the skies.
If you believe the Norwegians, it may be good practice to put away your broomsticks this Christmas Eve and let the evil witches look somewhere else, but truthfully if you’re missing a broomstick Christmas morning, you can probably just pop out for a new one without too much fuss.
12 Around The World: New Zealand Crimson Christmas Trees
Most westernized countries around the world celebrate the holiday using a traditional green deciduous Christmas tree, decorated with ornaments, garlands and lights but in New Zealand, the tradition is a little bit different.
The Pohutukawa tree with crimson flowers is known nationally as a symbol of the holidays. Dating back to 1857, the beautiful and brightly coloured blossoms of this tree have been used to create holiday centerpieces, as well as the full tree serving as decoration. Other names for this tree over the years have included “The Settlers Christmas Tree” and “Antipodean Holly”.
11 Around The World: Catalan Logs
Tió De Nadal is the Catalan Poop Log, an exceptionally unique Christmas tradition in this part of Spain.
Crafted by hand, this little wooden character made of a stick and art supplies is treated kindly from December 8th - 24th when children offer him nuts, fruit and cover him in a blanket for warmth. On Christmas Eve, they beat him with sticks while singing a traditional song. Following the beating they lift up the blanket to reveal the log has pooped a pile of candy for their enjoyment.
10 Around The World: Consoada in Portugal
Consoada or Christmas Eve, is the time for holiday celebration in Portugal. Families gather together on this night for a traditional meal of poached codfish with vegetables and potatoes, along with desserts.
Interestingly, some households will leave an empty table setting at their holiday table in memory for a departed family member. Children hang stockings for and send Christmas lists to Baby Jesus rather than Santa, and while the tree may be decorated before Christmas Eve, any ornaments of the Baby Jesus will not be added until Christmas Day.
Nativity scenes are also a key decoration in many Portuguese households during this holiday.
9 Around The World: Mari Lwyd In Wales
This South Wales tradition certainly has some frightening aspects. Spawning from pagan rituals in the region, Mari Lwyd sees a singing group of people decked out as skeletal horses arrive at the door of your home or more traditionally a pub and challenge you to a rhyming or “versifying” competition.
If you can out sing or out rhyme the Grey Mare, you win, but if they win, they’re invited in for food and drink. They traditionally sing another song before departing as well.
8 Around The World: Watch for Nisse In Denmark
This creature of Nordic folk tales has different versions in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but the Danish claim the origin of Nisse.
Nisse is a gnome who wants to be fed. Families in Denmark must leave him sweet rice porridge (risengrød) on Christmas Eve and if they do, he will be good and bring them good fortune in the coming year. If they do not, it’s believed he will play tricks in the household and make life more difficult.
No one ever sees Nisse, and he is a replacement for Santa Claus in this culture around the holidays. However rather than one man catering to the entire world, there are many Nisse, with each one attaching itself to a particular family.
7 Around The World: La Befana, Italy
In Italy they celebrate The Epiphany shortly after Christmas, taking place on January 6th. The Feast of Epiphany is meant to celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas and the Three Wise Men arriving at Baby Jesus’ manger in Bethlehem, speaking religiously (Tripsavvy.com), but it’s also the day Italian kids long for.
On the night of January 5th, a witch named La Befana arrives in households to deliver sweets and gifts to children, hoping that she might be able to find Baby Jesus, whom she was looking for on the night that the Three Wise Men arrived at the manger.
6 Weird But We Do It: Hanging Mistletoe
Why do we hang a plant in our house that may force us to awkwardly have to kiss our holiday guests? Well, this strange holiday tradition has its roots in Norse mythology with the Goddess Frigg blessing mistletoe and promising that anyone who passed under it would receive a kiss.
It’s believed to be bad luck to refuse a kiss under the mistletoe, so if you decide to hang some in your home, you could be setting yourself up for a smooch rather than just decorating for Christmas.
5 Weird But We Do It: Knocking Back Eggnog
We can thank the British aristocrats for this weird beverage that has become associated with the Christmas season. Allegedly, it is something that wealthy British people would drink during cold weather, this eggy, milky beverage is loved by some and loathed by others.
Nutmeg and cream give this drink its delicious and instantly recognizable flavour, but it's best to consume only in moderation if you’re watching your waistline...though at this time of year it's probably best to wait until January 1st to start your dietary crack down and just enjoy the plethora of holiday goodies.
4 Weird But We Do It: Holiday Marathons
For whatever reason, holiday marathons with no apparent purpose other than spreading holiday cheer have become popular throughout North America.
Whether it's part of a Santa Claus parade or a separate event entirely, these 5K runs usually take place in late November or early December and state purposes such as “create Christmas joy” or “show your holiday spirit”. Let’s agree, there’s plenty of ways to do that without a 5K run, and if you are going to train for a 5K marathon, there’s a lot of them that raise money for causes in need that would benefit from these efforts instead.
3 Weird But We Do It: TV Yule Logs
Holiday yule logs come from Norse tradition and their burning is meant to erase the negativity of the previous year and bring good luck for the new year. Particularly in Europe, the Yule Log is still brought ceremoniously into the house on Christmas Eve and burned through until Christmas day, tended with great care.
In America, the phenomenon of turning your TV to the screen of a burning Yule Log has become exceptionally popular, and is actually very strange. While it may seem like a cozy nod to tradition, it really serves no purpose as the meaning in the Yule Log comes from it being tended with care to keep it burning through the night and day.
2 Weird But We Do It: Giving People Fruitcake
Why are we still giving people fruitcake? It seems like pretty common knowledge that hardly anyone actually enjoys eating this holiday loaf, but because of its great significance in the All American Christmas, each year many hosts are forced to smile falsely and pretend to be elated at receiving this baked good.
This cake containing all kinds of fruits and nuts is derived from the British “Christmas Cake” but has roots in Roman times. Basically, people have been pretending to love fruitcake for years so we can’t break tradition now.
1 Weird But We Do It: The Presidential Turkey Pardon
This is more of a Thanksgiving tradition than a Christmas one, but it’s all part of the same season in the USA. Some say it started with Lincoln and others believe it was Harry Truman, but it was president JFK who first publicly pardoned a Turkey on November 19, 1963, with it wearing a sign that said “Good Eatin’ Mr. President”.
The late George H.W. Bush was then the man who officially started a tradition that has carried on to today’s Oval Office, after he performed a turkey pardon in 1989. One lucky turkey each year escapes the thanksgiving tables of America.
References: News.nationalgeographic.com, Ancient-origins.net, Mentalfloss.com, Smithsonianmag.com, Slate.com, Whychristmas.com, Wonderopolis.org, Thedailymeal.com, Metro.co.uk, Countryliving.com, People.howstuffworks.com, BBC.com, Time.com, Creators.com, Dailymail.co.uk