The holiday season is an exciting time all around the world and every culture celebrates a little bit differently. One 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 one turns to, 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.
Those considering heading abroad for the holidays this year may want to make sure they do some serious research into the country’s customs to avoid being completely clueless on arrival. It's not all about festive parties, bustling Christmas markets, and gift-giving in these countries hosting some of the weirdest holiday customs from around the world, and to compare, there are also plenty bizarre traditions in the US too thrown in for good measure!
Updated by Lauren Feather, January 7th, 2022: With each new year comes knowledge of even more weird and wonderful festivities from around the world, and they're often as fascinating as they are entertaining (and strange!) From centuries-old rituals, to new-born traditions flowered in recent years, there's been a few more interesting and odd additions to this list of the world's (and the USA's) most peculiar Christmas celebrations.
28 Around The World: Forget Turkey, It's KFC Chicken!
A clever marketing campaign in Japan once convinced the population that fried chicken is an American traditional festive feast. And in all seriousness, many Japanese people tuck into Kentucky Fried Chicken for their annual Christmas dinner. Colonel Sanders statues don festive outfits and accessories outside KFC stores, and food is served in funky Christmas themed boxes every year throughout the period of celebrations. Also, KFC is such a popular Christmas treat in Japan that reservations must be made in advance to eat at any KFC restaurant on Christmas Day, and high demand spawned the birth of a KFC online delivery service allowing Japanese people to get their Christmas bucket of chicken delivered on the day of festivities.
27 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.
26 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.
25 Around The World: A Christmas Clean-up
They say that cleanliness is next to godliness, and Guatemalans take this phrase very literally. In Guatemala, it's believed that the devil and many other evil sprits lurk in the dark, damp and dirty corners of one's home, so they spend the whole week before Christmas cleaning, sweeping, collecting rubbish, and sprucing up the place, piling all the dirty and trash in a giant heap outside. Like an angel atop a Christmas Tree, an effigy of the devil is placed on top of the garbage mountain and the whole heap is set on fire. This fascinating tradition is called "La Quema del Diablo," which translates to "the Burning of the Devil," and it symbolizes the burning of all the bad and misfortune for the past year to start a new one from the ashes.
24 Around The World: German Pickles
There might be some pretty weird things out there on people’s Christmas trees and in their home decor around the world, 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.
23 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.
22 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.
21 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.
20 Around The World: The Marriage Fortune Telling Christmas Shoe
On Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic, unmarried engage in a bizarre ritual involving a shoe, and marriage. They stand with their back to the door, tossing one of their shoes of their shoulder. If the shoe lands with its toe facing the door, then that means the woman will be married within the year, however, a heel facing the means they're in for another year of being a bachelorette.
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 seemingly reminiscent of Halloween instead of Christmas.
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.