Christmas is a special time of year full of beliefs, rituals, traditions, and special foods. Some of the traditions feature in pretty much every family, such as, for example, the good old Christmas tree, as first started by the Germans. Then there are traditions that vary from country to country, such as, say, the English celebrating Christmas on Christmas Day, the 25th, whereas in Germany, it is Christmas Eve, the 24th, which is the important night.
There are traditional dishes, which vary from country to country, and there are different decorations, but, on the whole, we all pretty much think that we’d recognize a Christmas tradition when we see one. Well, think again.
While European Christmas is one thing, there are some traditions around the world that are truly unique. How about eating KFC for Christmas, like they do in Japan? Or roller skating to church, as they do in Venezuela, or celebrating with a pooping log, as in Catalunya, and then some?
You’d think in two TravelAwaits articles, the most unusual Christmas traditions would be covered, right? But no, there are still some others to marvel at.
What I like even better than just learning about other cultures’ customs and traditions around this time of year, is that you are free to pick and choose and add whatever you like to your own family’s tradition. That’s how traditions evolve. In my family, for example, we celebrate twice — on Christmas Eve for me, being German, and on Christmas Day, for my English husband — with our daughter getting the best of both worlds. We also cover our tree in ornaments collected as souvenirs from all around the world, each one attached to a memory. And I am very tempted to add a certain Icelandic tradition to ours.
Intrigued? Read on for some more ideas to add to your festive season.
1. Filling Your Boots
Let’s start with one that I know very well. As a child, I always put one of my winter boots outside the front door on the evening of December 5. Saint Nicholas arrived overnight and filled the boot with candy, nuts, clementines, and if I was lucky, a small present or two, not unlike the English stocking fillers. Funnily enough, Saint Nicholas looks just like Santa Claus, and it is from his legend that Santa Claus evolved in the 19th century. The name Santa Claus surely comes from the Dutch St. Nicholas equivalent, Sinterklaas, who also gives out presents on the morning of December 6.
Pro Tip: When in Germany before St. Nicholas time, you will see plenty of chocolate figures shaped like a boot or like Santa Claus, which are an easy way out of the tradition or maybe aimed at those who don’t want cold boots in the morning.
2. Find The Pickle
Now this is a tradition that is much written about and is attributed to Germany, but I have never experienced this personally. According to legend, there is a tradition that involves putting a pickle ornament (it used to be a real one, reportedly) somewhere on your Christmas tree, among all the other decorations. The child who finds it first gets an extra present, and according to lore, the adult who spots it first (clearly the adult who put it up is disqualified) gets good luck for the next year. But, who knows a German family who actually does this? I don’t.
Pro Tip: If you feel like decorating your tree with pickles and then some, pop into the Bon Marché next time you find yourself in Paris at Christmas. On the first floor, you can buy ornaments that range from bulbs of garlic to little baguettes and croissants. Maybe a new tradition for food lovers?
3. Mari Lwyd, A Creepy Horse
Parading a horse’s skull around town, stuck on a pole like a hobby horse, draped in a sheet, and looking rather creepy? That is Wales for you. In this land steeped in tradition and superstition, the Mari Lwyd (pronounced something like Marie Loyd) tradition is thought to go back to Celtic times and involved a group of wassailing men carrying the hobby horse from house to house, demanding entry through song. The homeowners sang back, denying entry, and after a bit of to-and-fro, the singsong — probably a forerunner of caroling — ended and the horse-carrying party was invited in for some food and drink.
Pro Tip: You might rather consider adding this tradition to your repertoire: Noson Gyflaith, or Toffee Night, when slabs of toffee are made and eaten around the open fire, during an evening full of games, storytelling, and, no doubt, a nice drink or two.
4. Jólakötturinn, The Yule Cat
Does anybody in your family always get socks for Christmas? There is always one. But they should not complain, because if they were celebrating in Iceland, they would be the only ones not being eaten by Jólakötturinn, a large cat that goes around and eats everybody that did not receive new clothes for Christmas. Not unlike Elf on the Shelf, the cat, reportedly dating back to the Dark Ages, was an enforcer of good behavior, because only children who finished all their chores before Christmas were given the gift of new clothes; those who didn’t have to face the cat.
Pro Tip: This is still better than eating smelly, lactic acid-cured whale blubber, as many still do in Iceland for Christmas.
5. Jolabokaflod, The Christmas Book Flood
Now, this is one tradition that should be adopted by everyone around the world. Jolabokaflod, the book flood, is the loveliest of the traditions. It involves not only everybody giving each other books, which (hint hint!) is my favorite present, but also reading them. Together. There are two told origins of this tradition, one dating back to the 1930s, when the Reykjavik Library wanted to encourage people to read more; while the other is earlier, dating to the 1800s, when only some 50 percent of Icelanders were found to be literate and were thus encouraged to read. So, today, people give each other books for Christmas and spend an evening curled up with their new books, often reading them to each other.
Pro Tip: A similar tradition is that of St. Jordi in Catalonia, when, on April 23, people give each other either a rose or a book. All across cities such as Barcelona, stalls with roses and books spring up for the day.
6. Christmas Crackers
When I celebrated my first Christmas in England with my English in-laws, I was fascinated by the Christmas crackers. Not salty crackers you could eat with cheese, instead, they are like a giant candy, whose paper is twirled shut at both ends. Everybody gets one cracker before their Christmas meal, then you cross arms, and grab one end of your cracker and the end of your neighbor’s cracker on either side of you, so everybody around the table holds two ends, and pulls. They open with a bang and out falls a paper hat which you put on (a tradition I have never liked much), a small gift, and a silly joke which you read out to all. You can buy crackers ranging from those filled with cheap plastic toys to crackers from Tiffany’s filled with glittering jewels. My mother-in-law makes her own and personalizes the small gift inside.
Pro Tip: The tradition has gone around the world, with the world’s largest cracker pull recorded in Japan, when 1,478 people pulled open a huge cracker. It does not say if inside there were 1,478 paper hats.
7. Radish Carving
The Noche de Rábanos, “Night of the Radishes,” is a tradition taking place on December 23 in Oaxaca City, Mexico. It was reportedly started by the city’s wood carvers trying to attract the attention of shoppers at the annual Christmas markets during a year of bumper radish crops. Instead of carving wood, people applied their skill to the local oversized radishes, using the misshaped ones, which make for a spectacular art medium with their red exterior and white inside. Today the tradition has turned into a spectacular competition marking the start of Christmas.
Pro Tip: Visitors queue to view the carvings for hours, so maybe stock up on some Bunuelos, a traditional Christmas pastry, fried and topped with cinnamon, for the wait.
8. Donald Duck For Christmas
From All of Us to All of You, a 1958 Disney classic, is the film that brings families together on the sofa in Sweden. It is not unusual for there to be Christmas films that are a must-see over Christmas — just think of Hallmark, dedicating an entire channel to Christmas feel-good movies. Love Actually (2003) has become a tradition in the UK, while Home Alone (1990), Elf (2003), and The Grinch (2018) occupy the top spots in the US.
Pro Tip: In Germany, it’s not New Year’s Eve until you have watched Dinner for One, a 1963 black-and-white sketch in English, where an old lady enjoys a Christmas dinner with her butler standing in for her long-dead friends around the table, becoming increasingly drunk. I have watched it every year so far and still laugh every time.
9. Christmas In July
When I lived in Australia, one of the hardest things to get used to was that Christmas took place in the middle of summer. Everybody goes to the beach, and celebrations take place in the garden in shorts. Coming from Germany, my Christmas enthusiasm sank to below zero, not feeling in the mood at all.
But luckily, even those Australians who love a summer Christmas appreciate that Christmas is usually associated with snow and colder temperatures, a warm mulled wine rather than a cold beer. So, they celebrate Christmas in July. Reportedly, this tradition started sometime in the 1930s, and now, even the large department stores decorate the windows in July, resorts where snow does fall in July decorate with trees and twinkle lights, and some even go so far as to actually embrace the whole thing with presents and all.
Pro Tip: If you find yourself near Melbourne, pop to Ballarat, where there is not only a year-round Christmas store, but also the Winter Wonderlights festival.
10. Engraved Christmas Apples
China, with only roughly one percent of the population being Christian, are not into big celebrations of Christmas but have one interesting tradition. They give each other apples, nicely wrapped and presented in pretty boxes, and often the apples are engraved, with pictures and good wishes on the skin. The reason for this is that in China, Christmas is called Night of Safety, or Peace, and, as is so often the case in the Mandarin language, the characters for that phrase are very close to the characters for apple. So, one thing led to the next and now the giving of apples is so popular that even the price for apples rises sharply before Christmas.
Pro Tip: Christian or not, the Chinese like a good excuse to decorate, so don’t be surprised to find malls decked out in lights, trees lit up, and Santa accompanied by his “sisters” instead of elves.