Christmas around the world is not all colourful Christmas trees and jolly Santas dressed in red and white outfits ringing bells and laughing “ho, ho, ho.” Instead, Christmas is a celebration of light, hope, family, tradition, and Jesus Christ’s birth. Presents are a joyful afterthought or aftereffect, if you will. The pious observers will have nativity scenes in their homes and attend the Advent and Christmas liturgies.
Laics will most likely focus on candy canes, colourful light effects for the front yard, and facade decorations. They will probably place pricey presents under the trees. You can even see them at parties in matching Christmas sweaters. Many will spend weeks before Christmas watching romantic or family Christmas movies on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or other channels. In extreme cases, they will even adopt other Christmas vanities that induce Christmas cheer even in the grumpiest observers.
Still, no matter how people celebrate Christmas worldwide, there’s unity in diversity: light, love, and hope are at the core of the celebrations, and there are no gifts more valued than children’s joy and smiles.
Yet, how would you like hearing gunshots, eating a log’s “poop,” or meeting spooky Christmas creatures instead of eating glazed cookies and sitting on Santa’s lap? Here are some of the most bizarre Christmas customs that will make the Grinch look like a friendly elf.
It may be a bit spooky – like the Grinch, but worse, because nothing melts its broken heart – but Austrians and Germans still celebrate the Krampus. People dress up in terrifying Krampus costumes for the occasion to terrify the naughty kids. The market square in Hollabrunn, Austria is the best place to see them.
Bavaria’s 500-year-old Böller
Dressed in traditional lederhosen, Germany’s Bavarian highlanders fire antique guns (over 500-year-old pistols or Böller) into the air at midnight to celebrate Christ Child’s arrival. The custom is also known as Christkindlanschießen and is carried by experienced members of a gun shooting club.
Catalonia’s Caga Tio
Catalonia in Spain is a fascinating region, and its Caga Tio (or Tió de Nadal) tradition is undoubtedly unusual: children feed a wooden log “Caga Tio” scraps of food, and the log rewards them by “pooping” presents. They even have a fun Caga Tio song in Catalonia:
Avellanes i mató,
Si no cagues bé
Et daré un cop de bastó.
A possible translation would be:
Hazelnuts and mató cheese,
If you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
Obviously, eating poop for Christmas is not frowned upon in this part of Spain…
Czech Republic: Shoe Over the Shoulder
Single women in the Czech Republic may not really believe that throwing a shoe over a shoulder on Christmas may mean an ineluctable marriage, but the tradition is fun. The union will happen within a year if the shoe toe points at the door. If not, the maidens will remain single at least until next Christmas.
Guatemala’s Devil Effigies
It may not be on Christmas, but Guatemala’s “devils on fire” tradition on the night between December 7 and 8 every year kicks off the Christmas season. You don’t want to miss the jaw-dropping fire and fireworks spectacles on “Día del Diablo” (the Day of the Devil).
Iceland’s 13 Trolls
Unlike the mild Christmas Past, Present, and Future characters in popular Western literature, Iceland has 13 Yule Lads (Jólasveinar), their mom Grýla, their dad Leppalúði, and the Yule cat Jólakötturinn. The Yule Lads are mere trolls who, starting on the morning of December 12, place rotten potatoes or sweets in children’s shoes based on a “naughty or nice” ranking system. As creepy as trolls may seem, 13 days of presents are appealing if you weren’t naughty. But bear in mind that Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, will eat any child who has not received new garments for Christmas. So add clothing to your Christmas shopping list if you observe this holiday like an Icelander.
Netherlands and the Controversial Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is one of Santa’s helpers, and he is a Spanish Moor, not an African American, although he is black. He usually dresses in a colourful Renaissance-style costume and appears weeks before Christmas, on December 6 (traditionally St. Nichol’s Day in this part of the world). The character triggers controversy these days, and the more politically correct figure now is named Sooty Piet.
Sooty Piet has a natural skin tone and soot marks of dark makeup.
Zwarte Piet is a positive character – he is kind and offers gifts to children – but his controversial appearance (black face, golden earrings, and exaggerated lips) makes him a noteworthy addition to the list. This is one example of how traditions change to accommodate tolerance, inclusion, and diversity.
New Zealand Pōhutukawa Christmas Tree
New Zealand has a particular crimson-flowering Christmas tree known as pōhutukawa. It is an ornamental evergreen from the Metrosideros excelsa family. The Māori believe that the pōhutukawa tree at Cape Reinga guards the cave where the souls of the dead begin their journey to the afterlife, descending from the branches and trunk of the tree down to the underworld.
Norway and the Witching Christmas Eve
Norwegians hide their brooms on Christmas Eve (Julaften) because, according to local folklore, witches and other evil spirits choose this day to show themselves to mortals. As a result, many people hide their brooms before sleeping on Christmas Eve.
Slovakia: Carp in a Bathtub
Slovakians eat carp for Christmas, and this may be as odd as your family having a Christmas turkey or pork. But what will really blow your mind is that those superstitious enough to follow this tradition to a T will place as many carp as family members in their family’s bathtub and cease to bathe until the fish become the centrepiece for the Christmas table. Some will even name the fish and treat them like pets. Of course, naming is acceptable, but the no-bathing policy seems fishy at best…
Sweden Gavle Goat Massacres
If you travel to Norrland in Sweden during the Christmas season, you will probably notice all sizes of Gavle Goat (Gävlebocken or Yule Goats) effigies, most prominently gargantuan ones. The miniature versions are souvenirs or Christmas tree decorations. The locals will likely burn (although illegally) or otherwise vandalize the large Gävlebocken. This Christmas tradition is specific to Gävle, the capital of Gävleborg County in the historical Norrland (Northern Lands). The Gavle Goat is a symbol of the city. The unusual Christmas effigy was created in 1966 by Stig Gavlén as a homage to Santa’s helper, the Swedish Yule Goat, who delivers presents.
Ukraine’s Christmas Spiders
Arachnophobics rejoice: spiders symbolize luck and fortune in Ukraine when they come about Christmas. A folk tale tells of a low-income family who, unable to afford ornaments, used spider webs to decorate their Christmas tree. Then, as sunrise came, the tree sparkled like magic under the morning light.
Wales: Christmas Mari Lwyd
Using an actual horse’s skull is as creepy as this custom gets. But the more exciting aspect of Mari Lwyd is that it originates in pagan traditions despite being officially recorded as performed by Christians in the 1800s. Mari Lwyd’s bearers are carolers, rewarded with food and drinks for their artistry.
Have you ever visited a place (or do you live there) with unusual Christmas traditions? Let us know!