Christmas is here and with it comes a number of annual traditions. From decorating the tree and eating turkey to caroling and writing letters to Santa Claus up at the North Pole. Of course each family has their own personal traditions too. These may include opening one gift the day before Christmas to attending Midnight Mass at Church on Christmas Eve and watching the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. However, these are all common North American traditions. Much of the world outside the U.S. and Canada celebrate Christmas in a very different way. And many of the traditions taking place in foreign lands are both exotic and downright weird. Check out this list of the 10 weirdest Christmas traditions taking place around the world each December 25th.
10. The Family Sauna Bath – Estonian Tradition
Rather than gather around the Christmas tree in the living room to open presents, families in Estonia get naked together and head for the family sauna where they engage in a ‘cleansing’ sweat together. This is said to help purify bad blood and remove evil spirits from the family home. These Christmas saunas often involve the extended family too, made up of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. And while people can take saunas with each other anytime of the year, the sauna at Christmas is particularly special. Nothing like getting into the buff with your grandparents in a sauna. I guess the family that sweats together stays together. In Estonia, anyway.
9. The Evil Krampus – Austrian Tradition
You can bet that children in Austria want to stay off the ‘naughty list’ lest they get eaten by Santa’s evil sidekick, the demonic Krampus. This truly scary demon is said to travel around with Santa, and while Jolly St. Nick bestows gifts on the good children, the evil Krampus (who eerily resembles an extremely hairy version of the Devil himself) kidnaps the bad boys and girls in a potato sack, drags them away to a remote location and then eats them. This morbid and rather terrifying tradition dates back hundreds of years in Austria, and is said to keep many a kid on the straight and narrow. Sheesh! And we thought getting a lump of coal in your stocking was punishment enough. No wonder Austrian children are so well-mannered.
8. Eating KFC – Japan’s Annual Holiday Meal
Ah, the Japanese. They love to take on American traditions and pervert them a little bit. Whether it is adopting baseball as their national pastime or taking karaoke to new and extreme heights, the Japanese often love American traditions to death. And so it is with eating KFC on Christmas Day. While most people in the U.S. dine on turkey come Christmas, the Japanese tend to eat fried chicken from Colonel Sanders. So popular is eating KFC on Christmas in Japan, that many people place their ‘holiday order’ months in advance to ensure that they get some. Apparently this craze began in the 1970s when KFC first marketed a ‘holiday bucket’ of fried chicken, fries and coleslaw in its Tokyo outlets. Taking this meal as an acceptable facsimile to eating turkey, the Japanese embraced the holiday bucket of fried chicken, and now it is a national craze come Christmas Day. The Colonel would be proud.
7. Hide the Pickle – German Tradition
Who doesn’t love a good game of “hide the pickle?” The Germans sure do. Each Christmas, parents across the country hide a pickle in their Christmas tree for their children to find. The first kid who discovers the pickle gets an extra gift. Why exactly is this done? There are several different theories. But the most prevalent one concerns a folklore about two German boys traveling home from a boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, the evil innkeeper killed the boys and put them in a pickle barrel. That evening, Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas as he was known at the time, stopped at the inn, found the boys in the pickle barrel, and then miraculously brought them back to life. Weird and creepy. But you knew it had to be weird if it explains a game that involves hiding a pickle in a Christmas tree.
6. Visiting Your Dead Relatives – Finnish Tradition
Keeping things light and upbeat, how about the tradition in Finland of visiting your dead relatives in the cemetery at sun down on Christmas Eve? That’s what people do there. In fact, many cemeteries and churches hold brief services complete with hymns and moments of reflection while family members lay lanterns and lit candles on the graves to remember their deceased loved ones. Often a special section is created for people who have relatives buried far away, so they can commemorate their family members too. This custom began in the 1920s when candles were placed on the graves of World War I soldiers who had been killed in the Great War. Today, many people in Finland feel it appropriate to acknowledge their departed relatives before opening gifts and enjoying themselves on Christmas.
5. Stalked By the Yule Cat in Iceland
The Yule Cat is a mythical beast said to stalk the Icelandic hillsides. Each December 25th, the Yule Cat descends out of the hills to devour children who have been naughty and are not worthy of gifts from Santa. However, there is one way to keep the Yule Cat away. Apparently people can avoid the wrath of the cat by receiving new clothes as a gift before Christmas Eve. People who get new clothes ahead of December 24th are said to be saved and the slate for them is wiped clean for another year. The Yule Cat, apparently, is willing to forgive anything to see people in a new sweater or nicely tailored pair of slacks. Let that be a lesson to people who are thinking of avoiding the busy shopping malls in Iceland this year.
4. Burning a Garbage Pile – Guatemalan Tradition
What better way to get into a festive mood then to collect garbage from your property, combine it with your neighbor’s trash, and then set the giant pile on fire. Just think of the smell. That’s exactly what they do in Guatemala each Christmas. In an effort to get rid of evil spirits and demons, locals in Guatemala collect trash and build a massive heap of refuse in the streets. The garbage heap is then crowned with an effigy of the devil and set on fire. Then, with the smell of burning garbage wafting through the air, the Christmas celebrations can begin. It is a symbolic cleansing that people feel gets rid of negative energy and frees people to enjoy the Christmas festivities. That is, of course, if they can get past the smell of burning trash. Gross.
3. The ‘Defecator’ – Spanish Tradition
Think your nativity scene is complete? Got the Baby Jesus in there along with Mary and Joseph, some shepherds and the three wise men? What about a guy in the corner who is squatting and taking a dump? That’s the tradition for people in Spain, who always make sure to include a “caganer” in their nativity scenes. What exactly is a caganer, you ask? It is a male figurine with his pants rolled down mid-squat while taking a giant poop. The word “caganer” literally translates into “defecator.” So why include such a ridiculous and insulting thing in a manger scene depicting the birth of Jesus? Spanish folklore says that farmers would suffer a poor crop harvest and bad fortune if they didn’t include a caganer in their nativity scene. Today, the tradition continues with Christmas markets selling old school caganers alongside new versions that feature famous faces such as soccer players, rock stars such as Mick Jagger, and even U.S. President Barack Obama. Bizarre and gross!
2. Covering Christmas Trees With Spider Webs – Ukrainian Tradition
Who needs tinsel when you can cover your Christmas tree with spider webs and spiders? In the Ukraine, Christmas trees are often covered in spider webs. An ancient legend has it that a poor family grew a Christmas tree from a pinecone, but the family was so poor that they could not afford any decorations for the tree. Fortunately, though, benevolent spiders took pity on the poor family and spun webs of glistening silk around the tree’s branches. Each thread magically turned into silver and gold on Christmas Day, making the family extremely rich. Now, Ukrainians dress up their trees with spider webs and ornaments of spiders to symbolize good luck and prosperity in the New Year. Interesting, and not as creepy as one would first expect when told about decorating the tree with spider webs and spiders.
1. Eating Caterpillars – South African Tradition
What’s the holidays without food and treats? Can you picture Christmas without turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings? Well, in South Africa, they celebrate the holidays with a food tradition you won’t find anywhere else in the world. They eat fried caterpillars. And not just any caterpillars. They eat caterpillars of the Emperor Moth. Mmmm yummy. Who wouldn’t want to tuck into some delicious fried caterpillars on Christmas? Considered a delicacy, communities across South Africa have festivals where they serve these caterpillars to people young and old. And apparently the biggest problem is keeping enough of the caterpillars in stock to feed everyone. Many places end up running out of the caterpillars on Christmas. There are only so many caterpillars available to feed the hungry masses. And running out would be a real bummer.