With the holiday-horror film Krampus doing pretty well in theaters (that is, before Star Wars came along and took every movie dollar), American audiences are getting a taste of Christmas lore from other lands.
But, oh, the world's Christmas traditions get way more bizarre than just a goat-monster who steals/whips bad children. Here, we've made a list (and checked it twice?) of curious Christmas traditions from around the world!
The Yule Lads
With the success of Krampus, other movie execs are surely casting around for other non-Santas on which to work their box office magic. There is no folklore more primed for a Hollywood makeover than the Yule Lads. Each even has his own "peccadillo" (one sniffs doorways, one licks spoons, one steals meat) that would make for excellent visuals.
But we're not here to help Hollywood, we're just here to report on traditions, and this one's a doozy. In Iceland, one of these 13 trolls visits children every evening over the 13 nights before Christmas. Good kids get candy and presents; bad kids get rotting potatoes. Imagine getting rotting potatoes on night one and realizing you're in for 12 more nights of spoiled produce. At least when you get coal from American Santa, you're one-and-done and the healing can begin the very next day. Meanwhile, in Iceland, you also have some perverted trolls licking your spoons and pots.
One last thing: Though not strictly part of any tradition (other than being the mother of these Yule Lads), we wanted to give a shout out to Grýla. She's an ogre who will just straight up eat bad kids in Iceland — no faffing about with gifts or potatoes.
Literally translated as "pooping log," this Catalan tradition has kids "feeding" and caring for a log from December 8 though either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (your choice). At that time, the children are invited to beat the log with sticks until it poops out presents or candy. Tió "delivers" only small items like figs or nougat, because asking a poor little log to pass a PlayStation 4 is just cruel.
The Catalan people have a rich cultural tapestry that involves many magnificent traditions, so it's a shame that the two we've chosen to focus on today both revolve around pooping. Yes, in a similar scatalogical vein as the Caga Tió above, Catalans have a centuries-long (so long, in fact, that no one knows how it got started) tradition of hiding a "caganer" among their Nativity scenes.
Kids delight in finding this little fella, who is depicted as squatting and, um, leaving his own "Yule log." Now, kids don't receive a gift for finding him or anything, but they do receive the gift of culturally-acceptable nativity-pooping.
A Broom Without a View
Norwegian folklore says that on Christmas Eve, witches and other nasty spirits are free to roam the earth. That's why it's traditional for residents to lock up their brooms before going to sleep that night, lest a witch grab it and start flying around everywhere, messing up air traffic.
Another explanation for this tradition is that it was completely fabricated by a journalist who found himself one tradition shy of a "10 Weird Christmas Traditions" piece. When no one bothered to fact check him, it was parroted by other writers, hoping to put together their own lists. So it's kind of its own tradition now!
Weihnachtsgurke (The German Christmas Pickle)
The tradition goes that, in Germany, parents hide a pickle (or beizen) on their Christmas tree (or Weihnachtsbaum) and the first kid (or kind) to find it gets an extra present (Geschenk) from Santa (Weihnachtsmann).
But wait! Are you ready to have your mind blown (like the fine blown-glass that these ornaments are made from)? It's not a German tradition at all. Turns out we all just think it's German, because that's who we (Americans) first started importing glass pickle ornaments from. The "Made In Germany" tag must've led us jumping-to-conclusion Americans to believe it was a "thing" over there!
As for where the "find it and win a present" tradition started... no one really knows. This tradition is disappointing all around!
La Befana (The Christmas Witch)
How is it possible for Santa to deliver toys to the entire world in one night? Maybe it's because he can skip over Italy entirely, since the gift drop-off is instead done by a broom-riding, soot-covered (because she also enters the home through the chimney) witch named La Befana. According to folklore, she was an old lady who passed on visiting the baby Jesus because she had too much housework to do. Later, she regretted the decision. Ever since, she has been flying from house to house, delivering gifts to every kid, in the hope that one of them is actually Jesus.
The further custom is to leave her a glass of wine and a plate of food. In return, she'll leave you presents and sweep your floors. Does Santa ever clean up after himself?!
Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil)
In Guatemala, they have a fun way of kicking off the Christmas season: By burning the evil out of it! On December 7, local tradition holds that you should pile all of your trash (some people hoard it for days beforehand) into a mound, upon which you place an effigy of the devil. At exactly six o'clock, throw a lit match on it and chase away bad spirits and the devil — with fire. Now you can relax into the season, knowing it's evil-free.
Oranges in Your Stockings
Get ready for the most apocryphal explanation of them all. Once again, no one knows the true origins of this tradition. However, lack of facts hasn't stopped people from making wild guesses!
So it goes that we put oranges in our Christmas socks because:
- The cross continental railway system allowed fresh oranges to make their way all over the US, even in the winter.
- Something about The Great Depression and how everyone was poor but could afford oranges, somehow.
- St. Nicholas (the real guy, not "Santa Claus") left gold coins in the stockings of three poor sisters, as the stockings hung over the roaring fireplace to dry. The gold coins melted into large spheres, which resembled (you guessed it) oranges!
Which unfulfilling explanation do you like best?
The Christmas Spider
Most prevalent in the Ukraine, the legend goes that a poor family, unable to decorate their tree, awoke on Christmas morning to find it was covered in spiderwebs. Instead of burning down the tree, the house, and the surrounding areas, as we would do (because *shiver*), the poor people were totes cool with it.
When the first rays of the Christmas sun touched the webs, they turned into gold and silver. That one family was lifted from poverty and they all had a way merrier Christmas than other families who were not visited by magic spiders. It's said that this legend is why we put tinsel on our trees.
Elf on the Shelf
Lest you think that foreign countries corner the market on Christmas weirdness, consider the new U.S. "tradition" of telling your kid that there's an elf living in your house that spies on them, with every misdeed reported to Santa nightly!
It's your child's first encounter with a police state, and it all derives from a 2005 book written by a pair of authors who dared to ask, "Can we create a new 'tradition' from scratch and have everyone get on board with it, making us millionaires?!" The answer, much to the chagrin of bad kids everywhere, is "yep." Commercialism at its finest. Merry Xmas!
The world is a pretty weird, wonderful place, isn't it? Did we forget any of your favorite traditions? Tell us all about them, in the comments below!
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