1. Spain’s Caganer
Meet the caganer, a male figurine with his pants rolled down mid-squat. Just what is this guy up to? Well, his activity is revealed when you translate his name – the defecator. Yes, this fella is in the midst of delivering a ‘number two’ in a far corner of the manger. Folklore says that farmers would be punished with a poor crop harvest and bad fortune if they didn’t include a caganer within their nativity scene. Today, the tradition continues with Christmas markets selling old school caganers alongside new versions that feature famous faces such as footballers, rock stars and Barack Obama.
2. Austria’s Krampus
According to Austrian folklore, jolly Saint Nicholas makes the rounds with a sidekick in tow – the devilish Krampus. The hairy creature visits Austrian children annually, but where Saint Nicholas bestows lavish gifts to all the good little girls and boys, Krampus does the unthinkable – he unleashes punishment to those on the naughty list. If he discovers a particularly bad child, he bundles him into a sack and carts him away, presumably for a midnight snack!
3. Japan’s KFC
While it’s true that Christmas isn’t really celebrated in Japan, a December 25th tradition centres on KFC. In fact, the Colonel’s special recipe is so popular in Japan at Christmas that KFC suggests that customers place their holiday order two months in advance. The chicken craze began back in 1974 when KFC bosses unveiled their first Christmas meal for visiting foreigners who wanted something that resembled a traditional holiday dinner. As it turns out, locals embraced the Christmas dinner, too and 40 years later, a unique tradition involving KFC continues in Japan to this day.
4. Wales’ Mari Lwyd
In late December through to January, a knock at your door might unveil a strange visitor – namely an elaborately decorated horse’s skull attached to a long wood pole and covered by a sheet or blanket. It’s the Mari Lwyd – the Grey Mare – and her party of five or six revelers. Don’t be scared; the Mari Lwyd and her handlers travel through town singing and engaging residents in rhyming contests. Ideally, the Mari Lwyd and her friends win the impromptu competition, thus gaining entry to the home or pub where their presence is said to bring good luck.
5. Finland’s Cemetery Tradition
In Finland it’s a tradition to visit your buried relatives at sunset on Christmas Eve. 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 departed 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 touching custom began in the 1920s when candles were placed on the graves of World War I soldiers.
6. Guatemala’s La Quema del Diablo
Around December 7, Guatemalans sweep their homes, collect trash from around their property and create a massive heap of refuse in the street. As a final touch, the pile is crowned with an effigy of the devil and set ablaze. And the Christmas celebrations can begin! No, this event isn’t the inspiration for the ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ song lyric. This symbolic cleansing ritual is said to expunge evil spirits and negative energy from the upcoming festivities.
7. Mexico’s Flores de Noche Buena
You can thank Mexico for the poinsettia’s association with Christmas. According to Mexican legend, a poverty-stricken brother and sister left a bouquet of weedy branches as a gift to the Christ Child at their church. While other children laughed at their meager offering, a miracle began to unfold. A cluster of red star-shaped flowers began to bloom on each stem. The flowers became known as Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night) and so began the Christmas link. The beautiful plant was re-named Poinsettia after the United States’ Mexican ambassador, Joel Roberts Poinsett, brought cuttings back to America.
8. Iceland’s Yule Lad
In Iceland, children put their best foot forward at Christmas. From December 12th to the 23rd, Icelandic kids leave a shoe on their windowsill. While they sleep each night, 13 magical Yule Lads climb down from the mountains to leave gifts in the shoes of well-behaved children. Naughty kids end up with a potato instead! Originally, the Yule Lad tradition had a more sinister tone and many parents used their mysterious nighttime visits to scare their children into behaving.
9. Scotland’s Hogmanay
New Year’s – or Hogmanay – celebrations take precedence over Christmas in Scotland. While December 25 is usually a time for quiet reflection with your family, Hogmanay is a loud, joyous occasion celebrating the birth of a new year. One of the most important traditions is called First-Footing. Once midnight strikes and the calendar flips to January 1st, all eyes await the arrival of the year’s first visitor. The person who crosses the home’s threshold first is said to be a predictor of good fortune in the year ahead. Top of the lucky list: a male, dark-haired visitor. Women or blonde men are believed to be unlucky. The first-foot is also supposed to bring the household an array of gifts including coins (symbolizing fortune), bread (food) and whisky (good cheer).
10. Ukraine’s Spider Web Tree
Christmas trees in the Ukraine are often covered in spider webs. An ancient legend tells of a poor family who grew a Christmas tree from a pinecone. The children, so thrilled by the idea of their very own tree, spent months dreaming up ways to decorate it for the holiday. But the family was penniless, so the children’s tree would remain unadorned. Upon waking, the children discovered that spiders had spun webs of glistening silk around the tree’s branches. Each thread magically turned into silver and gold as the morning’s sun danced upon the tree’s bows. Today, Ukrainians dress up their trees with spider webs to welcome good luck into the coming year.
11. Italy’s Befana
Don’t waste your time asking Santa Claus for presents on Christmas Eve in Italy. An ugly yet kind old witch named Befana (‘giver of gifts’) controls the gift-giving duties instead. As per tradition on the eve of Epiphany – January 5 – obliging parents leave out a plate of regional cuisine (often broccoli with spiced sausage and a glass of wine) for Befana. Flying around the world by broomstick and entering each house by chimney, the good witch delivers toys, clothing and candy to well-behaved children. Come the morning of January 6, happy faces awake to a bounty of treats tucked into their stockings.
12. Newfoundland’s Mummering
The Maritime province has a long tradition of Mummering – the boisterous practice of visiting neighbourhood homes while dressed in elaborate disguises. Mummers often adopt unique speech patterns, gaits and postures, and men will dress as women and vice versa. Through song, dance and comedic plays, the mummers try to remain unrecognizable to the people they visit. If the homeowners identify the mummers, the unmasked reveler is gifted with food and drink. Each December, Newfoundland throws the fun-filled Mummers Festival with parades, concerts and workshops. Join the party! For more details, visit http://mummersfestival.ca/
13. Australia’s Beach Party
For those of us located in the northern hemisphere, the thought of celebrating Christmas amidst searing heat, limitless sun and tanned surfers seems foreign. But in Australia where the holidays fall during summer, it’s completely normal. Forget a White Christmas, wind chills and sleigh rides – Down Under, Aussies head to the beach where they indulge in picnics, swimming and volleyball.