It’s no surprise that Christmas celebrations are a bit different all around the world, but sometimes Yuletide rituals can be so delightfully unexpected to outsiders, learning about them can warm any winter with wonder. Be it roller skating to church in Venezuala, keeping a carp in your bathtub in Slovakia, hiding brooms in Norway, or gifting books in Iceland, let’s explore the myriad ways Santa’s season is set apart by different cultures and communities across the globe.
Origin Story: A poor woman couldn’t afford any decoration for her Christmas tree, yet when she woke on Christmas day a spider had woven a beautiful web around it.
Today’s Practice: Donning Christmas trees with artificial spider’s webs.
Folklore: The belief that the devil thrives in the dirt and disarray of one’s home.
Today’s Practice: A deep cleaning of one’s home where the gathered trash and dust is burnt in a pile topped by an effigy of the devil.
Origin Story: Thought to extend from pagan times, the barretina—a figurine of a Catalan peasant with a traditional red hat in a squatting position with their trousers around their legs—is placed at the nativity scene, and is moved and hidden around the house. It is thought to represent the need for fertile soil, given defecation is one way to make it richer. The barretina has come to represent good luck, anchored in the belief that fertile crops lead to a prosperous new year. The theme of fertile ground is also found in the Christmastime pooping log or Caga Tio of Catlan mythology.
Today’s Practice: Placing the barretina (pooping peasant) at the nativity scene or feeding fruits and nuts to a log covered with a blanket, known as a Caga Tió/Tia, for a couple of weeks up to Christmas are still traditions widely upheld in Catalonia. The log is beaten on Christmas Eve, so that it ‘excretes’ little presents that have been tucked under the blanket. Today, pop culture figures are often used as models for the lucky barretina figurines.
Origin Story: In Caracas, rollerblading to church is believed to be a fun way to go to early morning mass, and is thought to have originated as a tropical alternative to sledding.
Today’s Practice: From the 16th to the 24th of December, there are nine early morning masses known as misas de aguinaldo that many worhsippers attend on rollerblades. Traffic in the capital is typically halted until 8 a.m. so that families can skate to church safely. Some children also tie a string to their big toe and hang the twine out the window so the early bird skaters in the morning can tug it and help wake them up.
Origin Story: Christmas Eve is a time evil spirits such as witches appear.
Today’s Practice: Brooms and household cleaning items are hidden to prevent the witches from getting a free ride.
Origin Story: In the 1970s Takeshi Okawara, the manager of the nation’s first KFC, thought that his fried chicken would be a fun alternative to Western Christmas feasts. By 1974 it was a national marketing campaign called Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, meaning Kentucky for Christmas.
Today’s Practice: Millions of Japanese pre-order buckets weeks before Christmas Eve or wait hours in line on the day of for a fried chicken dinner. Pictures with statues of the Japanese Colonel Sanders are an added plus.
Origin Story: Krampus is believed to be a goat-like demon that travels with St. Nick on the eve of his fifth of December feast. He is thought to extend from a pagan ritual, perhaps extending from the Norse lore, as many believe Krampus is an incarnation of the son of the Norse god of the underworld Hel. For the past two centuries, the demon has operated as a sidekick to St Nick, and according to fables, while Nick is intended to hand out presents to the nice kids, Krampus instead is charged with whacking the naughty ones with a stick.
Today’s Practice: On the eve of St Nicholas’ Feast, a thousand Krampuses join a spooky parade in Salzburg where costumed goat demons roam the streets jingling their bells and creeping out children. Unfortunately, reports of overly sozzled Krampuses have put a damper on the festivities in recent times, one stating three such men donning the garb of the goat demon set themselves on fire while setting off fireworks, which is a lasting memory sure to traumatise any child.
Origin Story: It is believed the practice of setting places at the table for one’s deceased originates from pagan rituals.
Today’s Practice: Places are set for deceased relatives at the Christmas day feast and crumbs are sometimes left on the hearth for the alminhas a penar, or the souls of the dead, during Consoda.
Origin Story: La Befana has been an Italian legend since her tale was recorded in the eighth century. The legend goes that the three wise men were hosted by her on their journey to attend the birth of Jesus; they invited her along and she declined, however, she soon after had a change of mind and followed the Star of Bethlehem with a trove of gifts, though she never found the Wise Men or Jesus.
Today’s Practice: On the eve of the Epiphany, January the sixth, people across Italy dress as La Befana—which resembles a modern witch’s outfit, from the broom and hat to the false crooked nose—and hand out treats to nice children and coal to bad children. She is thought to be still on her search to give baby Jesus a birthday gift.
Origin Story: Fish have long been a symbol of Christianity. In certain Eastern European nations, Carp are bought before Christmas and kept in the bathtub to help clean out the bottom feeder and keep it fresh (the tradition stretches from before refrigerators were around). It is traditionally eaten on Christmas day.
Today’s Practice: After baby Jesus (or hard-working parents) brings home a family Christmas tree, the carp is butchered on Christmas day and cooked—a few of its scales are sometimes kept in one’s wallet until the next year. For some practitioners, a new tradition has emerged to still keep the carp in the bathtub, but release them into the river on the day of the feast.
Origin Story: Saunas are a stalwart of ancient Finnish culture; the nation boasts millions of saunas, from famed spas and bathhouses to household gathering places—there’s even one in Helsinki’s Burger King. While the sauna is still a spiritual and recreational place for Finns, it was once a place for childbirth and funeral services. These rituals are no longer a common practice, but Christmas Day and Eve are still hallowed times for Finns to sauna (they even have a name for a Christmastime sauna, Joulusauna), not only as a winter cleanse but to leave it warm and purified for visiting deceased relatives and sauna elves: folklore dictates every Finnish sauna has its own sauna elf, or a saunatonttu.
Today’s Practice: Every Christmas Eve, millions of Finns take to the sauna to lift their spirits and provide purified warmth for the spirits of deceased relatives and sauna elves.
Origin Story: In 1959, Sweden’s only channel at the time, TV1, broadcasted Disney animation for the first time. At 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the 1958 Walt Disney Presents Christmas special, “From All of Us to All of You,” known as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul (Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas) in Swedish, aired, becoming a regional pop culture phenomenon.
Today’s Practice: Every year since, at 3 p.m. the same 1950s special has aired, with close to half the country tuning into the show.
Origin Story: Well over a century ago, vegetable vendors in Oaxaca’s town plazas would fashion scenes and figures by carving radishes to entice churchgoers attending Christmas services. It became so popular that in 1897 the city officials declared the 23rd of December the Night of the Radishes, or Noche de Rabanos.
Today’s Practice: Today, Oaxaca sees hundreds of people participating in Noche de Rabanos—and thousands spectating—which has turned into a major competition with multiple prizes, the intricately carved radishes depicting everything from religious and cultural themes to pop culture icons.
Origin Story: Though thought to extend from pagan times, Mari Lwyd was first recorded in the 18th century. It involves parading around an actual horse skull attached to a pole and decorated with white sheets and colourful ribbons. Revellers typically go to neighbourhood houses between Christmas day and the Twelfth Night to receive food and drink. This entails a battle of wits known as “pwnco”, where the host exchanges rhymes with the costumed horse until it is let in. It is believed this practice was a way for poor villagers to gain food and drink from their wealthier neighbours during the dead of winter, a practice known as wassailing.
Today’s Practice: While this celebration has waned, South Wales remains a region where the tradition is still alive. Even the Fagans National Museum in Cardiff conducts a demonstration every year.
Origin Story: The legend of hanging a pickle ornament on a Christmas tree during Christmas Eve, for children to hunt for amongst the decorations—the winner grabbing a special gift for being the most observant—is trapped in multiple legends. Midwestern Americans with German heritage are the foremost community that follows this tradition, but the notion that it is an old German tradition is an unlikely one, with multiple polls and outreach being conducted to see if the German public and its glass blowers recognise this practice, with lacklustre results. There’s no consensus whether it extends from the saga of a German-origin American Civil War prisoner, belonged to a remote community of Germans that traditionally grew pickles, or is based in the lore of St Nick saving two boys trapped in a barrel of pickles. Some believe it was a brilliant marketing strategy to get German-Americans to buy more Christmas ornaments.
Today’s Practice: Today, the practice is widespread across Midwestern American communities, and has actually travelled back to its ‘origin,’ in German, where glassblowers have started selling thousands of these popular ornamental pickles.
Origin Story: As the most catholic country in Asia, with 80 per cent of the population reportedly part of the religion, Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines. Also, given millions of Filipinos work abroad, a longer Christmas gives Filipinos more time to return to their hometowns and celebrate the season with family.
Today’s Practice: Christmas in the Philippines starts on September 1st and ends on January 6th, the Feast of the Three Kings. The festive season is known as Pasko in the Philippines, and radio shows start playing Christmas jingles from September, a month to also start making Christmas lanterns.
Origin Story: Little Christmas takes place on January 6th, the last of the 12 days of the Three Wise Men’s journey to the manger, in typically rural parts of Western Ireland. While there is no clear date when this tradition started in Ireland, it has been passed down orally for generations. Historically, it was a day women would have a day off from all the hectic Christmas duties they’d spent slaving over the past week-and-a-half—bad husbands!—where they would often take a break from all the work of the festivities and meet fellow female friends for tea and cake.
Today’s Practice: Today, the date is most typically celebrated in rural parts of Western Ireland, though we hope, in this day and age, the men in the family are helping out with the festivities. While some practitioners still stick to tea and cake or go out for brunch, a trip to the pub for a bit of repast has become a popular alternative.
Origin Story: Since 1812 the Spanish Christmas lottery, officially el Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, often referred to as El Gordo (the big one), has long been a widespread winter activity in Spain. It’s the second-longest-running lottery in the world with currently the largest pot at well over 2 billion euros.
Today’s Practice: Anywhere between 75 to 90 per cent of Spain’s population is expected to be a part of the El Gordo lottery on the 22nd of December in Spain. Given an entire ticket (which is priced around 200 euros) is actually a series of ten smaller tickets, it is very common for friends and families to split or share tickets as well as the prize money, making it no surprise that watching the lottery on the 22nd is kind of a national pastime. Currently, there are 15,000 potential official winners out of the 2 billion dollar plus lottery (one of the reasons it is so popular) and many more split winners. The grand prize pays out 4 million euros and the lowest prizes are at 200 euros for a full ticket. Children from Madrid’s San Ildefonso school call out the lottery numbers on live television: the lottery cards display nativity scenes.
Origin Story: Zampognari (Italian bagpipers) have existed since ancient Rome, but the ritual of their playing was later incorporated into Christianity, following the tale of the shepherds that were out the birth of Christ who, according to some Catholic-Italian beliefs, serenaded the newborn with a type of bagpipe. Since then, it has become a tradition for shepherds to play this instrument and visit nativity scenes during Christmas. The bagpipe sounds similar to those of Scotland but visibly differs in dimensions.
Today’s Practice: During the Christmas season the Zampognari (bagpipers) go to plazas throughout Italy and play for the public while also paying their respect to nativity scenes.
Origin Story: During WWII, shortages and import restrictions made decent Christmas gifts hard to come by; however, paper wasn’t being rationed, and as Iceland has long had a vibrant literary history, books became go-to Nole gifts to grab. Every year since 1944 Bókatíðindi (Book Bulletin) has been sent to households across Iceland during the Reykjavik Book Fair in November. This national tradition became known as Jolabokaflod or the “Christmas Book Flood.”
Today’s Practice: With a 99 per cent literacy rate and one of the highest publishing rates of new books per capita in the world, Jolabokaflod stands as a testament to Iceland’s proud bookworms, with Christmas Eve the night to give loved onesnew books.
Origin Story: This ancient folk tradition of the Isle of Man’s Manx people involved hunting the wren, which they call “the king of birds,’ a sacrifice to ward off evil in the new year. The slaughtered bird would be fixed to a pole and paraded around. It was later a tradition encompassed into Christianity, and took place on St Stephen’s Day, December 26th.
Today’s Practice: On the day after Christmas, many people on the Isle of Man take to the streets to sing, dance, and play music while hoisting a pole with a (now fake) wren on it.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.