The weirdest Christmas traditions from around the world

If you thought leaving out a glass of sherry and a mince pie for Father Christmas (and the obligatory carrot for Rudolph) was quirky to say the least, then check out some of the stranger Christmas traditions from around the world…

The holiday devil
In Austria, Germany and Eastern Switzerland, there’s a pretty sinister character at work over the festive period. “Krampus is St Nicholas’s not-so-nice assistant, who is represented by a demon-like creature with a dark, hairy costume and frightening mask to intimidate the naughty children,” explains Vanessa Fewster from the Austrian Cultural Forum.

“On 6 December, the patron saint of children, St Nikolaus, gives gifts to all the good children to celebrate his holy day, but he is always accompanied by at least one krampus (sometimes up to three), and their job is to warn and punish the bad ones.”

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Part of the tradition also includes the Krampus Run, where young Austrian men dress up as devils, get tanked up and generally run around scaring people. We’re guessing the young Austrian women have more sense that night and stay at home with a bottle of wine and a DVD…

Caught short at Christmas?

The traditional Nativity scene in the Catalonia region in north east Spain includes the whole city of Bethlehem, and every house has a nativity on display. But along with the more usual baby Jesus, shepherds and wise men, you’ll also find another more unexpected character, called a caganer, hidden somewhere in the scene.

“The caganer is a figurine in a squatting position, politely put, it translates as ‘the pooer’,” explains Marta Williams a PR from Catalonia. Historically, it takes the form of a shepherd in traditional Catalan dress, but you can get almost anybody as a caganer from political figures to footballers and cartoon characters.

“It’s a really strong tradition in Catalonia,” says Marta. “I was always told it was a shepherd that went to visit Jesus to the manger when he was born and was caught short and had to go behind a tree to relieve himself, but this has never been proved. I think it has also got something to do with the Catalan sense of humour!” And the best place to find your own caganer? The Christmas market at Mercat de Santa Eulalia in front of Barcelona Cathedral.

DIY nativities

Staying on the theme of nativities, but with more of a Blue Peter flavour. It’s traditional in parts of Poland to make your own elaborate nativity scene with a backdrop of local architecture. Called szopka, these scenes are painstakingly created from materials like cardboard and tin foil (and no doubt a bit of sticky-backed plastic).

“An annual competition is held in Krakow for the best szopka,” says Karolina Kolodziej from the Polish Cultural Forum, “the locals take this tradition very seriously, they can spend hours working on intricate domes and Gothic spires as it demands a lot of skill, then the best ones are presented in an exhibition.”

Szopka were originally made by local craftsmen to earn extra money at Christmas time. The competition is held on the first Thursday in December, in Krakow’s market square.

The Christmas Witch

“La Befana is an old woman who looks like a witch who brings sweets to children during the epiphany (6 Jan),” says writer Erica Firpo, from Rome.  Originally, the Befana brought sweets to the good children and only left charcoal for the naughty ones, in a similar tradition to Father Christmas, but this has evolved and now every child gets a sweet called carbone, a charcoal made of sugar. Usually depicted riding a broomstick and wearing a black shawl, it seems more like a scary Halloween story than Christmas tale.

“The story I grew up with was that the Befana was an old witch who had a child who died, and that was why she gave gifts to every good child,” explains Erica. But there are several variations on the story, including one where Mary stops at the Befana’s house trying to hide baby Jesus from King Herod, but the Befana turns them away. Later, she realises who they were, but it’s too late, so she continues to fly from house to house on her broomstick, searching for Jesus to put things right. To see the biggest display of Befanas, visit Rome on 8 December for the inauguration of the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.

Fried chicken with all the trimmings?

It sounds hard to believe, but a takeaway bucket of fried chicken is actually a tradition for Japanese families on Christmas Day. It’s worth remembering though that Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan as it’s not a Christian country, so the understanding of the day and its traditions comes from the west. A fact that Kentucky Fried Chicken used to its advantage when it first arrived in Japan in the 1970s. 

“KFC were able to link their fried chicken to the Western tradition of eating turkey at Christmas; turkey is not something that is commonly available in Japan at the time and most Japanese domestic ovens are simply not large enough to cook a turkey,” explains Mary Moreton from the Japanese culture exhibition Hyper Japan (24-26 February 2012, Earls Court, London, www.hyperjapan.co.uk).

A ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ advertising campaign, linked to specially priced set Christmas meals, meant that an annual tradition was created from the clever marketing and now other fast food chains like McDonalds will also sell limited edition fried chicken products over the Christmas period. And you don’t even need to go out to collect your meal – you can order online in advance and have it delivered. “Young Japanese are more likely to want to be with their boyfriend/girlfriend on a date on Christmas eve/Christmas day, while New Year is spent with family, but the fried chicken tradition is one that could be shared with colleagues, partners or family,” says Mary.

Keep the Christmas sauna elf happy

The most important date in the Finnish festive calendar is Christmas Eve, so in the afternoon, shops close and people finish work in order to get ready for the evening when they’ll attend a church service, or visit the graves of loved ones to place candles before sitting down with the family to eat Christmas dinner.

A traditional part of this preparation is taking a Christmas sauna. “Most families have their own sauna,” says Ida-Lotta Saxholm from the Finn Guild, “it’s seen as a sacred place – in the olden days women used to give birth in the sauna as it was warm and sterile - and it’s also believed that a sauna elf lives there to protect the sauna and make sure everyone behaves themselves.”

While the Finns might be comfortable getting naked in front of their nearest and dearest and sweating it out in a Christmas sauna, us Brits are probably a little too uptight to embrace that tradition. But the fried chicken bucket does have a certain appeal…

Are these the strangest Christmas traditions you’ve heard of? If you’ve come across one that’s more bizarre, we’d love to hear it. Tell us here.

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