8 Interesting Christmas Traditions (by Country)

 Christmasimage

 

8 Unique Christmas Traditions Celebrated Around the World

Did you know that gambling is a big Christmas tradition in Spain?

Or that an old woman delivers presents before sweeping your floor in Italy?

How about the good old horned demon that runs around scaring naughty children on Christmas Eve in Austria?

There are so many fun, funny, weird and interesting Christmas customs around the world-I thought it would be fun to share a list of a few of them with you, and then ask you all to add comments with  your own favorite  (country’s/culture’s/family’s/religion’s) holiday tradition at the end of this post.

spanishlottery

1) Spain

Nope I wasn’t kidding. Gambling is big in Spain at Christmas. Well, in fact it’s pretty popular all year long (in the form of playing the lottery) but most of all at Christmas-when more people than ever go out and buy tickets for the Christmas lottery so they can participate with their family/neighbors/friends.

Winners are announced on the 22nd of December and on that day-most people are glued to their TV’s or radios waiting to see if they won ‘El Gordo’ (the biggest prize of them all-though there are various smaller prizes). It’s common for a whole village or group of Spaniards to win together and split the prize.

Feliz Navidad!

2) Italy

While in the U.S it’s Santa and his elves that deliver presents on Christmas Eve, in Italy presents are delivered on the Epiphany Eve (January 5th-the day before the Epiphany Celebration) by an old witch-like woman called Befana. She is depicted most often dressed in rags and looking quite a fright but is apparently kindly and people in Italy will often leave out a glass of wine and some snacks for her.

Her haggard appearance and wrinkled facade have something to do with the symbolism of leaving the old year behind to make ready for the new and it is also said by some that she sweeps the house before she leaves (another potential nod to out-with-the old and in with the new belief).

Similar to many other countries’ customs, nice children are awarded with sweets and presents and bad children with a lump of coal (or a dry twig in Southern Italy) in their Christmas sock.

rice pudding

3) Sweden

Love a good Christmas roast or juicy oven browned turkey? What about a dried fish that’s been stewed in lye? The third option here, lutfisk,  is what you’ll get at a Swedish Christmas dinner. Yep-that’s fish stewed in lye, like the stuff used to make soap and other industrial cleaners. The lye is rinsed from the fish before it’s cooked and served, but the result of the process is that the fish has a jelly like consistency. Yum! Right?

But don’t worry there’s a sweeter side to Swedish Christmas custom as well…. Ris à la Malta is a rice pudding dish (served with vanilla and cream) served at Christmas. If you are the one who finds the hidden almond inside, it is said that you’ll be married before the next Christmas! That should leave a sweeter taste in your mouth than jellied fish.

4)Poland

Wigilia is the name for Christmas Eve Dinner in Poland and refers to the tradition of waiting (coming from the Latin word ‘vigilare’). Waiting, that is, for the first star to appear in the night sky  before beginning to eat the Christmas meal. Customarily this special dinner consists of twelve dishes without meat (fish is the mainstay). An extra place is set at the table for lost loved ones (or some accounts say for passersby who might be in need). Historically hay was also scattered on the table (or underneath the tablecloth) to represent a manger.

 

5) Iceland

Iceland takes the cake when it comes to the number of characters who dole out gifts/admonishments for good and bad little girls and boys. They have thirteen elve type mountain men or yulemen called ‘Yule Lads’, who split up and visit the different regions to leave presents for children (in shoes) over thirteen days. Though in times past these characters were perceived to be more wicked (and, it seems, descended from trolls) than benevolent, these days they seem to be more kind than malevolent.

What do the yulemen leave naughty children? Rotting potatoes. Pew!

 

Unique European Christmas Traditions

6) Austria

Forget Rudolph the red nosed reindeer or Santa and his elves… in Austria they’ve got something better: Krampus! Krampus is a horned half-goat/half-demon that purportedly (in folklore) accompanied St. Nick to search for the bad children in order to scare, beat and/or capture (depending on which legend/folklore tale you read) them.

There are disturbing stories about Krampus’s large claws, his chains and beating switches or sticks and allusions to a wicker basket that he supposedly uses to carry children away.

Whatever way you slice it he’s one nasty dude but he still remains a part of present-day Austrian Christmas culture. There are parades and festival days in cities around Austria (such as Salzburg) during the Christmas season where, apparently, thousands of people gather while groups of men done Krampus masks and run through the crowds  pretending to (or  possibly in reality) scaring children.

Frohe Weihnachten!

 

7) Greenland

How does a piece of raw whale skin or a mouldy bird sound? Appetizing? No? If you’re spending Christmas with a family in Greenland you may find one or both of these things in front of you come Christmas Day. The bird is traditionally kept in the body of a dead seal until it’s nice and um.. aged (aka decomposed)? Then it’s eaten.

I honestly don’t know what to say about this-except I’m not looking forward to eating in Greenland if/when I ever visit.

 

8) Slovakia

Fish for Christmas isn’t so uncommon-many Central and Northern European countries feature fish as one of or the main dish on their Christmas table. And carp is a pretty common fish. But in Slovakia it is bathtub carp that gets cooked up on Christmas Eve.

Say what? You heard me. Carp from the bath tub. Bear with me.

In Slovakia, it is customary to keep a carp in the bathtub for a few days before frying it up for the Christmas feast. Understandably this can be traumatic for kids if they’ve say… hung out with the fish, petted the fish or dare I say it named the fish.  But the premise for this tradition is rooted in a good dose of common sense mixed with erroneous assumptions.

Historically, it is thought that Slovaks kept the fish in the bathtub before Christmas because they believed that swimming in clean water would clean this bottom feeder’s dirty insides out before they noshed down on it. While it might be true that they believed this, it is also likely that getting fresh fish from anywhere back in the day was pretty difficult unless you lived next to the sea where it was caught.

Therefore, it also makes sense that grabbing a fish and keeping it fresh until the day you need it would be perhaps the only way you could guarantee having ‘fresh’ fish on your Christmas table.

 

Do you or your family/country/culture have any interesting holiday traditions? Please share them here!

 

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11 Comments

  • I’m going back to Italy for Christmas but have never heard of the Befama/witch before! I’ll ask about it when I go. It’s nice to read these Christmas traditions, it puts you in the festive mood.

  • Great post! I had no idea about Italy, poor kids have to wait till January to get their presents 🙂 I am from Poland and we also eat carp. Normally you buy one, still alive in the shop ( they try to stop that now as its a torture for a poor fish) and then you take it home and keep it in your bath to kill it in last minute to have as fresh as possible fish. I was never fan of it, its sad and gross. And Christmas in Iceland sounds great, I bet they so magical over there with all that winter weather!

    • hahahah! I can imagine I wouldn’t be a fan of watching a fish spend it’s last days in my bathtub either but hey it makes a good story! 🙂

  • What an interesting post, Brooke! These are some pretty cool and a bit weird traditions.. LOL.. But hey, these traditions make a country/ city pretty unique, too! 😉 It’ll be interesting to witness these firsthand (the gambling, Krampus), except for the weird foods though. Happy holidays!

  • Some of these are really strange, specially the bathtub carp and the scary Krampus. The common theme across most of these seems to be ‘shock’ 🙂 Such an interesting post. Researching on it would have been so much fun too.

  • You should include the Philippines. We have the longest Christmas celebration in the world. Our Christmas season starts in September and ends in mid-January! And there’s food and parties everywhere! One Christmas/New Year tradition we display 13 round fruits on the table for never-ending good luck and fortune for the next year.

    • sounds very cool! Yes there were many many countries I didn’t include here mostly because I didn’t have the time to do that much more research and writing! But I hope to find new traditions to learn about every year and now I will know if I go to the Phillipines at Christmas what the 13 round fruits mean! Is 13 a luckly number for you there? Funny because it’s bad luck in other places!

  • Haha. I laughed so hard reading these christmas traditions. I’ve always wished to celebrate Christmas outside of Canada but I didn’t bargain for these legends. All countries on the list catches my fancy and this post will help my Christmas’s abroad itinerary.

    • but have you looked into the pooping man (and the pooping log) in Catalunya yet? Add that one to your list it’ll really make you laugh! 🙂

  • ooh, this by far was the most interesting read that I had today. The old lady in Italy sounds so cool. I wonder why I had never heard of her earlier. And rotten potatoes – no thank you! I definitely dont want to be a naughty kid. Loved the legends that you have shared.

    • thank you Ami! ahahah yes I was surprised by just how nasty some of the ‘gifts’ or characters were for the naughty children in some of these places! 🙂

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