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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!