Christmas might be a time for carolling, roasted turkeys, and gifting for us, but for some parts of the world, the festive holiday calls forth a variety of traditions that can come across as unusual. From tame examples such as Christmas verses sung in languages you might not expect, to lantern festivals, hiding brooms in your home, and a giant goat being burnt down, here’s a list of the best weird and wonderful Christmas traditions from around the world.
Christmas in our beloved city is almost synonymous with vibrant and colourful displays, but one part of the Philippines shares this custom of ours in a grander and even more impressive scale! In the city of San Fernando, nicknamed the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines,” inhabitants of the archipelago compete for the brightest and largest lantern every festive season at the Giant Lantern Festival.
The festival finds its root in a simpler, yet no less culturally significant activity that first took place in Bacolod. The Ligligan Parul (“Lantern Competition”) was said to have begun as far back as 1904, when the Giant Lantern Festival was a religious celebration of light and a message of hope in an act of lubenas, a nine-day worship before Christmas.
As time passed, the lanterns became bigger and designs more intricate and breathtaking, until they evolved into the beautiful forms and shapes that many tourists now flock to San Fernando during the Christmas holidays to see.
You can think of the Yule Lads as mischievous Christmas characters and Iceland’s own versions of Santa. But these characters were not very friendly when the folklore was first circulated amongst communities in the seventeenth century. Depicted as mountain-dwelling monsters, the stories of the Yule Lads were originally told to scare children into good behaviour, and they really know when if you’ve been bad or good.
On the 13 days leading up to Christmas, the Yule Lads will take turns visiting children in the night, leaving presents for the good ones, and pranking or even eating those who have been behaving badly throughout the year! Needless to say, the Yule Lads are not to be messed with in their seventeenth-century selves. In recent years, parents have altered their stories into a tamer and more child-friendly version for their little ones—probably for the better!
On Christmas Eve, people across Norway believe that they should hide their brooms in their closets. This might sound like a strange and peculiar custom to have for Christmas, but this actually stems from a point in history where fear mongering against witches was at an all-time high, and hence, the brooms and their association with witches.
Believing that evil spirits and witches will run wild on Christmas Eve, Norwegians built up the habit of hiding their brooms away on the night, hoping to discourage and inconvenience any witches that come out on Christmas Eve and ride every broom in sight. This might sound an awful lot like superstition now, but when you think about it, hiding those brooms might be the most effective way to prevent the spread of witchy evils in the past!
In a few European countries, Christmas Eve, or Saint Nicholas Eve, is known as Krampusnacht (“Krampus Night”). You can think of Krampus as one of Saint Nicholas’s assistants. While Saint Nicholas plays Santa, Krampus is the scary one who brings bad children coal. In pre-Christian Europe, however, Krampus was actually the personification of winter, associated with cooler weather and shorter days. Persisting through the Christianisation of Europe, Krampus became a significant figure in Saint Nicholas’ tale.
The tradition of Krampus Run takes place all over Austria when the festive month arrives. One of the most traditional of these runs, however, can be found in Tarrenz, where the custom has been alive for over a century. Whilst Krampus Runs across the country have been “modernised” with zombie and alien masks, and monstrous characters in popular culture, Krampus Run in Tarrenz has remained true to its roots in every way, with many of the monster masks on display being over 100 years old! This year’s Krampus Run, for example, saw many elements and costumes originating from the late nineteenth century on display as pedestrians came dressed in their Krampus best.
In Norse mythology, Nisse or Nisser is one of the sure signs of Christmas in Denmark. Short and dwarf-like, Nisse wears homemade clothes and a red cap, and is usually spotted with long grey beards—not unlike another Christmas figure we’re familiar with. Instead of cookies and milk, people usually leave out a bowl of porridge for Nisse on Christmas Eve.
Whilst Nisse is not considered evil, people of Denmark still regard him with great respect, as he is acquainted with and is as old as some of the highest gods in Norse mythology, particularly those inhabiting Valhalla. It’s always best to keep someone powerful as your friend rather than your foe. Nowadays, when the festive season nears, people will decorate their homes with a plush toy of Nisse or a small door in their house as a sign of welcome and hospitality to the ancient god.
In Christian portions of Mexico, Christmas is celebrated by performing the posada (“inn” or “lodging”) processions. These parades recreate the religious story of Christmas where Joseph and Mary looked for a place to stay and brought baby Jesus into the world. People in Mexico usually light the way for posadas with luminarias or farolitos—paper lanterns that guide the parade and symbolically lead Mary and Joseph along their way.
The parade calls at houses of friends and neighbours and sings to them when the door is answered, not unlike the Christmas carolling you might be familiar with. But in their lyrics, the posada asks for a place to stay as Mary and Joseph did at each house, until one eventually lets them in. A posada party will be held at the last house with food, games, and fireworks in celebration of the birth of Christ.
Christmas in Martinique calls forth customs that share a lot of similarities with classically Christian traditions. However, the Christmas tree is no longer an aromatic pine, but the glittery filao tree. December is also when the Fleuri-Noël flower is in full bloom.
People usually recreate the manger scene with human figures and real animals, and families gather for a Christmas dinner. Christmas carols are crucial to Christmas in Martinique. The Chanté Nowèl is a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages in France where people come together to celebrate the birth of Christ. In Martinique today, people gather at each other’s houses with food three weeks before Christmas, where they feast and sing carols in Creole all night long. These are unlike your traditional Christmas carols, however, as verses are accompanied by different voices, energetic pulsing drums, and elegant strings!
Whilst your Christmas tree might be green, the New Zealand Christmas tree is vibrantly red. The pōhutukawa tree blooms large crimson flowers in December, a fittingly festive display for the season, and has been recognised as the New Zealand Christmas tree in our time.
The Yule Goat, or the Gävlebocken (“Gävle Goat”) is a Christmas display constructed every year in Gävle, Sweden. Local community groups gather over the course of two days at the beginning of Advent and assemble this giant version of the traditional yule goat together.
Although subject to heavy security measures and being located near a fire station, the Yule Goat gets burnt down almost every holiday! Talk about a fiery display. But the repeated arson attacks have not stopped the community from building the Yule Goat every year. To this day, it is a celebrated custom and one of the clear signs that Christmas is approaching.
In Italian folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve, not unlike Santa on Christmas Eve. If you’ve been good, Befana will fill your stockings to the brim with sweets and presents. But if you’ve been bad, Befana will leave nothing but a lump of coal, dark sweets, or a stick in your stocking if you live in rural Sicily.
Befana is also a good housekeeper, and likes to sweep the floors of homes she visits on Epiphany Eve. Many associate this sweeping with the sweeping away of bad luck and negativity at the start of the year. To thank Befana for this kind gesture, families usually leave out a small glass of wine and some food for their friendly neighbourhood witch.
We may not consider KFC a worthy Christmas food item, but for many families in Japan, the holiday means you’re having fried chicken for dinner. Although this may seem like a strange tradition, it is actually a relatively recent development in the country’s history.
Stories about how the tradition came about differ, but one goes that a group of tourists visiting Japan in the 1970s couldn’t find a turkey for their Christmas dinner, and so they opted for the next best bird: a fried chicken Christmas dinner. Other reports say that the manager of the country’s first KFC saw a business opportunity in marketing fried chicken specifically during the Christmas season. Either way, since then, the fast-food chain has capitalised on this tradition under the “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign every year!
Yes, you read that right. In Catalonia, there’s a log, that poops out sweets for children during the festive season. But Caga Tió doesn’t just poop out any old candy—its speciality are turróns, an Andalusian nougat made with egg whites, honey or sugar, and almonds.
While the exact origins of Caga Tió the legendary Christmas log is unclear, it is said to have evolved from a pre-Christian tradition celebrating the winter solstice. Families would choose a large tree trunk to burn in a bonfire throughout winter, honouring it as Tió de Nadal (“Uncle Christmas”). As winter solstice calls forth colder and darker days, Tió de Nadal is an important figure that brings warmth and prosperity.
Nowadays, this tradition has evolved into families caring for a log found in the woods inside their house until it was time for Tió de Nadal to return the favour by offering small gifts, which includes the traditional Christmas sweet, turrón.