Quirky Christmas traditions

Do you have traditions in your family – things that HAVE to happen to make Christmas feel really festive? It might be special foods, silly games or things-you-have-to-do-together-no-excuses.

All around the world people celebrate in widely different ways. Here are just a few of the strangest ones.

Hunt the pickle: Germany/Spain/USA

Christmas Pickle © Richard Steih, Flickr
© Richard Steih, Flickr

Each country lays claim to the original, odd quirk of adding a pickle-shaped bauble to the Christmas Tree. Whichever child finds the pickle gets an extra present.

No-one’s too sure how this got started although the Spanish story is that two young boys were held as prisoners inside a pickle barrel but Saint Nicholas rescued them. But it’s more likely to be a German-American tradition created in the late 19th century.

Roller skating to church: Venezuela

Roller skates © Ryan McGuire, Pixabay
© Ryan McGuire, Pixabay

Imagine the scene in the city of Caracas as city dwellers make their way to church on Christmas morning on roller skates!

It’s said children anxious not to miss the fun go to bed with a piece of string tied round their toe and the other end dangling out of the window. As skaters roll past, they give the string a tug and children know that it’s time to rise and shine and get their skates on.

The tradition’s become so popular that streets are closed to traffic so the skaters can arrive safely.

Krampus: Austria/Germany

Krampus, Austria © Stefan Klauke, Flickr
© Stefan Klauke, Flickr

Everyone knows Santa has a naughty and nice list but in Austria and Germany bad boys and girls can expect a visit from ‘Krampus’, St Nicolas’ evil sidekick.

He’s said to wander the streets during the month of December looking for badly-behaved children and scaring everyone with nasty tricks.

Krampus is half-goat, half-demon whose name derives from the old German word for claw, so be careful he doesn’t catch you if you’re watching one of the many Krampus-runs that take place in the run up to Christmas.

An ogress, 13 mischievous trolls and the evil Yule Cat: Iceland

Grýla and Leppalúði © Jennifer Boyer, Flickr
© Jennifer Boyer, Flickr

In Iceland they tell the story of the child-eating ogress Grýla, her husband Leppalúði and their 13 naughty troll sons. Each Yule lad makes an appearance in turn, from 12 – 24 December, causing a very specific type of mayhem wherever they are found.

Stekkjastaur has long, stiff legs, and steals milk from sheep.
Giljagaur hides in gullies and steals milk from cows.
Stúfur nicks pots and pans and eats leftovers.
Þvörusleikir steals unwashed spoons.
Pottaskefill has a thing for unwashed pots.
Askasleikir snatches unattended food bowls
Hurðaskellir keeps people awake at night by slamming doors
Skyrgámur steals skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) from the pantry.
Bjúgnakrækir is the sausage swiper.
Gluggagægir peeks through the windows.
Gáttaþefur sniffs out baked goods then steals them.
Ketkrókur uses a long hook to snag himself some meat.
Kertasníkir steals candles from little children on the night before Christmas.

And if that wasn’t enough pre-Christmas terror you must watch out for the Yule Cat – a giant feline who roams the snowy wastes. The story goes that farmers used to tell their field workers that if they did well they’d get a new set of clothes. If not the Yule Cat would get them. Today it’s a tradition for Icelanders to give and receive new clothing at Christmas to avoid the killer cat!

The Yule Goat: Sweden

The Gävle Goat © Wordshore, Flickr
© Wordshore, Flickr

Sweden goes one step further with festive animal antics.

The Yule Goat dates back to at least the 11th century when a man-sized goat figure, led by Saint Nicholas, was paraded to ward off the devil.

In the 17th century, it was popular for young men to dress as the goat creature and run around playing tricks and demanding gifts. By the 19th century, the goat was a a good guy, giving out the gifts.

Nowadays he’s just a distant memory and a traditional Christmas ornament on trees throughout Sweden.

Sparkling spider webs: Ukraine

Christmas spider ornaments, Ukraine © Erika Smith, Wikimedia
© Erika Smith, Wikimedia

The story goes that a poor widow could not afford to decorate a tree for her children. The spiders in her house took pity on her and spun beautiful webs all over the Christmas tree.

That’s why festive trees in the Ukraine don’t have baubles, tinsel or stars but sparkling, and lucky, spider webs.

Nisse: Denmark

Gnomes © Peter Ostergaard, Flickr
© Peter Ostergaard, Flickr

Based on a Nordic folktale there are many versions of this little gnome across Scandinavia but the Danish claim the origin of Nisse.

Families must leave out sweet rice porridge (risengrød) on Christmas Eve. If they feed him, he will bring them good fortune in the coming year. If they don’t then be prepared for tricks.

No one ever sees Nisse, but (unlike Santa) he doesn’t cover the whole world. Instead each family has its own, special Nisse who needs to be catered for.

Crimson Christmas Tree: New Zealand

Pohutukawa, New Zealand © Chris Wall, Flickr
© Chris Wall, Flickr

Instead of the traditional fir of the northern hemisphere, New Zealand celebrates with the Pohutukawa.

The beautiful and brightly coloured blossoms have long been revered in Maori tradition and are now synonymous with the holidays. The tree features on greeting cards and in poems and songs and has become an important symbol for New Zealanders at home and abroad.

Flying Witches: Norway

Brooms © bernswaelz, Pixabay
© bernswaelz, Pixabay

Christmas Eve (Julaften) is the big event for Norwegians. Families gather around the tree, open presents and share the festive feast.

But there’s one thing everyone must remember to do – hide the brooms or any other cleaning instrument that could be snatched by a witch and used to fly around the skies, creating havoc.

Well that’s what people say – but maybe the Norwegians are playing tricks on us?

Befana the Witch: Italy

Befana, Italy © Simone Zucchelli, Flickr
© Simone Zucchelli, Flickr

More witchery, but at New Year this time. On the eve of January 5th an old woman named Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their stockings with candy and leave them presents.

Just like Father Christmas, Befana comes down the chimney and expects wine and local delicacies in return.

The Pooping Log, Catalonia

Tió de Nadal © calafellvalo, Flickr
© calafellvalo, Flickr

Okay, this is a really weird one. Tió de Nadal is made from a hollow log and has stick legs, a big smile, and wears a red hat.

Every evening from December 8th children feed the log small treats with water, and leave him under a blanket to keep him warm. Then on Christmas Eve they beat him with sticks singing traditional songs urging Tió to poop.

Their reward for this festive brutality? The log magically poops out presents and sweets. After which he’s thrown on the fire and burned for warmth.

Poor Tió.

And finally…

The Pooper at the Nativity: Catalonia, parts of Spain and Portugal

The Caganer, Catalonia © Michael, Flickr
© Michael, Flickr

A Caganer is another scatological addition to the build-up to Christmas. It’s possible he (or sometimes she) is there to ensure fertility in the coming year but why the traditional nativity scene should feature a bare-bottomed figure caught in the act is pretty baffling.

Our Christmases always involve watching Muppet Christmas Carol and our nativity scene, for some reason lost in the mists of time, includes a Wallace figure.

At least he’s not pooping!

Christmas Nativity and Wallace © rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk
© rosemaryandporkbelly.co.uk

Additional photographs are copyright their respective owners and reproduced here under Creative Commons License

Where next?
Shifting sands – exploring Reigate caves
Beautiful places in Britain

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