18 Wacky World Holiday Traditions (Your Family Isn’t That Weird, After All)
If you think that your family has some odd holiday traditions…you’re in good company!
18. Second-Chance Christmas:
In our cosmopolitan, Wikipedia-educated world, clever and well-behaved children will quickly catch on to the fact that Christmas isn’t a one-shot deal. While St. Nick delivers presents on December 25th, Italy’s kind old witch Befana makes the rounds on January 5, delivering presents and candy to children in exchange for their parents’ offering of a nice Italian dinner (complete with glass of wine.)
It started out as a joke in San Francisco and spread to hundreds of urban centers worldwide. This largely adult-oriented event combines the concept of “naughty and nice” into, effectively, a giant pub crawl in which all participants must dress in a full Santa costume and address each other as “Santa” for the duration. Some SantaCons support charitable causes, and a handful are family-friendly. But some incidents at individual gatherings have led to oddly specialized rules, including: “Do not throw your gifts at anyone, especially if those gifts are raw Brussels sprouts.” Similarly, the follow up to the “Don’t get drunk in public” rule is the addenda: “If you do get drunk in public, you should get into a fight with other Santas, get arrested as quickly as possible (before anyone gets hurt), be carted away in handcuffs and have the whole thing recorded on video for the evening news and YouTube.” So there.
16. Miraculous Poinsettias:
When Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, brought back some cuttings in the 1920s, the Americans (ever fond of a spelling-bee stumper) renamed the plant “Poinsettia” in his honor, and the Mexican plant has since become a familiar Christmas sight. But very few Americans are familiar with story of why the poinsettia is specifically associated with Christmas, since the origins lie in Mexican folklore. For Catholics, it is traditional to present gifts to the Christ Child, and, according to legend, a poor brother and sister left a handful of wilted branches as an offering, since they didn’t have anything else to give. The other children mocked their unimpressive gift, but the Christ Child accepted the spirit of the offering, and the branches miraculously sprouted beautiful red star-shaped flowers, or “Flores de Noches Buenas.” In Mexico, the plant is still known as the “Flower of the Holy Night” or “Christmas Eve Flower.”
15. The Yule Goat (Sweden)
This Norse phenomenon is a hybrid of Thor worship (Thor’s chariot was traditionally pulled by magic goats), Pagan festivals (honoring the fertility god Devac who was represented as a white goat), Christian adaptations (which often depicted St. Nicholaus leading a goat, as a symbol of his ability to overcome devils), and folklore (which describes an invisible goat who hovers over families to make sure that they prepare for Christmas properly). This mish-mash of origin stories has led to several modern traditions, including one where neighbors prank each other by sneaking a Yule goat (made of straw) into each other’s houses. Many communities also create a giant straw goat bound in red ribbons (a Gävle Goat), and mischief-makers try to set the goat on fire. In Gälve itself, the goat is strategically situated directly adjacent to the Fire Department.
14. Food Prognostications:
In Slovakia, the Christmas meal serves as a predictor of the year to come. The main rule is that everyone must remain at the Christmas table for the entire meal (which requires some strategic planning), and that an extra plate must be set in case of an unexpected guest. Over the course of the meal, a carp scale should be placed under each person’s wallet to bring them money; a walnut should be thrown into a corner of the room to produce abundance, and an apple should be cut widthwise: if the seeds form a star pattern, that signifies health and happiness for the year to come.
13. Peacock Vows:
This legendary tradition dates back to the medieval period, when monarchs would put together spectacular feasts. In England, the peacock was a centerpiece—roasted and then re-feathered and gilded. Not only was the gaudy bird a visual focal point, but knights would place their hands on the peacock before making royal vows or promises to commit daring deeds in the year to come. Once the vows were complete, each knight would claim his share of the bird—a unique spin on the concept of “eating your words.”
12. Elf on the Shelf (or Anywhere Else):
This American tradition was founded by a mother-daughter team, Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, who came up with the story of an elf who monitors the children, returns to report to Santa every night, and reappears in a different part of the house in the morning. The creativity of the game has gradually expanded, and some parents stage up elaborate scenarios that hint at what the elf has been up to the following night. For kids, the adventure lies in finding out where the elf might be, and to search for evidence of elfin mischief.
11. Better Not Pout, Better Not Cry (Seriously!):
Krampus is, according to Austrian/German/Hungarian tradition, Santa’s dark alter-ego. While good old St. Nick brings deserving children presents and sweets, Krampus is responsible for punishing the naughty. In extreme cases, Krampus hits the children with bundles of golden twigs or stuffs the wicked children into a sack and carries them off for good.
10. No Broom Left Behind:
In keeping with the thought that Christmas Eve is a time for wicked spirits to travel (before being banished by Christ on Christmas Day), it is customary in Norway to hide all of the household brooms, lest they be stolen by witches who’ve been playing too much “Grand Theft Auto: Broomstick Edition.”
9. Mass on Wheels:
In warmer December climates, where snow is rare and sledding an unlikely option, people have to get a little inventive with their holiday traditions. And, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the Venezuelans interpreted Christmas Mass as…a time for roller skating. The tradition is that each child should tie a string to their big toe, and then leave the other end of the string hanging out the window, so that passing skaters can give them a friendly wake-up tug, and the children can jump out of bed to join the parades of people skating to church. So many people have joined in the tradition that now the roads in Caracas are closed to vehicular traffic first thing on Christmas morning.
8. Have You Ever Lost an Argument with a Dead Horse?:
In Wales, a mysterious traveler roams between December and January. In theory, it is the mystical Mari Lwyd (“the Gray Mare”); in practice, it’s a horse’s skull attached to an elaborately draped pole, (which is exactly as creepy as it sounds) carried by five or six of your neighbors. The “horse” will knock on your door and engage you in a singing and rhyming competition; if you lose, the mare will enter, drinks will be served, and everyone will have good luck for the coming year. If you win, the creepy horse head stays outside—which also sounds like kind of a win, but most people don’t risk it.
7. Christmas with Spiders?:
In the Ukraine, Christmas trees are traditionally decorated with spider webs, in memory of a poor family who conscientiously grew their own Christmas tree from a pinecone but couldn’t afford to decorate it. When they awoke on Christmas morning, miraculous spiders had rewarded the family’s piety by spinning lovely and intricate webs all over the carefully nurtured tree. The modern versions are often constructed from elaborately draped lace made specifically to look like spiderwebs.
6. The Christmas Pickle:
Like many Christmas traditions, this one started as a late 19th century marketing ploy, when German glassmakers were trying to market Christmas ornaments to an expanded American audience. They pitched the “Christmas pickle” as a reward for cleverness. On Christmas Eve, the parents would hide the pickle on an already decorated tree, and the first child to find the pickle ornament on Christmas morning would win an extra present.
5. Christmas Cleaning:
As a metaphor for letting go of the baggage of the previous year, Guatemalans scour their homes and streets for trash, sweeping it all to a central heap in a designated town center. They then create an effigy of the devil, toss it on top, and set the lot on fire. According to tradition, fresh Christmas celebrations can’t begin until La Quema del Diablo is complete, and all of the previous year’s rubbish is gone.
4. Yule Lads/Yule Cat (Iceland)
Like the St. Nick/Krumpus duo, Iceland is blessed by a team of thirteen fairy Yule Lads who scramble down chimneys to leave presents for good children, and haunted by the more politically-motivated Yule Cat, a huge and vicious creature who eats the people who weren’t productive enough to afford new clothes for Christmas Eve.
3. A Radishing Holiday Tradition:
It started as a marketing ploy, when clever Mexican shopkeepers needed an inexpensive way to entice potential buyers into their shops—a handful of clever Oaxacan store owners started to carve radishes with intricate Christmas scenes from local folklore and the Bible. Today, Christmas in that corner of Mexico takes on its characteristic red coloring from an elaborate array of carved radishes grown especially for this event (cultivated for size and color), then displayed from December 23rd through Christmas.
2. KFC Christmas (in Japan!):
In 1974, KFC offered Japanese consumers a special peek into American “Christmas Dinner” with a customized menu released only in December. The marketing schtick was designed to appeal to homesick Americans, because Christmas isn’t a widely celebrated holiday in Japan. However, the special Christmas recipe became so popular with locals that now Japanese diners start placing their December chicken orders as early as October.
1. Christmas in the Bathroom?
Spain also features an unusual tradition that centers around...well…the gift of number two. In Catalonia, families dress up a yule log, adding a face and a blanket drape. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the log is “fattened” with a variety of food offerings until, finally, on Christmas Eve, the family beats the log with sticks, and the “Tia de Nadal” “poops” out presents for the whole family (which are revealed when the blanket is removed). Think of it as a Christmas adaptation of the piñata.
And remember that all of the oddest traditions started when one (possibly drunk) person said: “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we…” So, if you want to invent your own wacky holiday tradition…the field is still wide open.
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