In Depth

Strangest Christmas customs from around the world

From defecating logs to KFC-fuelled feasts, Christmas inspires a host of eccentric and colourful rituals

Christmas is not only a time for giving and receiving but also for tossing shoes, roller skating to church and feasting on whale blubber - at least in some corners of the world.

From festive trees made out of chicken feathers to searches for hidden pickles, here are some of the strangest festive traditions from across the globe: 

Indonesia: chicken feather trees

Christmas is not a widely celebrated holiday in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation. But among the country’s small Christian population – particularly on the holiday island of Bali – Christmas trees are not the typical evergreen or artificial ones. Instead they are made from chicken feathers in an assortment of colours.

These unique trees, according to We Love Indonesia, are made by people in their homes on Bali and have been exported to countries around the world.

Portugal: food for the dead

According to children’s Christmas site The North Pole, the Portuguese often celebrate Christmas with a meal called Consoada in the early hours of Christmas Day. During this meal, they set extra places at the table for “alminhas a penar” (“the souls of the dead”).

“In some areas crumbs are left on the hearth for these souls, a custom that derives from the ancient practice of entrusting seeds to the dead in hopes that they will provide a bountiful harvest,” the site adds.

South Africa: tasty creepy crawlies

Roast potatoes? Yorkshire puddings? Gravy? South Africans have little time for such frivolities, with many of them instead opting for caterpillars. Yes, literal caterpillars.

Emperor moth caterpillars are usually either sun-dried or deep fried and served on Christmas Day. The bugs are said to have a flavour similar to tea.

Wales: beware the horse

Mari Lwyd, a somewhat surreal winter tradition from Wales, actually predates Christmas entirely and comes from the country’s pagan history, according to Mental Floss

The tradition - the name of which translates to “grey mare” in English - is most keenly observed in the town of Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, on New Year’s Day. Here, Mental Floss says, the tradition “involves the arrival of the horse and its party at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses.

“Then comes a battle of wits (known as pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme,” it adds. “At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song.”

Not strange enough for you? How about the fact that the horse is represented by a real horse’s skull on a stick.

Finland: a festive sauna

With more than two million saunas shared between just 5.5 million people, it's no surprise that the famed Finnish sweatbox plays a role in the country's festive traditions.

The peak of Finnish Christmas celebrations comes on Christmas Eve, when Finns head to the sauna to strip off and relax before the evening festivities. After a light lunch, almost everyone in Finland takes to the sauna, with famed sauna makers Tylo hypothesising that it could be “a great way to ease tensions before the Christmas dinner guests arrive”.

But they have to be quick: according to folklore, the spirits of dead ancestors bathe in the sauna after the early Nordic sunset.

India: Christmas banana trees

Given the lack of pine trees in India, it’s traditional for families to decorate a banana or mango tree in much the same way. While only 2.3% of the population of India is Christian, that still equates to over 25 million followers in the country. Many of those decorate their houses with Mango leaves and place oil-burning lamps on their roof-tops, symbolising the light of Jesus.

Czech Republic: shoe tossing for a husband

A Christmas Eve custom invites single Czech women to stand with their backs to the front door and remove a shoe. They hurl it over their shoulder towards the door and how it lands predicts their romantic prospects for the year. If the toe of the shoe faces the door, the thrower is destined to marry. If it’s the heel, it’s another painful 12-month wait.

According to folk lore, all women should get a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas time in order to be guaranteed a successful love life throughout the next calendar year.

Ukraine: web-savvy Christmas

The traditional Ukrainian Christmas tree is draped not with tinsel and baubles, but with spiders’ webs – or in most cases, an artificial substitute. The tradition grew up around the legend of a family so poor that their tree would have gone bare, had it not been for a spider spinning a beautiful web over it in time for Christmas morning. 

Japan: Kentucky Fried Christmas

Over the past few years, it’s become customary for the Japanese to tuck into a festive feast of KFC on Christmas Day. Thanks to a successful advertising campaign, KFC branches throughout Japan report that families will queue around the block to pick up their battered thighs and wings. The tradition has now become so popular that orders for the KFC Christmas Party Barrel are taken as early as October.

In Japan only around around 1% of the population is Christian, and Christmas is not an official holiday, writes the BBC. “So the idea that families are going to spend all day cooking a ham or turkey and side dishes just isn’t practical.

“Instead, they show up with a bucket of chicken.”

Venezuela: Christmas roller skating

Every year between 16 and 24 December in Caracas, Venezuela, roads are closed to traffic to let people  roller skate to the early morning Christmas mass. On their way, skaters will tug on the ends of long pieces of string tied by children to their big toes and dangled out of the window.

Netherlands: Black Peter

Every November in the Netherlands, Father Christmas – or Sinterklaas, as he’s know to the Dutch – arrives from Spain by steamship, bringing with him an escort of Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters), all with blackened faces, red lips and curly hair. 

The role of the Black Peters is to assist Santa and perform impressive acrobatic feats to amaze the children who turn out to see them every year. The tradition has led to controversy, with the UN condemning it as “a throwback to slavery”, although its supporters insist that it’s a harmless Christmas tradition.

Norway: edible logs

In Norway, families will burn a Yule log in a tradition that dates back to the ancient Norse celebration of the return of the sun at winter solstice. The Norse believed that the Earth was heated by a huge wheel of fire (the Sun), which rolled closer or further away as the year progressed.

Norwegians are also partial to edible Yule logs – a traditional dessert made of rolled-up sponge cake that resembles a tree trunk.

Norwegians also believe that Christmas Eve coincides with the arrival of an army of evil spirits and witches. To prevent these unwanted invaders from stealing their brooms, many families hide them all before going to bed.

Austria: beware the Krampus

Originating from Austria but also found in southern Germany, Croatia and several other surrounding countries, the legend of the Krampus dates back to medieval times and the Brothers Grimm.

A devil-horned, hunch-backed beast who roams the streets threatening to beat children with branches and rusty chains if they don’t behave, “the Krampus is a reminder that with the sweetness and light of Christmas comes an equal and opposite force of darkness and evil”, says CNN.

Often portrayed as Satan himself, the story continues to attract a wide following with a number of disturbing incidents reported each year. The legend has even inspired a Hollywood film.

Mexico: processions and pinatas

In Mexico, from 16 December to Christmas Eve, children often perform the ‘posadas’ – a series of nine processions to re-enact the part of the Christmas story where Joseph and Mary go in search of somewhere to stay. On the final night of the posadas, a Church service is held featuring food, games and fireworks. One game that recurs is the smashing of a pinata – a decorated clay or papier-mache container filled with sweets and hung from the ceiling or a branch. To play the game, children are blind-folded and take turns hitting the pinata with a stick until it breaks open spilling its contents (usually sweets or other treats) onto the floor. 

Spain: Caga Tio the Catalan poo log

Caga Tio is a hollowed-out log with a happy face and legs, which must be fed with goodies such as sweets and nuts in the run-up to Christmas. On Christmas Eve, families put him by the fire and beat him softly with a stick until he’s pooed out all the goodies. The last thing to come out is normally a garlic bulb, onion or maybe even a salt herring. During the beating, families often sing a song like this to encourage the log: “Poo log, poo nougat, hazelnuts and cottage cheese, if you don’t poo well, I’ll hit you with a stick, poo log!”

Another weird tradition is the practice of wearing red underwear during the festive season. Red has long been considered an auspicious colour and in parts of southern Europe and central America people wear red underwear to see in the new year.

Yet in the small Spanish town of Font de la Figuera, people take the celebration a step further by running around in their crimson skivvies in the freezing cold, much to the alarm of unsuspecting visitors.

Belarus: rooster rules

Christmas is a time for singletons to have their fortunes told by a rooster in the former Soviet state of Belarus.

Traditionally, every festive season, the single women of a town have grains of corn laid out in front of them and a rooster from a nearby farm is placed among them. Whoever’s corn is eaten first will be the next one to get married.

In another strange tradition aimed at keeping spinsters occupied, married women in Belarus lord it over their unattached friends by hiding items around their house for them to hunt, imploring the singletons to search high and low. If they find bread, they’re destined to marry a rich man, a ring means they’re in line to marry a handsome man – assuming the married women haven’t snapped up all the wealthiest and most attractive men in town.

US: Find the pickle

Many American Christmas customs are familiar across much of the English-speaking world - turkey, carols, presents under the tree. However, one custom is likely to be alien to most - the Christmas pickle.

In parts of the Midwest, it is common for families to hang a glass pickle-shaped ornament among the decorations on their Christmas tree and then invite their children to search for it. The first to spot the Christmas pickle will get good luck for the rest of the year, or sometimes an extra present.

Many Americans believe the Christmas pickle to be a venerable old-world custom brought over by German immigrants, with some even calling it by the German name, weihnachtsgurke.

The problem with this theory is that the Christmas pickle is totally unheard of in Germany, says Atlas Obscura. Its origins remain a mystery, with one theory suggesting the German link was invented by 19th-century department stores to sell more glass baubles.

Syria: Camel caravan

Syria’s sizeable Christian minority has its own local legend about the Nativity. Christmas presents are delivered not by Father Christmas on his sleigh, but by “the youngest of the camels that carried the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem”, says Gulf News.

Instead of a carrot for Rudolph, children leave water and hay outside their homes for the hard-working camel, who delivers his load on New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas Eve.

Greenland: eating mouldy birds and whale blubber

Considered a treat by Greenland’s Inuits, Kiviak is a dish made from small birds called auks, which are wrapped up in seal skin, then buried and left for months to ferment, before being eaten once fully decomposed. 

Another seasonal dish enjoyed in Inuit communities is Muktuk, which is made from the skin and blubber of a whale. Usually sliced thin, sprinkled with salt and eaten raw, Muktuk is said by some to taste like fresh coconut, while others compare the flavour to fried eggs.

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