‘Twas the night before Christmas, and an overweight, elderly man in a red sweatsuit was flying an open-air vehicle operated by hooved animals and climbing down chimneys to deliver presents to children all around the world in less than 24 hours. Oh, and he’s a big fan of milk and cookies.
When you really stop and think about the holiday stories we tell our kids, and the traditions we partake in when the season rolls around, you realize they’re downright bizarre. But they’re also super fun, and it’s all part of what makes this time of year so cheerful.
In the United States, we’ve cherished the tradition of Santa Claus and his global delivery route (which makes Amazon’s service seem glacial) for centuries. We also participate in some more modern customs, like Elf on the Shelf — an omnipresent doll serving as Santa’s eyes and ears in homes — to make sure kids are well-behaved in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
But we’re not the only ones with weird holiday traditions. Here are 11 ways people in other countries celebrate the season.
1. Krampus (Germany, Austria, Hungary)
Turns out, Santa’s worse half is a hairy, devil-like creature called Krampus. Legend has it that while Santa brings toys to “nice” children, Krampus’ job is to punish kids on the “naughty” list. Mostly he just frightens the children with his beastly looks, but it’s said that he throws particularly bad children into his sack, or chains them up in his basket and carts them off to Hell. People in Austria and neighboring countries often dress up as Krampus in early December and wander the streets to scare children.
2. Night Of The Radishes (Mexico)
In Oaxaca, Mexico, Dec. 23 marks La Noche de Rabanos (“The Night of the Radishes”), a festival in which merchants and artisans sell radishes that have been intricately carved to depict nativity scenes, local wildlife and architecture, as well as other relevant displays. The radish carvings are sold as Christmas centerpieces, and the creator of the best radish design wins a monetary prize.
3. KFC For Christmas (Japan)
In the United States, we associate Christmas with ham or figgy pudding, but in Japan, it’s all about Kentucky Fried Chicken. That’s not a joke. An estimated 3.5 million Japanese families eat fried chicken on Christmas Eve thanks to a marketing stunt by KFC in the 1970s called Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (“Kentucky for Christmas”). Christians make up a very small percentage of the Japanese population, so this campaign made up for a lack of Christmas traditions. The KFC Christmas Meal is so popular, many customers pre-order their dinners — which include fried chicken, cake and champagne — months in advance.
4. Hide The Brooms (Norway)
Some Norwegians believe witches and evil spirits roam the night sky on Christmas Eve. And what is a witch’s preferred mode of transportation? A broomstick. So out of an abundance of caution, people in Norway hide all of the brooms in their houses to prevent any witches from getting their hands on them. Sometimes people will take it a step further by firing a warning gunshot into the air to scare them off.
5. The Gift-Giving Witch (Italy)
Speaking of witches, the Italian version of Santa Claus is actually an ugly (but kind) old witch called La Befana. As the story goes, the Magi stopped at her house to ask for directions on their way to visit baby Jesus. They invited Befana to come with them on their journey, but she said she had too much housework to do. After they left, she changed her mind and tried to find them but couldn’t, so now she flies around on the night of January 5th (the eve of the Magi’s meeting with Baby Jesus). Much like Santa, La Befana delivers toys to children. Instead of milk and cookies, Italians leave out a plate of sausage and broccoli and a glass of wine for her.
6. Dead Horse Caroling (Wales)
You’re probably familiar with Christmas caroling, but you’re definitely not familiar with the carolers who might show up at your door in Wales. At some point in December or January, you could open your door to find someone hidden by a ribbon and bell-adorned sheet, holding up a real horse skull on a stick, with a few fellow revelers in tow. As part of this Mari Lwyd (“Gray Mare”) tradition, the group will sing to you and then challenge you to a battle of rhyming insults in Welsh (called a pwnco). After the contest, the party is usually invited inside for refreshments.
7. Burning Of The Devil (Guatemala)
Guatemalans get fired up for Christmas. Literally. December 6 marks La Quema del Diablo (“the Burning of the Devil”), which is when families in Guatemala set bonfires outside of their homes and burn effigies of Satan to expunge evil spirits to celebrate the victory of good over evil. In the past, people would bring out all the trash from their houses and set it alight, and some still do. In the wake of environmental backlash, however, many people stick to burning piñatas shaped like the Devil. This celebration is accompanied by traditional doughnuts and warm fruit punch, and it signifies the start of the Christmas season.
8. Beach Party (Australia)
In the Southern Hemisphere, the holidays fall during the summer. Australian temperatures can get as warm as 84 degrees Fahrenheit around Christmas, so naturally, many Australians head to the beach. Families and friends partake in swimming, picnics and volleyball. Often, some surfing Santas will make an appearance. A couple of Sydney beaches, in particular, are known to be a hotspot for foreign travelers and backpackers, and in recent years the wild parties thrown there have gotten so out of hand, alcohol bans have been implemented.
9. Roller Skating To Mass (Venezuela)
While Australians are surfing, Venezuelans are skating. It’s a long-running tradition for the entire capital city of Caracas to roller skate to early morning mass on Christmas Day. In fact, vehicles are banned from many parts of the city before 8 a.m. In case this form of transportation isn’t strange enough, the night before kids will tie one end of a string to their big toe and hang the other end out of their bedroom window, so passing roller skaters can give the string a friendly tug on their way to mass the next morning.
10. Lucky Spider Webs (Ukraine)
Would you feel lucky if you found a spider web on your Christmas tree? Probably not. But Ukrainians associate spider webs with good fortune thanks to an ancient story. In the tale, a poor family grew a Christmas tree from a pine cone. The children were excited to decorate it, but the family couldn’t afford any decorations. Sensing the family’s despair, spiders spun glistening silk webs around the tree, which turned to silver and gold when the sun rose in the morning, leaving the family with a beautifully adorned tree. To this day, Ukrainian families decorate their trees with spider webs for good luck.
11. The Pooping Log (Catalonia)
We saved the wackiest for last. In the Spanish region of Catalonia, a unique holiday tradition is called Tió de Nadal, which roughly translates to “Christmas log.” The hollowed-out log is given a face, legs and a little red hat, and starting December 8, families “feed” the log every night by filling it with presents and candy. They also put a blanket over the log to keep it warm. On Christmas Eve, the log is placed in the (unlit) fireplace, and members of the family take turns bashing it with a stick, commanding it to defecate out the presents and candy, while singing traditional songs. After the beating, family members reach below the log’s blanket to retrieve the gifts.