All across the world, all sorts of holiday activities– both religious and secular, age-old and relatively new – are in full swing during this season, including festive lights, special street markets, trees, Santa and elves everywhere, and the rest of it.  But a handful of places feature oddities which range from whimsical to scary to occasionally potentially offensive. Here´s a particularly memorable top ten:

Austria & Germany: Demonic Doings

December 5 is celebrated as St. Nicholaus Day in parts of Europe, particularly Austria and Bavaria, where it´s also known as Krampusnacht. It´s when folks dressed up as the half-goat, half-demon Krampus  –  thought to be rooted in pre-Christian folklore and used to scare kids into behaving – run rampant through the streets of various towns and cities, mock-terrorizing all and sundry but particularly the little ones. Charming bit of holiday cheer, eh? In my opinion it´s enough to keep the couches of Sigmund Freud´s descendants full for the rest of their lives.

Iceland: The Boys Are Back in Town

In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, Icelandic kids get visits from the “Yule Lads,” a series of characters rooted in Icelandic folklore, with names like “Spoon-Licker” and “Door-Slammer,” and each with distinct personalities and behaviors, ranging from nice to naughty. Good little tykes might get good little gifts, and the bad ´uns rotting potatoes. So lick them spoons and slam them doors!



12331483460?profile=RESIZE_930x&width=800Truus, Bob & Jan too!!

Italy: Which Witch?

Never mind Santa Claus, here on the eve of the Epiphany on January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) a friendly strega (witch) called La Befana comes overnight to leave good children candies and presents and the bad ones lumps of coal (though since every kid (though since every kid has likely been bad once or twice during the year, in their stocking they´ll also get dark-colored rock candy, to symbolize coal).

Japan: Finger-Lickin´ Weird

Though Christians make up just 1½ percent of all Japanese, but all the secular Yuletide trimmings are out in full force here. And the strangest tradition – which started as a marketing stunt in the 1970s – has many of the locals eating fried chicken at KFC on Christmas Day. WTF, you might say? Well, Colonel Sanders does look a little bit like Santa, don´t you think? Leave it to the Japanese. 😉

Netherlands: Sooty Is the New Black

Like the Teutons have Krampus, on St. Nicholas Day the Dutch roll out St. Nick´s sidekick Zvarte Piet (Black Pete),– depicted as a “black Moor” in blackface, colorful Renaissance garb, red lipstick, and curly-haired wigs – who hands out cookies and candies to kiddies.  Naturally, in this day and age blackface is frowned upon by many, so many places have a more politically correct version dubbed Roetveegpiet (Sooty Pete), with the actors´ faces streaked with black makeup (though who knows, maybe after the recent Geert Wilders election, full-on Zvarte Piet might just make a comeback!). And by the way, Piet can also be found to an extent in the Flemish part of Belgium as well as the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao.

Norway: Sweeping Brooms Under the Rug

Instead of being wholly gung-ho about Christmas Eve, superstitious Norwegians take the alarmist view it´s a night when witches and malign spirits wake up and look for brooms on which to take joy rides hither and yon. Quick, stash ´em!


Spain: Catalonia Is Full of Shit

Catalans are traditionally a bit scatological, and they’ve got not one but two traditions to prove it. First is a Christmas log called Tió de Nadal or Caga Tió (“pooping log”), a hollowed-out bit of rustic wood – usually around a foot long – with a smiley face and draped with a blanket. When kids smack it with sticks, they´re rewarded with candies, nuts, turrón (holiday nougat), and little gifts which get “pooped” out of its back end.

More explicitly fecal-centered, the caganers (shitters) are small figurines which have adorned  Nativity scenes and other holiday décor since at least the 18th century. They depict bare-assed peasants (inevitably dudes) in their traditional red caps, in the act of squatting and taking a dump. The idea is that they´re fertilizing the earth and thus bringing good luck. In recent years, variations have arisen of caganers depicting politicians and other celebrated figures both real and fictional – from Hollywood celebrities to the Pope to Darth Vader – meant as a satirical device to cut them down to size a bit.

Sweden: Giving Up the Goat

This one´s particular to the little city of Gävle, in central Sweden a couple of hours north of Stockholm, which every holiday season since 1966 has put up a humungous Gävlebocken (Gävle Goat) made of straw – their version of the “Yule goat” which harks back to Norse mythology (the chariot of the thunder god Thor was pulled by a pair of goats). Anyhoo, contrary to the Swedes´ law-abiding reputation, most years the big guy ends up vandalized or even burned down despite efforts to protect him. Such kidders!


12331481898?profile=RESIZE_1200x&width=1000Erika Smith

Ukraine: Itsy Bitsy Spiders

Plenty of Ukrainian Christmas trees feature ornaments in the form of spider webs. This comes not just from the tradition of spiders bringing could luck, but more specifically from an old western Ukrainian folk tale. It seems a family too poor to decorate their tree woke up on Christmas morning to find it covered with cobwebs. Then when they opened the windows, the sun´s rays turned the webs into gold and silver. Yuletide wonder restored and bye-bye poverty! Now if there were only some magic that could make these damn invading Russians disappear.

Venezuela: Roll ´Em!

In capital Caracas, not only do some kids (and a few overgrown kids) set off firecrackers in the streets on Christmas morning, but quite a few caraqueños whimsically whizz themselves to church for Christmas mass on roller skates. The city authorities even close down key roads to facilitate this curious custom.


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  • I´ve seen the Colonel Sanders craze in Japan - so funny.

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