Culture

Delightfully Weird Holiday Traditions Around the World

Flaming straw goats, spying elves, pooping nativity figurines...these are just some of the strange and delightful Christmas traditions happening around the globe during this festive season.

Bethany

By Bethany Ivie

December 18, 2019

Two generic holiday elf figurines sit on a wooden floor with their legs crossed, side-by-side.

Drinking a cocktail of raw eggs, brandy and heavy cream, kissing under the sprig of an invasive plant, nailing our socks to the mantle ... if you think about any holiday tradition long enough you'll start to realize that, out of context, even our most common Christmas-time celebrations are delightfully bizarre. 

In the spirit of the most wonderful(ly weird) time of the year, we present to you some Christmas-time traditions from the United States and around the world that are as delightful as they are strange. 

 

Close-up of sequined pickle ornaments on a large christmas tree.

Decorating Your Christmas Tree With...Pickles?

Origin: Unknown

If you’ve perused the Christmas section of any ornament-selling store, you’ve probably seen at least one sparkling glass pickle. What’s the deal with that? Popularly touted as an Old-World German tradition, the Christmas pickle (or Weihnachtsgurke) is hidden deep in the boughs of the yule tree on Christmas Eve for children to find on Christmas morning. The first one to spy the briny bauble gets a special gift or is given the honor of opening the first present. Whether or not this tradition’s origin story is true is up for debate. Turns out, no one really knows. Even the Germans. USA Today notes that according to a 2016 survey 91% of Germans had never even heard of the Weihnachtsgurke, let alone had one in their homes. Other theories for where this strange custom originated hail back from the Civil War and even to St. Nicholas himself.

 

 

An antique post card of a painted winter scene of young boys singing, holding lanterns and surrounding a figure with a horse-skeleton head, draped in a sheet.

Caroling With a Dead Horse

Origin: Wales

As the legend goes, during the holidays in Wales, the dead horse Mari Lwyd rises from the grave, then goes door-to-door challenging those who dare to a rhyming battle of wits. In practice, here’s what that looks like: groups of revelers take a decorated horse skull around and knock on doors. When the door opens, the group will sing Mari Lwyd’s challenge then start a “pwnco,” or call-and-response rhyme battle with those inside the home, each group trying to outdo the other. This is just one of many holiday horrors and terrifying traditions we recently uncovered.

 

A radish sculpture of a famous Frida Khalo painting.

Carving Intricate Radish Sculptures

Origin: Oaxaca, Mexico

This century-old holiday is celebrated every December 23 in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tradition began when merchants tried to attract shoppers on their way to and from Christmas church services with intricate vegetable displays. The merchants carved radishes into people, animals and other decorative shapes. The most imaginative and skillfully carved radishes would be snatched up to be used as centerpieces on holiday tables.

In 1897 Oaxaca’s mayor officially declared December 23 to be the Noche de Los Rábanos or Night of the Radishes. Each year, professional artists and amateur whittlers transform humble radishes into nativity scenes, alligators, churches, portraits of famous celebrities and other creations.

We first wrote about this last year, along with some other interesting holiday traditions.

Elf On The Shelf

Origins: Georgia, United States

Whether you love to hate it or hate that you love it, Elf on the Shelf is a young tradition that has quickly taken root in many American homes.  For those of you without kids, here’s the premise: Scout Elves help Santa manage his list by embedding themselves into the homes of children and observing their behavior each day. Each night these sleeper agents return to the North Pole with a report for Santa on who has been Naughty and who has been Nice.  After delivering their missives, Scout Elves return to their adoptive homes each morning to perch in a new area of the house and wait for their children to find them. Once discovered, they cannot be touched by tiny, human hands or their magic is broken and their family gets no presents from Santa.

An Elf on the Shelf starter kit contains a children’s book (Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition) and a posable, apple-cheeked Scout Elf doll that you can name and “officially” adopt into your family.  Instead of simply hiding their Scout Elf in a different location each night, some parents have taken a more creative approach posing their elf around the house in elaborate scenes. The results range from wholesome and delightful to hilarious and a wee bit disturbing.

Note: Surprisingly, this terrifying home invader wasn’t a marketing ploy dreamt up by a Mattel or Hasboro. It was a family tradition brought to life by mom Carol Aebersold and her twin daughters Chanda and Christina.

 

A small sculpture depicting a man with his trousers down, squatting and relieving himself on the ground. He is wearing red pants, a traditional Catalan hat and a white shirt.

Adding Some Scatalogical Humor To Your Nativity

Origin: Catalonia, Spain

For you, a traditional nativity scene probably includes Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, some shepherds, the three wise men…you get it. But in Catalonia, an independent region in Spain, you’ll notice a strange figure in the corner: a caganer.  A caganer is a bare-bottomed figurine eternally frozen in the midst of answering his call of nature. He or she is placed in the corner or the back of the nativity and left for onlookers to notice. Though historians have traced the advent of the caganer back to the 18th century, no one knows exactly why or how they came to be or what they truly mean. Some scholars suspect that the caganer is a reminder that God will come in His time, regardless of whether his followers are ready or not, others suspect that 18th- century Catalonians simply had an unmatched sense of humor.

Though traditionally caganers were depicted wearing a white shirt and a traditional Catalan hat, called a barretina, today you can find them the likeness of literally anyone ranging from Vladimir Putin to the Pope to Darth Vader.

Surprisingly, caganers aren’t the only poop-centric holiday tradition in Catalonia. There’s also Caga Tió, or Tio de Nadal. We’ll leave it to you to search for that one. Happy Holidays.

 

A close-up of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken

Eat Kentucky Fried Chicken

Origins: Japan

Did you know that an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families treat themselves to a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas? In 1974, American fast food chain unveiled their “Kentucky for Christmas!” marketing campaign in Japan. The story goes that KFC spread the idea that it’s a time-honored Western tradition to celebrate Christmas with fried chicken. Although only about 1 percent of people in Japan identify as Christian, there was an exotic appeal to the campaign, and it took off. Today, the tradition is so popular, it’s highly recommended to place Christmas Day orders well ahead of time. We did more on unique and treasured food traditions from around the globe.

 

 

A photo of bright oranges on a wooden floor.

Hang Old Oranges Around The House

Origins: Medieval Europe

If you’re looking for that perfect festive, spicy scent so many of us associate with Christmas, look no further than a homemade orange and clove pomander. Once used as protection against The Plague, pomanders rose in popularity in 17th and 18th century Europe.

These medieval pomanders were round pieces of jewelry that contained smell-good items like rose petals, herbs, flowers or musk. Today, modern pomanders are dried oranges studded with cloves and hung with ribbon. While we know now that these sweetly-scented inventions do nothing to ward off sickness, pomanders make cheerful holiday decorations and fill your home with a lovely aroma. Find out how to make an orange and clove pomander with this easy tutorial.

A small goat made of straw sits on top of a pile of wrapped christmas gifts, next to a tree. The goat is decorated with red ribbon.

Decorate With (and Destroy) Straw Goats

Origins: Sweden

In Sweden and parts of the northern United States, families adorn their homes and Christmas trees with Julbock or The Yule Goat.  Though no one knows exactly why goats figure so heavily in Scandinavian festivities, the Yule Goat was probably invented to honor the mythical goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  In Norse mythology, these giant grazers pulled the god Thor’s chariot and would rise whole and new each morning after being killed and devoured by their master each evening.

Originally part of a winter celebration called Juleoffer or “Yule Sacrifice,” the Yule Goat was portrayed by a man dressed in goatskins, carrying a goat’s head effigy. At the end of the day, the Yule Goat would be “killed” but, like Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, would rise from the dead as the Yule sun rose in the sky. Today, the Yule Goat is remembered in ornament form. Made of straw and decorated with red ribbon, Yule Goats are hung on Christmas trees or placed under them.

A giant, Yule goat made of straw, covered in snow.
The Gävle Goat in Gävle, Sweden circa 2009. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Fun fact: The city of Gävle, Sweden is famous for erecting the world’s largest Yule Goat every holiday season. Likewise, the Gävle Goat is famous because it rarely lasts long enough to see Christmas come and go. According to the news site The Local, the giant effigy has only survived 16 times over its five-decade history. Every year citizens and government officials alike gather for the goat’s unveiling and to brainstorm how to keep it safe. Presumably, other citizens meet at the same time to think up its destruction. Gväle and its towns-folk have been engaged in this somewhat-friendly fight since 1966 and some of the “attacks” on the giant goat have been…pretty weird.