It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like — Christmas!
As someone who’s Jewish, you might think I have no firsthand stories about Christmas to share — but you’d be wrong. On two different occasions, I celebrated Christmas because of who I was living with at the time.
It was really fun searching for the perfect tree, and then decorating it with ornaments and lights. I’d always thought it would be cool to have a Christmas tree at home, but of course that was never in the cards for my family. The real trees added a scent of the outdoors inside, and I learned that you need to keep them watered to ensure they don’t die before all the festivities have concluded.
Another Christmas tradition I never thought I’d get to experience is having a stocking hanging on the mantel. In addition to serving as a great décor element, our stockings were filled with lots of small treats — and we even had ones for our dogs.
As gifts arrived through the mail or were dropped off by friends and family, the pile around the tree steadily grew, along with the excitement of opening them on the big day. And on that morning, even though it was just two of us, were as excited as children as we ripped off the wrapping paper to discover what was inside.
It’s been a long time since I “did Christmas,” although I usually exchange gifts with family and close friends and have enjoyed a few Christmas dinners. Typically, Dec. 24 and 25 are just two days on the calendar for me; as a freelancer, I might choose not to work, but I sure don’t get holiday pay. And, unlike the stereotype of what Jews do on Christmas, I’ve never gone out for Chinese food — but I do know people who do.
I know for many of you, Christmas is the most joyous time of the year, and you have plenty of traditions from Christmases past that you replicate each year. Perhaps you leave treats out on Christmas Eve for Santa, you have special ornaments that have become family heirlooms and you eat the same foods for the feast that’s Christmas dinner.
Have you ever wondered if Christmas is celebrated in the same way around the world? I did, and I stumbled on 10 weird and wonderful Christmas traditions from various countries that share three characteristics — they’re loud, proud, and guaranteed to provide lots of festive fun.
Giant Lantern Festival — Philippines
The Giant Lantern Festival (Ligligan Parul Sampernandu) is held each year on the Saturday before Christmas Eve in the city of San Fernando — the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” The festival attracts spectators from all over the country and around the globe. Eleven barangays (villages) take part and competition is fierce, as everyone pitches in trying to build the most elaborate lantern. Originally, the lanterns were simple creations around one and a half feet in diameter, made from “papel de hapon” (Japanese origami paper) and lit by candle. Today, the lanterns are made from a variety of materials and have grown to almost 20 feet in size. They’re illuminated by electric bulbs that sparkle in a kaleidoscope of patterns.
Gävle Goat — Sweden
The peculiar story about the Gävle Goat started in 1966, when the idea to design a giant version of the traditional Swedish Christmas straw goat became a reality. The objective was to attract customers to the shops and restaurants in the southern part of the city. On the first Sunday of Advent 1966, the huge goat was placed at Castle Square in Gävle. Since then, the Gävle Goat has been a Christmas symbol placed in the same spot every year. Today, he is world famous. The Gävle Goat is the world’s largest straw goat and made it to the Guinness Book of Records for the first time in 1985.
Krampus — Austria
It might seem like something thought up for Halloween, but the beast-like demon creature that roams city streets frightening kids and punishing the bad ones is St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice, Krampus. In Austrian tradition, St. Nicholas rewards nice little boys and girls, while Krampus is said to capture the naughtiest children and whisk them away in his sack. In the first week of December, young men dress up as the Krampus (especially on the eve of St. Nicholas Day), frightening children with clattering chains and bells.
Kentucky Fried Christmas Dinner — Japan
Christmas has never been a big deal in Japan. Aside from a few small, secular traditions such as gift-giving and light displays, it remains largely a novelty in the country. However, a new, quirky “tradition” has emerged in recent years — a Christmas Day feast of the Colonel’s very own Kentucky Fried Chicken. The festive menu is advertised on the KFC Japan website, and even if you don’t understand Japanese, the pictures will look delicious, featuring everything from a Christmas-themed standard bucket to a premium roast-bird feast.
The Yule Lads — Iceland
As a prelude to Christmas, 13 tricky troll-like characters come out to play in Iceland. The Yule Lads visit the children across the country over the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. For each night of Yuletide, children place their best shoes by the window and a different Yule Lad visits, leaving gifts for nice girls and boys and rotting potatoes for the naughty ones. Clad in traditional Icelandic costumes, these fellas are pretty mischievous, and their names hint at the type of trouble they like to cause: Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), Giljagaur (Gully Gawk), Stúfur (Stubby), Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker), Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper), Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker), Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper), Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper), Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer).
Saint Nicholas’ Day — Germany
Not to be confused with Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas), Nikolaus travels by donkey in the middle of the night on December 6 (Nikolaus Tag) and leaves little treats like coins, chocolate, oranges, and toys in the shoes of good children all over Germany, particularly in the Bavarian region. St. Nicholas also visits children in schools or at home and in exchange for sweets or a small present, each child must recite a poem, sing a song or draw a picture. In short, he’s a great guy. But it isn’t always fun and games. St. Nick often brings along Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert), a devil-like character dressed in dark clothes covered with bells and a dirty beard who carries a stick or small whip to punish any children who misbehave.
Broom Hiding — Norway
Perhaps one of the most unorthodox Christmas Eve traditions is found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries, to when people believed witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.
Roller-skating and Tamales — Venezuela
Think Christmas could be improved by a little roller-skating? If the answer is yes, you’d love Caracas, Venezuela. Every Christmas Eve, the city’s residents head to church in the early morning — nothing odd about that — but for reasons known only to them, they do so on roller skates. This unique tradition is so popular that roads across the city are closed to cars so people can skate to church in safety, before heading home for the less-than-traditional Christmas dinner of “tamales” (wraps made out of cornmeal dough and stuffed with meat, then steamed).
Day of the Little Candles — Colombia
Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas) marks the start of the Christmas season across Colombia. In honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, people place candles and paper lanterns in their windows, balconies, and front yards. The tradition of candles has grown, and now entire towns and cities across the country are lit up with elaborate displays. Some of the best are found in Quimbaya, where neighborhoods compete to see who can create the most impressive arrangement.
Cavalcade of Lights — Toronto
In wintry Toronto, the annual Cavalcade of Lights marks the official start to the holiday season. The first one took place in 1967 to show off Toronto’s newly constructed City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. The square and Christmas tree are illuminated by more than 300,000 energy-efficient LED lights that shine from dusk until 11 p.m. through New Year’s Day. On top of that, there’s a spectacular fireworks shows and lots of people partake in outdoor ice skating.
Does your family have any Christmas traditions you’d like to share? We’d love to hear them!