Most of you are familiar with American, Canadian and English Christmas customs, which are largely the same, including Santa bringing presents that sit below a lit up tree. But have you ever wondered just how Christmas is celebrated in China, or in Finland? Whether you’re just interested in learning more about other cultures or want to incorporate some new traditions into your holiday celebrations, this article is filled with all you need to know about international Christmases.
Austrian children still get to celebrate the arrival of Ol’ Saint Nick, but they also have to brace themselves for the arrival of his evil counterpart, Krampus. Where Saint Nicholas rewards good behavior with treats and toys on December 6, the demonic Krampus arrives on December 5, looking to punish all the bad children. His weapons of choice are birch switches to beat children with and burlap sacks to kidnap them and throw them into the river. The worst part is that local men actually dress up like Krampus (just like many men dress up as Santa in America) and terrorize the streets. In some villages, kids are even made to run what is known as a Krampus-gauntlet, in an attempt to outrun the switches.
The Czech version of Saint Nick is known as Svaty Mikulas, who is said to climb down to Earth from the heavens using a golden rope. Mikulas is accompanied by an angel and a devil who help him decide which girls and boys deserve treats and toys, and which ones deserve a swatch. There are a lot of fortune-telling traditions that are associated with Christmas as well. One involves a family member cutting a branch from a cherry tree and putting it inside in water. If it blooms in time for Christmas it is good luck. It also may represent that the winter will be short, or if a single woman picked the branch, it could mean she will get married in the next year. On Christmas Eve, single woman also try to see if they will get married in the next year by standing outside with their back to their front door, removing one of their shoes and throwing it over their shoulder. If the shoe lands with the toe facing the door, then she will marry in the next year. If not, she will have to wait at least another 12 months. Image via tomu [Flickr]
Finnish people honor their departed loved ones on Christmas Eve by visiting the cemeteries and leaving candles on the graves of their family members. If they live too far away to visit their loved one’s graves, most graveyards have an area you can light a candle to remember those buried in other cemeteries. The soft snow and gentle glow of the candles make graveyards a very beautiful place to visit on Christmas Eve. Image via Aki Hannien [Flickr]
Children of East France have an evil visitor, similar to Krampus, to keep them behaving all year long. Le Pere Fouettard, which translates into “The Whipping Father,” accompanies Saint Nicolas in on December 6. While St. Nick gives good children presents, Le Pere Fouettard gives coal and whippings to the naughty children. One of the most popular origin stories of the character say that he was a greedy inn keeper who killed three rich boys on their way to boarding school. In many versions of the story, he even eats the children. Whether or not he cannibalizes the boys, the story ends when Saint Nick finds out and resurrects the children and forces Le Pere Fouettard to act as his servant throughout time. Aside from The Whipping Father, another popular French tradition involves making a cake that looks like a traditional Yule log, known as buche de Noel. Christmas trees never really caught on in the country and while most people don’t have any use for an actual Yule log, the cake is a fun and festive substitute. Some of the buche de Nol can get fairly elaborate and even involve meringue mushrooms and edible flower decorations. Image via andshewas [Flickr]
Belsnickel is the German Santa’s dark enforcer, but he’s not nearly as evil as Krumpus or The Whipping Father. Instead he just wears fur from head to toe and gives good girls and boys candy and bad children coal and switches. Many are decorated with a wreath known as an “Adventskranz.” These wreaths have four candles which serve as a sort of weekly advent calendar, as each Sunday marks the opportunity to light a new candle. On December 21, St. Thomas Day is believed to be the shortest day of the year and anyone who arrives late to work is called a “Thomas Donkey.” They are also given a cardboard donkey and made fun of throughout the rest of the day. Like many places in Europe, the Christmas tree is kept secret from the children until Christmas Eve. The parents bring the tree in, decorate it with candies, tinsel, lights and toys, put presents and plates of candy treats under the tree and then ring a bell signaling that the children can enter. The children then get to eat snacks and the whole family opens presents.
Saint Nicholas is one of the most popular saints in Greece because he is the patron saint of sailors. For this reason, their Saint Nicholas is hardly the fur-wearing man celebrated by other cultures. Instead, he is depicted as being soaked with seawater and sweaty from working too hard to save ships. Like France, Christmas trees never really caught on here. Instead, residents will fill a shallow bowl with water and then tie wire with a wooden cross and a sprig of basil over the bowl. Once a day the cross and basil are dipped into holy water, which is then sprinkled through the house. This ceremony is used to keep out goblins, known as Killikantzaroi out of the house. These mischievous goblins that come from the center of the earth only appear during the twelve days of Christmas. While bratty, they’re not really evil and tend to do bratty things like souring milk and extinguishing fires. Because they are said to enter the house through the fireplace, fires are left burning all day and night during this time of year. Image via Martin Beek [Flickr]
Icelandic children were once told to behave or they would be eaten by a pair of ogres that lived up in the hills. The characters were considered to be so terrifying that a public decree banned the use of these stories to scare children into behaving. Instead of talking about the ogre couple, parents instead started telling stories of the ogre’s children, the Jolasveinar, who are bad, but not nearly as evil as their parents. Jolasveinars were originally said to play tricks on people and steal food, but now they are responsible for giving gifts to children. Bad children don’t get presents though, they get potatoes or other items that remind them that they weren’t forgotten, but don’t deserve real presents. Image via Gunna [Flickr]
In Italy, there is no Santa, but instead there a woman called a Befana that performs the general duties of Saint Nick. The story is that the three wise men stopped during their travels and asked a woman for food and shelter. She said no, but later realized her mistake when it was too late. She now travels the earth looking for the baby Jesus and on Januaray 6th, she leaves kids a sock filled with candy or a lump of coal. Image via Wooliedales [Flickr]
While most Japanese residents are not Christian, the majority of people still celebrate Christmas just for the fun of it. Unsurprisingly, the rituals are slightly different than those we are used to. Because KFC has marketed the idea that fried chicken is the traditional meal for the holidays, the restaurants are so busy on Christmas Day that reservations are required. Most of the holiday celebrations revolve around romantic love more than family relationships and bakeries even sell cakes for sweethearts. Children still have a Santa figure though, only in this case, he is a traditional Japanese god who is known for his generosity. Hoteiosho is a heavy-set Buddhist priest who carries a large sack of presents. Children know they have to be good because Hoteiosho has eyes in the back of his head. Image via sleepytako [Flickr]
The Netherland’s Christmas traditions are subject to a lot of controversy as their version of Santa, Sinterklaas, is accompanied by a one-time slave known as Black Peter. These days, the Dutch try to play down the racism of the matter by claiming that Black Peter’s cartoonish appearance is a result of his going down dirty chimneys all the time and he’s no longer referred to as a slave, but a “helper.” The naughty man in blackface is a mischievous character who may kidnap naughty children and whisk them away to his home in Spain. Image via Gerald Stolk onderweg naar kerst [Flickr]
Norwegian folklore says that Christmas Eve is kind of like Halloween and brings about a number of evil spirits and witches. The brooms of the houses are hidden to keep them away from witches and men will often go outside and shoot their guns to ward off evil spirits. Pagan winter celebrations used to revolve around Thor’s pet goat and a person would arrive at the parties wearing a goatskin and carrying a goat head. He would eventually fake his death and then return to life. As Christianity started to take over the area, the goat was recast as a form of the devil and he was eventually banned. Since then, the goat character was morphed into Julebukk, a “yule goat.” The new story of the goat involved him traveling from door to door where he would get gifts for keeping the evil spirits away. Nowadays, kids dress up and play the role of the Julebukk, where they get treats as they visit the houses.
Most Slavic countries don’t rely on Saint Nick for presents, but instead count on Ded Moroz, which translates to “Grandfather Frost”. He’s a magical character who delivers presents on New Year’s Eve. He was banned at the start of the Communist Revolution, but because he wasn’t officially a Christmas character, Stalin allowed him to come back, only he was required to wear blue so he wouldn’t be confused with Santa Claus. In modern times, this ruling has been reversed and he can wear any color he wants.
Spain’s celebrations vary greatly depending on the region. In the Basque regions, the Santa role is filled by Olentzero, a fat man in a beret who smokes a pipe. He used to be an enforcer against naughty children who was said to throw a sickle down the chimney to cut the throats of kids who didn’t sleep. Nowadays though, he is a positive character like Santa that only brings good presents. In the Catalan region, families “feed” a little log called a “Caga tio” every night from the 8th to the 23rd. On Christmas Eve, the family hits the log with a stick to release sweet treats that have been hidden in his hollow center. If you hadn’t guessed yet, “Caga tio” translates to “pooping log.” The celebration ends when the log poops out something decidedly not sweet, usually a dried herring, an onion or a head of garlic. Catalans must enjoy poop jokes because aside from their pooping log, they also celebrate with a “Caganer,” a nativity scene character that is seen to be pooping in the corner of the scene. Image via Greg Gladner [Flickr]
While the story about German families hiding a pickle ornament on their tree is false, Ukrainians actually do hide a spider web ornament on their tree and it is supposed to be good luck for the person who finds it. The story behind the tradition is that an old widow had no money to decorate her tree and went to bed upset that her children would have an undecorated tree the next day. While she was asleep, a spider decorated the tree with a beautiful web. When the first light of day hit the webs, they turned to silver and gold and the widow and her children never went longing again. Image via boliyou [Flickr]
Venezuelans celebrate Christmas similar to many other cultures, in that they generally go to mass early on Christmas Day. The difference is that Venezuelans go to church in roller skates. In the capital, Caracas, streets are even closed off to traffic in order to keep the skaters safe. On Christmas Eve, children tie strings to their toes and let them dangle into the street, where they are tugged on by skaters as they go by. It’s certainly a different way to wake up on Christmas morning. Image via Cheesy42 [Flickr] Remember that in all countries, celebrations and traditions can vary greatly by region, so if you have lived in any of these countries and not experienced a tradition named on this list, it may just be experienced elsewhere. Also, this list is nowhere near extensive, so if you celebrate differently (even if it’s just a strange tradition that only occurs in your family) share your experiences in the comments! Sources: Mental Floss #1, #2, Etsy, Soon, The North Pole #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, My Little Norway, Wikipedia, MSN #1, #2, #3, MSI Chicago #1, #2, #3