Published December 25, 2011
Many of our Christmas traditions seem quite bizarre when you stop and think about them for a moment. We chop down trees and display them indoors, hide presents in old socks and tell children a tale of a jolly fat man who travels by flying reindeer. But Americans don’t have a monopoly on strange Christmas traditions.
Many cultures around the world have their own practices and myths to make the season magical for kids — or to keep the kids in line. Here are some of the oddest Christmas traditions from around the world.
Catalonia While Americans gather around the Christmas tree to open presents, in Catalonia, families gather around the “caga tio,” a log that’s decorated with a cartoon face and plied with treats in the weeks before Christmas. On Christmas day, the children sing a song and beat the log with sticks until it “poops” out presents (caga is the Catalonian equivalent of “caca,” and literally means “pooping log”). The log’s backside is covered with a blanket, and when the song is done and the presents have all been pooped out, parents pull back the covers to reveal the log’s scatological bounty. It’s a Christmas miracle!
Austria Nothing says Christmas like mortal terror, right? In Austria, the Christmas season kicks off on Dec. 5 with Krampusnacht Krampus, St. Nick’s demonic polar opposite, is a goat-horned devil that shakes fistfuls of rusty chains and sticks at passing children. While American children fear little more than a lump of coal in the stocking, Austrian youth are kept in line by a legion of masked men, many of whom have taken a little inspiration from a bottle of schnapps to help them get into character. According to legend, naughty kids are snatched by Krampus and dragged to his mountain lair. In more recent years, the custom has morphed into a sort of Halloween in December, giving people a chance to dress up and parade around in their ghoulish costumes.
The Netherlands The Austrians aren’t the only ones that see Christmas as a time to celebrate the dark side. In the Netherlands, the Dutch add a little fear to their holiday celebrations with Zwarte Piet. In a rather racist custom that has persisted to this day, Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is Santa’s slave who abducts Dutch children that misbehave, taking them back to Spain, where it is said that Santa and Peter spend their off-season. In a scene many Americans would find shocking, the Dutch dress up as Black Peter, donning black face and Afro wigs, in order to accompany Santa. In response to protests against the racist symbol in recent years, Peter’s backstory has changed, with some saying his blackface is merely the result of chimney soot.
Japan Christmas in Japan means one thing: Fried chicken from KFC. Poultry is a rarity in Japan, and the custom of ordering from the fast food chain likely started when Americans on the prowl for a traditional Christmas bird had to settle for the Colonel’s golden-fried alternative. In the 1970s, noticing an uptick in sales around the holidays, KFC saw an opportunity to start a new Christmas tradition and began to advertise its chicken as an integral part of the holiday season in Japan. Now, several decades later, the Japanese have embraced fried chicken at Christmas with an almost maniacal devotion. Customers reserve their buckets months in advance, and those foolish enough to wait until Christmas Eve have to wait in lines that snake for blocks to get a taste of the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. But I’m sure the wait is worth it, because there’s nothing more magical at this time of year than gathering the family around the chicken bucket.