Many of us have our Christmas traditions, including personal ones we’ve established with friends and family over the years. Then, there are also those distinctly British ones – such as seeing a pantomime or watching the Royal Christmas Speech.
But with an estimated 160 countries celebrating Christmas worldwide, there are plenty of other unique traditions that you might not know about – from the eerie Mari Lywd ceremony in South Wales to Catalonia’s pooping log.
With this in mind, we’ve collected 10 of our favourite Christmas traditions from around the world.
1. The Krampus Run – Germany and Austria
Come November in the UK, many of us transition from the spooky shenanigans of Halloween to the fun and festive mood of Christmas. But for some of the alpine communities of Central Europe – such as those in Germany and Austria – Christmas takes on a unique blend of merriment and the macabre.
According to legend, Krampus, the horned, goat-footed companion of Saint Nicholas, makes his appearance during Christmas.
While Saint Nicholas is busy delivering gifts to well-behaved children, the monstrous Krampus punishes the naughty ones by striking them with a bundle of birch sticks. Some tales even caution children that if they misbehave throughout the year, Krampus might devour them or drag them to hell.
Stemming from pagan, pre-Christian traditions, the myth of Krampus has gained global popularity in recent years – especially among non-traditionalists looking for an alternative take on Christmas. Hollywood even produced a horror film about him in 2015.
In Austria, communities commemorate this folk tale by organising a Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run. During this event, people dress up as the demonic deity and run through the streets.
To learn more about the dark underbelly of Christmas traditions throughout the world, why not tune into our upcoming event: Nightmares Before Christmas?
2. Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas – Japan
While many of us in the UK celebrate Christmas with a traditional turkey dinner, millions of Japanese residents choose a slightly different festive feast: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In Japan, only 1% of the population is Christian. So, while Christmas is a significant occasion, it’s not a religious holiday, which means it’s celebrated very differently – especially when it comes to food.
It all started after a particularly successful marketing campaign in the 1970s. KFC promoted its crispy chicken as the go-to festive fare, and given the absence of well-established Yuletide traditions in Japan, the idea took hold. Over time, eating KFC for Christmas evolved into a cultural custom passed down through generations.
According to the BBC, an impressive 3.6 million Japanese families partake in a Christmas feast featuring KFC, with some reportedly standing in hours-long queues if they haven’t pre-ordered. The Japanese Kentucky Fried Christmas tradition is typically topped off with a piece of scrumptious strawberry shortcake, known as ‘Christmas cake.’
And, for some in Japan, Christmas Eve is also treated as a romantic holiday that eclipses Valentine’s Day. Couples take the time to eat fancy dinners, exchange romantic gifts, or walk hand-in-hand under the dazzling festive light displays.
3. Burning the Devil – Guatemala
Every year, on December 7th at 6pm, Guatemalans kick off the Christmas season with La Quema del Diablo, or ‘The Burning of the Devil’. During this festival, people clear out their houses of rubbish, pile it up, and set it ablaze in big bonfires. You’ll also see citizens dressed up as Satan while lighting firecrackers and fireworks, and burning devil piñatas.
According to local belief, the devil hides under beds, behind furniture, and in rubbish. So, cleaning the home and setting the trash on fire (along with the devil sculptures usually made of paper mache) is viewed as a cleansing ritual. This is done in preparation for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is celebrated the day after and honours the Virgin Mary.
December 7th is a time of lively spirits and celebration in Guatemala. Families gather to watch Lucifer go up in flames and indulge in treats like buñuelos (Guatemalan doughnuts). However, the practice of burning rubbish has come under fire from environmentalists in recent years, who’ve pointed out how harmful the fumes released can be to people and the environment.
4. The 13 Yule Lads – Iceland
In the UK, we observe the 12 days of Christmas, but our Nordic neighbours in Iceland celebrate 13.
According to tradition, each day between 12th December and Christmas Day, Icelandic children leave a shoe on the windowsill. Instead of Santa, they’re visited one by one by the 13 Yule Lads – mischievous but jolly creatures who live in the mountains and leave gifts or rotten potatoes in the shoes, depending on whether the little one has been naughty or nice.
In return for their presents, children will often leave laufabrauð (which translates to ‘leaf bread’) or other treats out for the lads. Laufabrauð is a crispy, intricately decorated flatbread usually made during the holiday season.
The Yule Lads weren’t always the endearing pranksters they are today. In centuries gone by, parents would frighten their children with terrifying tales about the brothers, whose names hint at their horrifying antics – for example, one’s called Gluggagægir (or ‘Window-Peeper’). However, in 1746, the Icelandic government banned parents from scaring their children with these stories.
While the Yule Lads have since become a little tamer, that isn’t to say there aren’t creepy creatures to contend with during an Icelandic Christmas. The lads’ mother, an ogre named Grýla, is said to abduct children and cook them in a cauldron during the festive season. And Jólakötturinn (the Yule Cat) stalks through the snow, looking to devour people not wearing any new clothes.
5. Baked ham, Jug Jug, and Great Cake – Barbados
Known for its sparkling sea and white sand beaches, Barbados might not seem like a typical Christmas spot, but it’s actually one of the island’s most lively celebrations – and no Barbadian celebration would be complete without a hearty spread!
The centrepiece of many Christmas dinners in Barbados isn’t a roast turkey but a delectable baked ham, often glazed in pineapple and cherry and decorated with fruit. It’s a sweet, sumptuous dish perfect for the sunny climate.
To accompany the ham, many make a dish called jug jug. Thought to be based on haggis, which exiled and colonial Scots brought over in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jug Jug is made from salt meat, pigeon peas, pork, and plenty of herbs and spices.
Bajans will also top their feast off with some ‘Great Cake’ or ‘Carribean Black Cake’. It’s a fruity, tropical treat soaked in rum and best washed down with a glass of sorrel – a traditional festive drink. This recipe from Immaculate Bites will show you how to make it.
6. The pooping log – Catalonia
The Catalonian region of Spain is home to what’s surely one of the most bizarre Christmas traditions around.
Tió de Nadal (roughly translating to ‘Christmas Log’) is a little log with legs, a cheerful painted face, and a red hat. Catalonians usually bring him out around December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Over the next 16 days, children take care of him by covering him with a blanket to keep him warm and ‘feeding’ him things like fruit and nuts.
Then, when Christmas Eve rolls around, the children turn on the poor log and beat him with sticks while singing a song. There are lots of variations of the Tió de Nadal song, but they all go something like this, which was translated by NPR…
Log of Christmas
Don’t poop salted herring
They are too salty
They are much better!
After the children finish singing, they remove the log’s blanket, revealing that he’s ‘pooped’ out some presents, often in the form of turróns, a traditional sweet.
But Tió de Nadal isn’t Catalan’s only faecal festive tradition. If you look closely at some nativity scenes, you’ll see the squatting figure of Caganer, whose name literally translates to ‘the pooper’. Typically depicted with his pants around his ankles, his defecating pose is meant to be a sign of fertility and signifies a bountiful harvest ahead.
7. Old Man Bayka – Liberia
If you spend time in Liberia throughout the festive period, you might encounter the bearded, jolly figure of Santa Claus that we’re familiar with in the UK. However, you might also come face-to-face with an entirely unique character: Old Man Bayka.
Old Man Bayka (or Old Man Beggar) appears during Christmas to act as a sort of anti-Santa. Instead of delivering toys to children, he wanders through the streets, asking people for money and gifts.
Those who dress up as Old Man Bayka tend to wear tattered clothes and are closely followed by a precession of musicians who play tunes for him while he dances. Once he’s finished, he might say, “My Christmas is on you”, before sticking out his hand, ready for payment.
According to NPR, Old Man Bayka comes from the tradition of Liberian dancing devils (or bush devils), who also dance for gifts.
8. The Gävle Goat – Sweden
While Rudolph and his fellow reindeer are Christmas icons here in the UK, the Swedes treasure a different horned and hoofed animal during the Yuletide period: the goat. The most famous tradition involving the goat is the erecting (and subsequent burning down) of the Gävle Goat.
Like our reindeer, goats have been depicted accompanying the Swedish Santa (Jultomten) during his present-delivering duties. However, the importance of the goat at this time of year stretches back to pagan times.
Apart from their association with the Norse god Thor, ‘goats’ were also what pagans called the last bundles of harvested grain, which were used in winter solstice celebrations. Today, this practice has morphed into the widespread Swedish tradition of hanging goat ornaments made of straw on Christmas trees.
However, the citizens of the coastal city of Gävle go a step further than tree decorations. In 1966, they constructed a 13-metre-high straw goat in the town square, giving rise to an annual tradition that’s survived to this day.
What adds an intriguing twist is that almost every year (38 out of the last 57), the Gävle Goat is burnt down or destroyed by pranksters. For some, this is a tragedy – but for others, it’s all part of the Christmas tradition! You can check in with this year’s Gävle Goat on its dedicated livestream here.
9. Roller skating to mass – Venezuela
As a country of around 80% Christians, it’s no surprise that many Venezuelans attend church services throughout the holiday season. However, what’s astonishing is the mode of transport they take to get there.
Traditionally, Venezuelans attend mass on Christmas morning at 5am – a service that’s referred to as misa de gallo (the ‘rooster mass’). To make up for the early rise, residents of the capital city of Caracas lace up their roller skates and glide down the streets to the church, with some even skating down the aisles once they get there.
It’s unclear how this unconventional tradition started. Some say it’s an entertaining alternative to sledging. With temperatures reaching north of 30°C in the capital in December, there’s no chance of snow. However, local legend says that children tie a piece of string to their shoe and dangle it out the window so passing skaters can tug on it to wake them up for church.
What’s more, the government even closes the streets of Caracas on Christmas so people can skate without the fear of traffic.
10. The Mari Lywd – South Wales
If you happen to be in South Wales between Christmas Day and the Twelfth Night, you might come across the peculiar and spectral sight of the Mari Lwyd bobbing through the streets. Towering above people’s heads, she’s got a horse skull for a head with a white cloak draped over it – her glaring eyes sparkling in the moonlight.
In reality, the Mari Lwyd is a puppet paraded through the streets by a group of revellers, sometimes dressed in traditional folk attire. The cloak conceals the long pole supporting the skull, and many modern versions feature baubles or lights as eyes.
Every year, the Mari Lwyd is carried through the town or village, with the party stopping at various houses along the way. The paraders sing songs in Welsh and engage in rhyming exchanges with the homeowners on their doorsteps.
These rhymes often involve a request for entry into the house while the occupants respond with reasons for them not being allowed inside – a tradition known as pwnco.
If the homeowners run out of excuses, they eventually admit the group into the house, where they treat them to food and ales. It’s believed to bring good luck to the household throughout the coming year. Once inside, the Mari Lwyd is known to misbehave – snapping her jaws at children and pinching household objects.
A mysterious custom, there’s much debate surrounding the Mari Lwyd, including its origins and the meaning of its name, though most take it to mean ‘grey mare’.
From scary superstitions like Krampus and the Yule Lads to endearing annual traditions (such as roller skating to mass), we hope you’ve enjoyed our list of unique Christmas traditions worldwide.
Have you encountered any weird and wonderful Christmas traditions you’d like to share? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.