Around the world, the holiday season is celebrated in wonderfully diverse and sometimes unusual ways. From roller-skating to Mass in Venezuela to enjoying KFC for Christmas in Japan, these unique traditions offer a fascinating glimpse into the varied ways that different cultures observe this festive time of year.
Japan – KFC Christmas Dinner: The tradition of eating KFC for Christmas in Japan is a fascinating example of commercial influence on culture. It began in 1974 with an ad campaign titled “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!). The campaign was wildly successful, filling a void for Christmas food traditions in a country where Christianity isn’t widely practiced. Today, families order their KFC meals months in advance to avoid long lines. This phenomenon reflects how a clever marketing strategy can become an integral part of a nation’s holiday celebration.
Venezuela – Roller Skating to Mass: In the capital city of Caracas, Venezuela, a unique and exhilarating tradition exists where people roller-skate to morning Mass during the Christmas season. This tradition is so popular that many streets in the city are closed to cars to ensure the safety of the skaters. After the Mass, people continue to celebrate with gatherings and festive foods. This quirky tradition adds a dynamic and communal spirit to the religious observance of Christmas, embodying the lively and vibrant culture of Venezuela.
Ukraine – Spider Web Christmas Trees: In Ukraine, the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with artificial spider webs stems from an old folk tale. According to the story, a poor family woke up on Christmas morning to find their undecorated tree covered in spider webs. When the first light of morning touched the webs, they turned into gold and silver, and the family was never poor again. This tradition symbolizes hope and the belief that good fortune will come even to those who are struggling, making it a poignant reminder of the spirit of the season.
Spain – El Caganer: The El Caganer is a unique and somewhat controversial figure in Catalan Christmas tradition. Found in nativity scenes, this small figurine is depicted in the act of defecation. The origins of this tradition are unclear, but it dates back to at least the 18th century. Some believe it adds a human and humorous element to the nativity scene, representing the equality of all people. Others interpret it as a symbol of fertilization, bringing luck and prosperity. Despite its oddity, El Caganer is a beloved part of Catalan Christmas culture.
Iceland – Yule Lads: In Iceland, the Christmas season brings not one, but 13 mischievous characters known as the Yule Lads. Originating from Icelandic folklore, these figures visit children in the 13 days leading up to Christmas. Each night, children place their shoes by the window and receive gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on their behavior throughout the year. Each Yule Lad has a distinct personality and role, from ‘Spoon-Licker’ to ‘Door-Slammer’. This tradition adds a playful and whimsical element to Icelandic Christmas, blending historical folklore with modern celebrations.
Norway – Hiding Brooms: Norway’s tradition of hiding brooms on Christmas Eve is steeped in superstition. The practice dates back to the belief that witches and evil spirits emerged on Christmas Eve, searching for brooms to ride. To thwart these malevolent beings, people would hide their brooms before going to sleep. Today, this tradition is observed more for fun than out of genuine fear, but it reflects the country’s rich folklore and the blend of pagan and Christian traditions that characterize Scandinavian Christmas celebrations.
Austria – Krampus: In Austria and other parts of Central Europe, the figure of Krampus is a central part of Christmas folklore. Representing the antithesis of Saint Nicholas, Krampus is a horned, demonic creature who punishes naughty children. The Krampus tradition is celebrated with parades and festivities where people dress up in elaborate, often frightening costumes. The Krampuslauf (Krampus run) is a popular event, where these terrifying figures roam the streets, clanging bells and chains. This age-old tradition is a stark reminder of the darker, more pagan aspects of the Christmas season, balancing cheer and joy with a touch of fear and awe.
As we’ve journeyed through these extraordinary global holiday traditions, it’s clear that the spirit of the season is universal, yet its expression is wonderfully diverse. Whether it’s through quirky customs or ancient folklore, each culture adds its own unique flavor to the festive tapestry, making the holiday season a truly global celebration.
What unique and interesting traditions do you know of that people use to celebrate around the world?
Join us for my Seeking the Northern Lights in Lapland (Sweden & Finland). Just FYI: Santa Claus is said to hail from Finland’s mysterious Korvatunturi (“Ear Fell”) in Lapland. But you can meet him in Rovaniemi, the official hometown of Santa, on any day of the year. Unfortunately, neither location is a part of our tour, but it’s good to know, don’t you think?