The big day is finally here. But while you’re fighting with your relatives over the same old issues, Christmas in far-flung places is far crazier than yours.
Last year I discovered the Krampus, a hideous beast who was for a time the traveling companion and polar(!) opposite of Santa Claus. Known for beating naughty children with sticks or possibly stuffing them into his filthy sack and taking them back to his lair, or giving them lumps of coal (which would endear him to certain Australian politicians), the Krampus is a noted Christmas character in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Ah, Christmas, a time of peace, goodwill, a jolly fat man, elves, reindeer, and quite possibly the aforementioned fiendish monster. There are plenty of unusual Christmas traditions around the world, so with the festive season upon us let’s take a look at some of the more curious customs surrounding the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
In Portugal, extra places at the Christmas table are always set especially for the alminhas a penar, the souls of dead relatives. The practice is called consoda, and it’s supposed to bring good luck to the family in the year ahead as well as peace to the deceased. Sharing the feast with the dead sounds a bit gloomy, quite at odds with the general mood of happiness and festive cheer, but it’s just what you do if you’re Portuguese. At least dear departed Uncle Alfonso won’t eat all the salted cod this year, and now that he’s gone, there’ll definitely be more vinhos verdes to drink. Boas Festas!
While we’re in that part of the world, ever heard of the Tió de Nadal or “caga tió”? It translates politely as “defecating log.” In Spain’s Catalan region in the weeks before Christmas, a hollow log, perhaps about 30 centimeters long, is given stick legs, painted with a happy face, and topped with a red Christmas hat. Each day, children must “feed” the log so it’ll be nice and fat by December 24th. The log is filled with nuts, confectionary, and dried fruit, all of which is covered by a festive blanket to keep the log cozy. Then on Christmas Eve, children gather round the caga tió. While beating it with sticks, they sing a song that translates roughly as “shit, log, shit nougat and hazelnuts”. And sure enough, the log poops out delicious goodies for all the kids. Now that’s one hell of a Yule log. ¡Feliz Navidad!
Like other Christian Orthodox countries, Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated on the 7th of January. Among their other Yuletide customs, Christmas trees in Ukraine are often decorated with fake spiderwebs. Why? According to legend, long ago, the children of a very poor family went to bed on Christmas Eve crying bitterly because they couldn’t afford any decorations for their tree. But while they slept, the Christmas Spider got to work and covered the tree in beautiful gossamer webs. On Christmas morning, the gauzy cobwebs were magically transformed into gold and silver threads bringing cheer and money to the family. So don’t be put off by the thought of a spider hanging around in your Christmas tree – it’s actually a sign of good fortune. Веселого Різдва (Veseloho Rizdva)!
While you’re eating your glazed ham or barbecued prawns (or if you’re vegetarian, your tofurkey) this Christmas, the people of Greenland are indulging in very different festive fare. One popular Christmas meal is mattak, a traditional Arctic dish made of raw frozen whale skin filled with blubber. It’s apparently very tough and chewy but what it lacks in tenderness it makes up for in nutritional value. The people of Greenland also enjoy caribou meat, often eaten raw, but sometimes boiled. Another Inuit delicacy is kiviak: the raw flesh of little auks (small Arctic birds) is packed into sealskin, sealed up and buried under rocks for the three months it takes for the flesh to decompose and ferment. When it’s ready, everyone digs in. Mmmm, kiviak anyone? Juullimi Pilluarit!
Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is in the Palestinian Territories, and although Christians only account for about 20% of Palestinians, the rest identifying as Muslim, Christmas is a time of great celebration there. As you might expect, the service in the Church of the Nativity is a big deal and it’s normal practice for all faiths to attend that service, so the church is filled with Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all together on this one evening. An interesting tradition left over from the days of the British Mandate is a big parade through the town featuring, of all things, bagpipers playing a prominent role, although some might rudely suggest that bagpipes are incapable of playing anything but a prominent role! In any event, bagpipes are not something you’d associate with the little town of Bethlehem. 3īd mīlād majīd (عيد ميلاد مَجيد).
Gift-giving at Christmas is not a big deal in the Pacific Island nation, although Tongans like to cook for one another at this time of year. People prepare food for their neighbors in a spirit of good will and sharing, and they like to gather together in village squares to sing and play musical instruments. It’s all about a sense of community and sharing everyone’s talents. One unusual Tongan tradition that isn’t seen anywhere else in the South Pacific is the tutukupakanava, where coconut husks are lined up neatly on the beach and set alight, a unique island version of festive Christmas lights. It sounds charming. Kilisimasi fiefia!
Whatever your own heritage and traditions, we wish you all the very best of the season. Merry Christmas!