Since its earliest inception, the diversity of Christmas traditions has long been a trademark of the holiday’s ability to reflect the unique geographical and ethnic cultures of where the festival takes place. Even in post-colonial America, you could spot gifts under the evergreens of Pennsylvania while they remained in the stockings of little New Yorkers.
But where there is room for variation, there is also room for the outright bizarre. From unbelievably hilarious to offensive, here are what I found to be the seven strangest Christmas traditions from across the globe:
1. A Family Trip to the Cemetary; Finland
Iloista joulua (Merry Christmas in Finnish)! Now hurry out the sauna so we can get the tree up and head to the graveyard. Yup, you heard me correctly. No one has their Christmas traditions as laid out to the tee as Finnish families. After all, Finland continues to boast that it's the home country of Santa Claus, contrary to what the people of Greenland say.
The festivities start when families take a cleansing sauna bath in the morning. Then they have a traditional breakfast before heading out to the town’s declaration of Christmas peace at noon. Sounds good so far. After lunch, the house is cleaned and the tree is decorated. But then things get a little grim when the kids are coated up and the family marches out to the cemetery at 6 ‘o clock. In a practice that very much mirrors Day of the Dead in Mexican tradition, Finnish families visit dead family members to leave candles and reflect. That way, every family member partakes in the Christmas festivities.
2. Double Trouble with Two Santas; Belgium
If you’re like me, you probably were not satisfied with the idea of Santa Claus determining who is naughty and nice from one remote chair in the North Pole. Or perhaps you even wondered how much time St. Nick spends learning all those languages to decipher what all the kids around the world are saying. Well Belgium found the concept to be so credulous that they developed two detective-like Santas to roam the land.
In Belgium, St. Nicholas spies on kids who speak the Walloon language by visiting twice: once to observe their behavior, and the second time to either bring gifts or leave a bundle of sticks in a basket or in their shoes. Pere Noel, who visits French speaking kids, does things in a way that's a little more socially acceptable. Noel partners up with Pere Fouettard to ask about the children’s behavior throughout the year. Then, on his birthday (December 6), he leaves them either chocolate or sticks. Aside from the necessity of having different Santas for each dominate language, the tradition also leaves us wondering about the Belgian obsession with sticks. Is coal too harsh?
3. Zwarte Piet (Black Peter "the Elf"); The Netherlands
In 1845, Jan Schenkman wrote a book called Saint Nicholas and His Servant, in which Saint Nick was accompanied by a “dark man” in Moorish clothing who traveled to Amsterdam from a Spanish steamboat. That servant came to be known as Black Peter — a mischievous servant who would come to shore, pepper the city with sweets and nuts, and then snatch up naughty kids and throw them into his bag on Saint Nicholas Eve (December 5).
Today, hundreds of adults throughout the Netherlands paint their face black and wear wigged afros to dress up as Zwarte. This centuries old tradition has long been under scrutiny from Black Americans and Brits. However, the disconnection between the racist origins of black faces in America and Britain has disallowed the traditionally tolerant Dutch culture from interpreting the festival as being obnoxious.
Everyone loves Christmas figurines and mini-models of Bethlehem. But one of the marquee figurines of the Bethlehem Christmas scene in Spain is weird as hell. The caganer figurine has evolved from an ordinary community member of Bethlehem to a celebrity or politician defecating in an obscure location. And in case you’re wondering, caganer translates as “the shitter” in English. Not to be out shitted, families in Catalonia incorporate poop into their holidays with Caga Tió. Caga Tió is a conspicuous four-legged log with a big nose and a smiley face. From December 8 through Christmas Eve, he is covered with a blanket to avoid catching a cold, and then pampered with food. On December 24th, shit hits the fan. In a dramatic turn of events, Caga Tió is snatched up, tossed into the fire, beaten with sticks, and ordered to poop out candy as the family sings, “Poop log, poop log; hazelnuts and cottage cheese; if you don’t poop well, I’ll hit you with a stick.” As anyone would respond after being pampered and then tossed into a fire place, he poops. His last hoorah is a head of garlic or onions for the whole family.
In the 1800s, Italian parents were simply too uncomfortable with the idea of Santa Claus delivering gifts to their children. To them, it was a folklore that was clearly rooted in paganism. As a response, they came up with a witch. The story goes that a witch named La Befana was approached by the Magi for directions to see the baby Jesus. The disgruntled witch directed them, but made it clear that she was too busy to worry about accompanying them on their trip. But then La Befana had an epiphany; she felt wicked and wretched for missing out on the greatest birthday of all time.
Ever since then, she has been travelling all over Italy in search of the infant Jesus while leaving sacks of toys for good young children along the way. Centuries later, tens of thousands of Italians around Rome uphold the tradition on Epiphany Eve (January 5). Aside from gifts, every child also receives a stocking full of coal. After all, everyone is bad at least twice a year. The plus side to the coal is that it’s actually darkened candy, which makes for a rather delicious punishment.
Do the folks below the equator really think a North Pole native feels like flying south in a red and white Northface snorkel and black Timbs? “No! No! No!” says Brazil’s Papai Noel. Every Christmas Eve, Papai Noel flies down from Greenland and drops the traditional heavy Santa attire for sleek vacation-like clothing. What else should you expect from someone carrying tons of gifts in the 90 degree heat?
R&B group The Emotions once asked, in quite possibly one of the most depressing soulful Christmas tracks, “What do the lonely do on Christmas?” Well, all they had to do was ask the women of the Czech Republic. Every Christmas Eve, single Czech women rest their backs against a door, kick their feet up, and toes their shoes in their air to see where they will land. The superstition is that if the shoe lands facing the door Santa will bring them a husband in the upcoming year. But for the unlucky women whose shoe wind up pointing inside, they can count on another year of singlehood. Maybe The Emotions need to make a remix about tossing their shoes.