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The Christmas Holiday Season is a time for time honored rituals and traditions. Festive lights twirled around fir trees decorated with colorful ornaments. Stockings hung on fireplace mantels, carolers singing songs, and festive food and drink that makes one festive. The Yuletide Season is rich with pageantry; festive floats carrying colorful costumes characters on a parade down ‘main’ street, high stepping horses wearing floral wreaths pulling carriages around town centers decorated up with giant snow people, figures of Santa and Mrs. Claus, elves crafting wooden soldiers and sleighs and other toys, giant teddy bears wearing colorful sweaters and Winter hats.
There are some Christmas traditions that are a bit more unusual. Here is a sampling of the stranger ways to celebrate the season.
In the Alpine regions of Bavaria, Austria, Hungary and Slovenia you had better be nice, not naughty, or you might get a visit from Krampus. Often described as Santa’s evil twin, sometimes called an Anti-Santa, Krampus punishes children who have been bad. Especially popular in Austria, Krampus Night on December 6th people dress up in fiendish masks and costumes and roam the streets looking for people to beat with sticks. Lots of alcoholic beverages fuel the merriment.
In The Netherlands an equally sinister character has fallen afoul of changing attitudes. While Sinterklass is deeply revered, his helper Zwarte Piet puts fear in the hearts of naughty children. Since 1850 they have been warned that ‘Black Peter’ might take them off to Spain, which was the Dutch notion of Hell. A character historically depicted with exaggerated ‘African’ features, such as blacker than black skin and afro, Zwarte Piet, has been lightened up and his origins switched to that of a chimney sweep rather than a slave, even so he is vanishing from holiday celebrations.
Careful what you step in when you are in Spain and Catalonia. Befitting countries with a strong Catholic heritage a traditional Nativity Scene is a common decoration. Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus, perhaps three wise men, a cow or two, a camel or two, a few sheep, but what is that man doing in a distant corner? He is squatting, buttocks bared, and what is that plopping from his - - - ? The figure is a Caganer, a “shitter” and yes he is pooping. There are lots of arcane reasons for this unique Christmas figurine many of them tied in with local legends depending upon where you are in Spain (or Portugal and sometimes Italy). The Caganer was once a simple peasant figure for most of its two or three hundred years or so history but recently celebrity figurines, World leaders, actors and musicians, Santa Claus or representations of nuns have become popular. Americans on vacation in Spain hunt down the most recent Presidential figure copping a squat.
In Catalonia the Caga Tio is a delightful tradition. Here is a lengthy fun description courtesy of Open Journey ”the pooping log, is a bizarre and widespread Christmas tradition in Catalonia. It starts with a hollowed out log, which is propped up on four little leg-like sticks and then painted to have a face. Every night, beginning December 8th, Caga Tió is “fed” and covered with a blanket (so that he doesn’t catch a cold). On Christmas Eve or Christmas day Caga Tió is put in the fireplace, beaten with a stick and ordered to “poop”. He is encouraged, along with the beating, by singing songs with catchy lyrics such as:
caga tió (poop log)
caga torró (poop turrón)
avellanes i mató (hazelnuts and cottage cheese)
si no cagues bé (if you don’t poop well)
et daré un cop de bastó. (I’ll hit you with a stick.)
caga tió!" (poop log!)
When he is done pooping candies, nuts and such, Caga Tió will then give one last push to reveal an onion, a head of garlic or a salt herring.
In Norway hide brooms, mops and brushes on Christmas Eve. Witches and evil spirits are lurking about and they might take the broom for a ride and sow some mayhem. This tradition dates back to the Dark Ages.
Neighboring Sweden has a more recent tradition one that has spawned its own tradition. In the city of Gavle there is a forty year tradition of ‘burning the goat.’ Here is a helpful description from HotelClub.Com:
"What started-off as an act of vandalism has become one of the most interesting traditions in Sweden. For over 40 years the Swedish town of Gavle has erected a giant Goat made of straw to mark the beginning of the holiday season. But every year vandals do everything they can to burn down the goat before Christmas Day. Since 1966, the Straw Goat has survived until Christmas Day only 10 times. People disguise themselves as Santa Claus or elves to get past the guardians and ignite the straw monument."
Across the stormy waters of the Baltic Sea in Latvia pray for a visit from Mummers, dancing musicians dressed as Gypsies or Bears or other colorful characters, Zombies have had a surge in popularity. Mummers dance from door to door driving away evil spirits ensuring good fortune in the coming year.
Whilst in Wales a visit from Mari Lwyd is more than welcome. A Pagan figure incorporated into Christmas revelry, most often on New Year’s Eve, the ‘Gray Mare’ (one or two folks in a horse costume) and a party of pleasantly intoxicated souls will arrive at the door of a public house (bar/tavern/pub) singing songs some of them rather scatological or at the very least bawdry. Challenged at the door, a fun battle begins, according to Mental Floss:
"Then comes a battle of wits (known as pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song."
Food is a vital ingredient in many national Christmas traditions. In the new nation of Slovakia an old ritual requires a generous pot of Loksa, bread with poppy seed filling soaked in water. Throw back a shot of one’s favorite beverage, then spoon up a generous portion of Loksa and throw it against the ceiling, the bigger the glop of Loksa that sticks to the ceiling, the greater the crop one with have in the new year.
In Britain a traditional Christmas Pudding (a fruit cake often liberally doused in Brandy) plays an important role. Make a wish while stirring the Christmas Pudding in a clockwise direction and it will come true (maybe: were you naughty or nice?).
Many Americans dine out on Chinese food on Christmas day, while in Japan a traditional Christmas dinner is frequently a big bucket of KFC Chicken. According to TravelandLeisure.Com:
"This offbeat custom is the legacy of a 40-year-old marketing campaign wherein the fast-food chain successfully convinced would-be customers that fried chicken is the traditional American Yuletide feast. During the run-up to Christmas, Colonel Sanders statues outside KFC’s Japanese outlets wear Santa gear, and the chicken is served in special holiday packaging."
Many of the most vibrant Christmas celebrations blend the traditions of the ‘New World’ of the Americas with the rites of the Catholic Church.
In Guatemala a vigorous house cleaning precedes Christmas, residents encouraged to sweep garbage into a huge pile. An effigy of the Devil is set atop the pile and the ‘Burning of the Devil’ will ensure a Devil free holiday.
In Caracas, Venezuela attending morning Mass December 16th through the 24th adds a twist to the notion of the early morning commute. Citizens are encouraged to travel to church on roller skates. To quote Open Journey.Com:
"The streets are blocked off to vehicular traffic until 8 am and children, the night before, tie one end of a piece of string to their big toes and hang the other end out the window. As roller skaters go by the next morning, they give a tug to all the strings hanging out the windows."
Celebrate Christmas 2011 by mixing these traditions with your personal favorites or start a new tradition, just be careful with the use of flames, spirits ethereal and alcoholic and sticks.