In our ongoing quest to make your holiday dinners more fun and full of trivia (though not trivial), we have gathered a list of the five oddest Christmas traditions from around the world – and the most macabre. Work these charming anecdotes into your conversation over the holidays, and your family, loved ones, and caregivers will be so impressed! Christmas may unite us, but some of these foods, decorations, and customs definitely divide us from one another – and in the case of the Greenlanders who are eating fermented seal meat, that’s A-OK!
- Catalonia – Holy Poop! El Caganer, ‘the defecator’, joined the traditional Catalan nativity scene about 200 years ago, for…why, again? Most natives agree that the poop represents fertility, renewal of the soil, and the promise of a good harvest in the coming year. But why are the caganers often authority figures depicted with their drawers around their ankles, crouching in a hidden corner of an elaborate nativity scene with a dainty pile of poop behind them? All philosophical, societal and metaphysical reasons aside, because it’s just funny.
- Germany – the Christmas pickle, or the American huckster strikes again! The accepted wisdom is that an ancient German Christmas tradition involved hanging a pickle from the ol’ Tannenbaum, and whichever child found the pickle on Christmas morning would receive an extra present. Heartwarming, and seemingly very German, no? Except…no one in Germany does this. You can thank Woolworths – yes, the five and dime – for inventing this tradition to unload a bunch of glass ornaments shaped like pickles that they imported with a little too much enthusiasm from Germany.
- Ukraine – Is that tinsel? Oh Mah Gawd no! It’s spiders. While the legend that inspired this decorating tradition is quite lovely and heartwarming, let us not forget the spiders. In the Ukrainian olden days, a very poor family in the woods were lucky enough to grow a tree for Christmas, but could not afford any ornaments or decorations. The household’s spiders heard the children crying, and decided to spin beautiful webs around the tree, which turned to gold and silver as the rising sun’s rays hit the strands. Wait, what? Yes, the household’s spider population, who apparently understood spoken Ukrainian and could do magic, set them up with enough gold and silver to last them a lifetime. Ukrainians still decorate their trees with golden and silvery spiders and spiderwebs instead of tinsel.
- Latvia – Christma-ween? Latvia claims to be the home of the very first Christmas tree, when the town of Riga decorated a fir tree in its town square in 1510. This would be enough for most countries, but the overachieving Latvians have some other unusual Christmas rituals. A strange hybrid of Halloween and Christmas called mumming finds Latvians dressing as animals, zombies, and Death, and going from house to house singing songs, dancing and eating tradition foods. These visits are meant to bring a blessing on the house, and to chase away any evil spirits lurking about.
- Greece – The birthplace of democracy also brings you goblins! If your mental picture of Greece is full of fluted white columns, gorgeous sandy beaches, people smashing glassware, and deep blue skies, you’re probably not alone. Are there goblins anywhere in that scene? No? Funny, because folklore in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Turkey populates the underworld just below your feet with gruesome little goblins who spend all year trying to saw through the world tree. Luckily for us, they come up above ground during the twelve days of Christmas (December 25th to January 6th) to wreak havoc among the humans and give the world tree a chance to heal itself. The best way to keep the Kallikantzaroi outside where they belong is to keep the Yule log burning for twelve days in the fireplace, so Santa, don’t be late!
- And hands-down the winner of the WORST Christmas myth, anywhere: South Africa! Poor Danny, a South African tyke who just wanted a cookie, or ten, on Christmas Eve. He ate all the cookies left out for Santa, and his grandmother got so angry that she – seriously, South Africa? – killed him. Now he haunts the homes of children on Christmas Day, so they remember not to be too greedy – or, apparently, too childlike. I call this a parenting #fail, South Africa. Geez, Grandma, just let him eat the cookies!
Merry Christmas, everyone! Just…be careful answering the door!