Christmas is one of the oldest traditions still active in the world today, and it has pervaded the cultures of countless countries throughout history. As a result, it has been changed - sometimes unintentionally - in some truly astonishing ways.
The Krampus – Austria
In Austria, Christmas is not all fun and games. Canadians have removed the stick from the child-taming Christmas tradition of Santa Claus, but in Austria there still exists the Krampus. A beast-like man thing, the Krampus is said to terrorize all the bad children, and to carry the worst away in sacks to his lair. His appearance is truly repulsive, mostly centering around the satanic horns and hooves, the cat-like eyes and lion’s tail. Despite his misdeeds, the Krampus is a popular character in Austria, often featured on Christmas cards and other branded items. Seeing the Krampus is as easy as visiting Austria, Hungary, Sovenia or Croatia around Christmas time.
The shoe toss – Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic, Christmas and New Years get all jumbled up, resulting in a slightly Christmas-y tradition of the shoe toss. This ladies-only option is not unlike the wedding bouquet-toss, though there’s no catcher involved. The woman stands with her back to a doorway, often the kitchen door, and throws a shoe back over her shoulder. If the toe lands pointing toward the door, this woman can rely on a successful year of romance. Some claim the shoe can foresee an upcoming marriage, others that it can only predict a more general level of romantic happiness. Regardless, this tradition has undoubtedly given many women an exciting – and disappointing – New Year.
KFChristmas – Japan
In Japan, the KFC brand has managed to completely associate itself with Christmas. Japan has imported countless traditions from countries around the world, from China to Italy, but these days Western traditions are the most emulated. KFC, with its rustic and American-seeming aesthetic, has become an emblem for Western Christmas tradition. Thronging the local chicken joint might not be a Christmas tradition in North America, but it has certainly become one in Japan. The marketing slogan “Christmas = Kentucky” was particularly useful. Today, no Christmas trip to Japan would be complete with a bucket of the Colenel’s finest. Just don’t expect it to remind you of home.
The Caganer – Italy, Portugal, Spain
Traditional nativity scenes are a little different in Spain. Sure, they have the familiar layout of manger and shepherd, wise men and mother, but they’ve also got a nasty character lurking off in a corner: The Caganer. The Caganer is a long-time fixture of nativity scenes in some parts of the world, where they use him to undermine the nativity’s sacrosanct reputation. The Caganer is often depicted pooping, though sometimes drinking or sleeping, but always cutting the scene’s serious tone with something decidedly more light-hearted. Historically, the Caganer was a young male character, but today the Caganer is often some sort of celebrity figurine.
Joulud – Estonia
While many in Estonia celebrate Christmas, or both, many choose to exclusively celebrate Joulud, a harvest holiday that is technically a non-Christian event adapted from old Christmas traditions. As a result, the Estonian Joulud festival is not a celebration of birth – despite having a manger included in the celebrations. There are even small figures of what seems to be Jesus, but which officially is not. Christmas Eve and Day are reserved for fortune-telling and prediction of the weather or harvest. The Christmas Eve sauna is another Estonian tradition, a family tradition that’s meant to bring everyone together just in time for the holidays.
The Christmas Log – Spain
One particularly odd tradition from the Catalonian people is the Christmas Log, or the Caga Tio. This log is given stumpy limbs and a smiling face, then draped with a blanket. On the proper date, families beat the Caga Tio with sticks, singing a variety of traditional songs. The intent? To scare or beat the Christmas Log into "producing" the presents – after the song is complete, delighted children whip up the blanket to see what the Caga Tio has left for them. Once the presents, fruits, and other treats are through, the event ends with an onion, or a salt herring. The smell of this booby prize is apparently enough to snap the family back to reality, as they here end the entire affair.
Saint Nicholas – Belgium
In Belgium there is an anti-Santa much like the Krampus in Austria. However, the Krampus is an evil spirit, while Saint Nicholas is one side of a very organized Santa coin. In Belgium, the traditionally jolly Christmas visitor is Pere Noel, while Saint Nicholas fills the role of bad cop. This is an explicit arrangement between the two, with Saint Nicholas being a surly but not evil character, a sort of necessary evil in keeping children in line. Good kids end up on Pere Noel’s list, and receive presents. Bad children fall under the eye of Saint Nicholas, and get nothing but sticks. Sticks are actually the more traditional notice of poor behaviour, the Western use of coal being the real latter-day innovation.
La Befana – Italy
Italians do recognize Santa Claus, and indulge in his mythology, but Italy spent a long period of history with Santa banned by a Vatican decree. The Vatican was concerned about the pagan influence of the Santa story, and so decided to outlaw it, instead promoting the story of La Befana. La Befana was a witch (complete with broomstick) who turned down an offer from the Wise Men to come view the birth of Christ. After the birth, the witch was so distraught over her mistake, she spends every anniversary of that date delivering presents to children and searching again for the Baby Jesus. Each household tends to decide for itself which story to tell their children, though schoolyard chatter likely illuminates the contradictions between the stories quickly enough.
Broom hiding – Norway
Like in Italy, Norway has many traditions surrounding witches. Unlike Italy, though, Norway does not greet its flying female friends with warmth, but with passive-aggressive exclusion tactics. To subtly tell the witch she is not welcome, the family dutifully sweeps all the brooms under the rug, as it were, hides them, so as to starve out the native witch population. A broom left out on Christmas Eve or Day is considered a sign of bad luck, poor forethought and general ineptitude. In some parts of Norway, it is customary to supplement the broom-hiding by firing a shotgun into the air in front of the family home. That should remove all doubt from the witch’s mind – this isn’t an oddly messy neighbourhood, they’re just not welcome.
Zwarte Piet – Netherlands
This one is both common and controversial in its homeland of the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet is, depending on which story you believe, either Santa’s servant or a willing volunteer chimney-sweep. Either would seem to make sense, as Piet’s skin is famously soot-black, which can make some modern audiences uncomfortable. While there is a movement to remove Zwarte Piet from the culture, many are adamant that he should stay. The little guy is said to act as a low-level foil to Santa’s saintly persona, though he is completely under the big man’s employ. Bad children are scooped up by Zwarte Piet and carried off to Spain – dropping them off there apparently being a cheaper solution that importing a Christmas beast of their own.