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For many of us, Christmas is a well-oiled routine, with our own family traditions and individual ways to celebrate (or not celebrate) the day.
So when it finally comes time to experience the holiday season somewhere else, it can come as a bit of a shock. Maybe your partner’s family hates turkey, or maybe they spend their Christmas on a beach in Turkey instead of going on a post-dinner walk in the park.
But as anyone who has spent this time of year elsewhere in the world will know, the variety of Christmas traditions around the globe is almost infinite, with different cultures marking the occasion in very different ways.
So at a time when travelling is still tricky for many of us, UNILAD has rounded up some of the world’s lesser-known Christmas traditions.
You might remember learning about the Christmas Day football match that took place between British and German troops during World War One, and in Ethiopia, the day is also heavily associated with sports. Rather than celebrating Christmas with religious traditions, the African nation calls the day ‘Ganna,’ referring to a hockey-like game that is only played once a year, on the afternoon of January 7.
If you love nothing more than settling down in a cosy chair with a good book, Iceland might be the holiday destination for you. On Christmas Eve, Icelandic families exchange books as part of a tradition known as ‘Jolabokaflod,’ and spend the rest of the evening reading them as they await the arrival of Santa and his reindeer. According to the BBC, the tradition is so popular that Iceland publishes the most number of books per capita of any country in the world.
For kids, Christmas is all about presents, and if you’re an adult in Lebanon, that means you have to come prepared. On Christmas Day, it’s tradition for children in the country to run up to adults – even complete strangers – and tell them ‘Editi ‘aleik’ (meaning ‘you have a gift for me!’) If the adult has a gift to hand, they give it to the child, in what is a very festive version of trick or treating.
Vegan Christmas dinners are growing in popularity in the UK, but if meat is off the menu over the holidays Greenland is probably somewhere to avoid. The autonomous territory takes the idea of Christmas stuffing to a new level with its unique traditional Inuit dish – kiviak – which involves stuffing hundreds of little auks (a small sea bird) into a seal skin, before fermenting it for seven months and serving the birds whole on special occasions over the winter period.
Speaking of surprising food traditions, here’s one which might be a little more palatable to western tastes. In Japan, an estimated 3.6 million families head straight to the same place to grab their Christmas feast: KFC.
That’s right, the colonel’s secret recipe has become a cult tradition in the country, which as a primarily Shinto and Buddhist nation doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, instead marking the occasion in a similar way to Valentine’s Day, with couples heading out for fancy meals and exchanging romantic gifts. For millions of families though, it’s the bargain bucket they now associate with December 25.
In fact, the tradition has proved so popular that it inspired restaurant chain YO! Sushi to create a Japanese Fried Chicken as part of its Christmas menu. The restaurant’s ‘JFC Bucket’ offered a twist on traditional British Christmas foods with chicken tenders which are brined in buttermilk, and fried in a secret YO! spiced flour, before being sprinkled with nori tinsel.
In a tradition that could mean a very long night if it’s overcast or you’re somewhere with bad light pollution, Polish families won’t begin their traditional Christmas Eve dinner until they spot the first star in the night sky. The star in question represents the Bethlehem star that appeared to mark the birth of Jesus, and is also marked in the country by the breaking of the ‘oplatek’ Christmas wafer, which must be broken and shared among families before everyone tucks into their food.
While only 2% of the country’s 1.38 billion citizens are Christians, Christmas remains a national holiday in India, as a result of its colonial ties to the UK. And although most of the country doesn’t pay attention to the holiday’s religious significance, most do celebrate in some way, with families observing a number of traditions, including creating their own special Christmas light shows by placing oil lamps along the outside of their homes, or even placing them on their roofs.
If you’ve ever seen the 2015 horror movie Krampus, you’ll have had nightmares about this central European tradition. Krampusnacht occurs on December 5, the night before the feast of St Nicholas (Christmas Day for those in the region) and marks the visit of a not-very-Christmassy demon named Krampus – a half-goat figure with horns, fangs and a pointed tongue who is sent to punish naughty children. Illustrations depicting Krampus are genuinely terrifying, and seem like a much better way to scare children into being good than threatening them with a lump of coal.
For a festival that’s meant to mark the birth of Jesus, there are a strangely large number of global Christmas traditions that involve demons and the devil. Though not quite as horrifying as Krampus, in Guatemala, kids are similarly targeted in the run-up to Christmas by the devil, with men in local neighbourhoods tasked with dressing up as the horned rascal and chasing children down the streets during the first week of Advent. The tradition culminates in La Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil) on December 7, which sees families burn things they no longer need by setting fires using fireworks or firecrackers outside their homes.
Finally, bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of a Yule Log, nothing says Christmas like feeding a piece of firewood pieces of bread until it poops out sweets.
It sounds bizarre, but that’s exactly what children in the Catalan region of Spain do in the lead up to Christmas, with kids receiving their very own ‘Caga Tió’ – a log decorated with a face, legs and Christmas hat, to take care of in the lead up to Christmas. Come Christmas Eve, the well-fed log is sung to and hit with a stick to encourage it to poop out sweets and nougat for the child.
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