Christmas is celebrated in various ways throughout the world, many of which are not your typical tree-presents-nog setup the majority of us have come to expect. Some of the ways that we as a people celebrate the most festive time of year are completely bizarre, intriguing and, in some cases, completely disturbing. Such as …
10. The Santa Claus Olympics (Switzerland)
Who says Santa Claus is an old fat dude incapable of achieving physical feats? In Switzerland, hundreds of aspiring Santa Clauses gather to compete in the annual Santa World Championships. This bizarre-yet-fun festival consist of the usual things the jolly elf does during Christmas, like singing, dancing, sleigh racing, snow sculpturing, and climbing chimneys.
This unusual tradition is held in a small town called Samnaun, where Italy, Austria and Switzerland converge. Every year, people from around the world gather in this small town and compete in the hopes that they will be crowned the strongest, most physically fit Santa Claus around. Anyone can join this festive tradition, as long as they’re 18 years old, a kid at heart, and most importantly of all, absolutely shameless. Also, bring along three friends, as this bit of gleeful horseplay is strictly a team sport.
9. Santa Claus on a Canoe (Hawaii)
If you’re a beach person, then you’ll definitely enjoy having your Christmas in the Aloha State. In Hawaii, people spend their Christmas at the beach, having picnics and luaus and engaging in various water activities like surfing and swimming. But that’s nothing; what really makes Hawaii stand out is its unique interpretation of Santa Claus’ means of transportation. In Hawaii, people believe that Santa brings his presents while riding on a canoe—and not just an ordinary canoe, but a red outrigger canoe, pulled by dolphins. There’s even a Hawaiian Christmas carol dedicated to this belief—“Here Comes Santa in a Red Canoe.”
8. Eating Caterpillars (Southern Africa)
In some parts of southern Africa, caterpillars are considered a delicacy, and are eaten on special occasions like Christmas. This Christmas treat is preserved traditionally by boiling mopane worms (not really worms, but caterpillars) in salted water and then drying them in the sun or smoking them. This process is said to enhance their flavor. We’ll take their word for it.
Selling mopane worms is a multi-million dollar industry over there, with mopane worms sold by the can in markets throughout southern Africa. And for good reason too — mopane worms are actually quite healthy, being rich in minerals like manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, and sodium. They even contain more iron than beef!
7. Visiting the Dead (Finland)
Going to the cemetery is something that we don’t normally include on our Christmas to-do lists, but for many Finns, Christmas time is dedicated to visiting the graves of their dead loved ones. People that visit the cemeteries typically light candles beside the gravestones, and when enough of them get together, the effect is spectacular! The warm glow of millions of lighted candles creates a breath-taking scene, and an atmosphere of utmost tranquility. Graveyards during Christmas Eve are so beautiful and peaceful that many people, even if their loved ones aren’t buried there, visit just to enjoy the scenery and serene environment.
6. Burning of Thorns (Iraq)
Yes, Christmas is celebrated in Iraq, and the Christians there have a very peculiar Christmas tradition they’d like you to know about. During Christmas Eve, Iraqi children read the story of Jesus’ birth from an Arabic Bible. The parents and other members of the family solemnly listen while holding lighted candles in their hands. After the story has been told, one of the family members light up a pile of thorns while the others sing a hymn. After the thorns have completely burned, all members of the family must jump over the burned pile three times before they can make a Christmas wish.
Christian families in Iraq perform this peculiar tradition as a means to foretell the fortune of their families for the next year. If the pile of thorns completely turns into ashes, then all of the members of the family will receive blessings or experience good fortunes the next year.
5. Two Santa Clauses: Pere Noel and St. Nicholas (Belgium)
For the Belgians, one Santa is simply not enough. Belgians who speak French are visited by Pere Noel. He is accompanied by his assistant (and dark alter ego) named Pere Fouettard. Kids who have been good receive gifts like candies and chocolates. Naughty children, on the other hand, receive twigs—or worse, they get spanked by Pere Fouettard.
On the other hand, those who speak the Waloon language are visited by St. Nicholas. He visits them twice, on December 4 and 6. On his first visit, St. Nicholas tries to find out which children have been good and which have been bad. During his second visit, he brings presents with him. Those who have been good receive gifts such as their favorite chocolates. Those who have been naughty receive twigs, but no spanking.
It’s important to note that Pere Noel and St. Nicholas are two different Christmas figures. St. Nicholas actually existed, though many of the stories concerning him were highly embellished to make them more interesting. Pere Noel, on the other hand, was only invented during World War I and unlike St. Nicholas, he has no religious implications.
4. Arrival of the Three Kings (the Philippines)
The Filipinos love Christmas, to the point where Christmas time begins as early as September and ends as late as January. It is a common practice to adorn many stores and homes with Christmas décor as early as September. Also, children and adults start caroling as early as October.
With all this time to celebrate, it’s not surprising that they would invent some crazy ways to pass the time. Perhaps the craziest is how Santa means almost nothing to them. For hundreds of years, the Three Kings were the primary givers and bringers of presents in the Philippines. Children would place their clean socks and polished shoes on the windows of their homes, in the hopes that the three kings would put gifts inside them on their way to Bethlehem. There are even some kids who would put grass or straw on their windows for the camels to eat, just in case they get hungry during their journey.
Unfortunately, this peculiar tradition is barely practiced nowadays. Thanks to the influence of American culture, Santa is fast becoming an important figure in Philippine Christmas.
3. Advent of the Masked Visitors (Latvia)
We don’t normally associate Christmas with evil spirits. For us, the Yuletide Season is about gift-giving, family and friendships, and peace and goodwill. However, in Latvia, Christmas is that special time of the year dedicated to driving away bad spirits, in a tradition known as “mumming.” Those who participate in this practice are called “mummers.” Mummers dress up in various costumes like fortune-tellers, wolves, cranes, goats, bears, or horses. There are even those who choose to dress up as Death. They then roam around going from house to house.
Families anticipate the arrival of the mummers, since it is generally believed that they posses power over evil spirits. They warmly welcome and invite them inside their homes, but before they can enter, they need to dance and sing. Once inside, the mummers are given food and beer.
What makes this tradition more bizarre is that the mummers need to modify their voices and disguise their mannerisms. If they are correctly identified by any of the family members, they need to take off their masks.
2. Leftovers for the Dead (Bulgaria)
This bizarre Bulgarian Christmas tradition is quite similar to the one commonly practiced in Portugal called “consoda.” In Portugal, families set extra places on the table on the morning of Christmas Day, as a means for them to pay their respect to the dead. In essence, they’re inviting the ghosts of their loved ones to come and dine with them.
In Bulgaria, it’s quite different. Bulgarian families would have dinner on Christmas Eve but, unlike the Portuguese, only the living are invited. However, once the families have finished their meals, they are not allowed to clear the table. All the leftovers and dishes are left as they are on the table, and nothing is touched or cleaned. It is generally believed that the ghosts of the family’s loved ones arrive after everyone else has gone to bed, to feast on the leftovers on the table.
1. Throwing Food at the Ceiling (Slovakia and Ukraine)
Among all the traditions discussed in this list, this one, observed in some parts of Slovakia and Ukraine, is perhaps the messiest. In these countries, it’s expected for people to throw food at the ceiling on Christmas Eve. And no, they don’t consider it a waste, but rather as a means of measuring their forthcoming blessings.
During Christmas Eve, Ukranian and Slovakian families have typical Christmas dinners. However, before they start eating their meals, the head of the family takes a small amount of Loksa (a traditional food made from water, bread, and poppy seed) and throws it up at the ceiling. Those who do this believe that the Loksa serves as a means for them to predict how big or rich their crops will be the following year. The more Loksa that sticks, the bigger and richer the crops will be the next year.