Everyone has their own way of celebrating the festive season and here in the UK, Christmas generally revolves around a selection of long-established traditions, including decorating Christmas trees, singing carols and leaving stockings out for Father Christmas. However, if you look further afield, you’ll find some wackier customs taking place all over the world, which go beyond any of our standard yuletide practices. These destinations are worth keeping in mind if you fancy a change of scenery in December and the chance to experience these festivities first-hand. Read on to find out about some of our favourite Christmas traditions from around the world.
When planning your traditional Christmas meal, the ingredients which first spring to mind likely include turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing and pigs in blankets, topped with a generous helping of gravy and cranberry sauce. However, in Japan you’ll find a very different menu on offer during the festive season. Back in 1974, a clever marketing campaign by KFC promoted the idea of ‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii’ (‘Kentucky for Christmas’), with fried chicken taking pride of place at the Christmas dinner table. While it isn’t a national holiday in Japan, families still head to KFC for a meal on the 25th of December, and the popularity of this national tradition sees people booking tables in advance or queuing for hours to get their holiday bucket of fried chicken.
Finland also has some unique food-focused traditions and it’s customary to eat a porridge made with rice and milk, topped with cinnamon or butter on Christmas morning. The meal comes with a twist, however, as whoever finds almonds hidden in their dish is the ‘winner’. Another cosy Finnish tradition is the tendency to spend time together in the sauna on Christmas Eve. Many homes in Finland are equipped with their own and it’s also believed to be where the legendary sauna ‘elf’ resides.
Iceland takes the traditional 12 days of Christmas one step further by celebrating 13, with children leaving their shoes by the window in preparation for a visit from the 13 Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir in Icelandic) each night in the run-up to Christmas. In the morning, they’ll either be greeted by rotten potatoes or sweets, depending on whether they’ve been badly or well-behaved.
The Swedish Yule Goat tradition dates back to the 11th century, with mentions of a man-sized goat figure who could control the devil. Today, the tradition is largely honoured by hanging goat-shaped ornaments made of straw on Christmas trees in Sweden. However, in the town of Gävle, a 40ft straw goat statue is constructed in the main square and the tradition has since extended to see how long it will last before it’s set alight and burned down. Since 1966, the goat has been destroyed 37 times, although it has successfully survived for the past four years, thanks to increased security measures.
In Norway, Christmas Eve represents something more sinister, as Norwegian folklore dictates that it coincides with the arrival of evil spirits. It’s customary for locals to hide all of their brooms in obscure places before they go to sleep, in order to ward off these spirits and deter witches from stealing the brooms to ride on.
South Africa wins the prize for the wackiest food tradition, which is definitely the furthest from our traditional roast turkey. Pine Tree Emperor Moth caterpillars are either deep fried or sundried and eaten as a classic Christmas Day dish, thought to bring good luck to those who consume them. The seasons in South Africa also mean that Christmas falls during the summer, so the day is usually celebrated with a braii (a South African barbecue). The main course is often marinated steak or sausages, followed by malva pudding and custard – a classic South Africa desert, containing apricot jam.
Throughout the week leading up to Christmas Eve in Mexico, children often perform the ‘posadas’ (processions re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for accommodation in the Christmas story). A Church service is held to celebrate the end of the processions, featuring a firework display, a Christmas feast and a variety of festive games. One such game involves the smashing of a pinata filled with sweets, during which children are blind-folded and take turns hitting the papier-mâché object until the contents are spilt for everyone to enjoy.
Attending church is a standard practice for many families during the Christmas period, however in Venezuela they’ve adopted a creative mode of transport for getting to their Early Morning Mass (‘Misa de Aguinaldo’). In the week leading up to Christmas, Venezuelans attend this mass daily and it has become customary to roller-skate to the service. This is probably one of the most entertaining Christmas traditions from around the world, and it has become so widespread that in Caracas, the country’s capital, roads are closed until 8am to ensure skaters can travel safely.