CHARLOTTE, NC — Throughout the world, no holiday season has inspired more traditions and local customs than Christmas. However, traditions common in one corner of the globe may seem rather odd if transplanted elsewhere. But never fear. Leave it to Myth Trivia to uncover some of the best quirky Christmas traditions around the globe.
Hogmanay: Bigger than Christmas in Scotland
Historically speaking, when it comes to quirky Christmas traditions, Scotland has made a much bigger deal of celebrating Hogmanay (the last day of the year, a.k.a., New Year’s Eve) than Christmas itself.
Thanks to 16th century Reformer John Knox, Scotland’s Parliament actually banned the celebration of Christmas for more than 300 years. Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, believed that Christians should only celebrate holidays mentioned in the Bible. So starting in 1583, Christmas was strongly discouraged and officially prohibited by law in 1640.
Christmas in Scotland did not become legal again until 1958.
And now for something completely different: Christmas in Hawaii
Though an integral part of the US and not another country, a Hawaiian Christmas is definitely a tropical affair. Many locals in the 50th State import their traditional fir trees from the U.S. mainland. Mass quantities of the trees arrive long before the holiday starts, traveling on the annual “Christmas Tree Ship.”
Those seeking to re-interpret the Christmas holidays in a manner more in tune with this tropical paradise decorate palm trees with lights and ornaments. And in another quirky Christmas tradition, they often decorate the holiday scene by deploying outrigger canoes and dolphins that resemble Santa’s sleigh and reindeer team.
As for Jolly old St. Nick, the Hawaiian dress code naturally calls for an aloha shirt instead of that famous, red, fur-trimmed suit. And certainly the most popular Christmas dinner here is a luau, complete with roast pig and colorful Christmas leis for the guests.
Of roosters, radishes and devils: On to Central and South America
On Christmas Eve in Bolivia, people bring roosters to Midnight Mass to celebrate Misa del Gallo (“Mass of the Rooster”). This Mass commemorates the belief that a rooster became the first animal to announce the birth of Jesus Christ. At the crack of dawn, no doubt.
Further north, Central America – specifically in village Guatemala – officially ends its first week of Advent on December 7 with a folk ritual known as La Quema del Diablo (“The Burning of the Devil”). During this time, local men dressed in devil costumes appear on the streets and chase children to and fro. But happily, the Devil’s reign ends on the 7th day of the month when people pile objects they no longer want or need in front of their houses, scatter firecrackers on top of each heap and set it on fire.
Trekking even further north, on December 23 in Oaxaca, Mexico, the most popular annual holiday celebration is known as “The Night of the Radishes.” Competitors carve nativity scenes into large radishes which they proudly display at the Christmas market. This custom became so popular here that Oaxaca dedicated a large tract of land just for the purpose of cultivating special vegetables year-round specifically developed for the event.
Europe leads the way in quirky Christmas traditions, starting with Estonia, Norway and Italy
Elsewhere in the world, quite a few additional odd Christmas rituals take place. And you can find no greater reservoir of quirky Christmas traditions than those you can still uncover in Europe.
For starters, the Estonians believe that first visitor on Christmas – otherwise known as the “first-footer” – determines the household’s luck for the upcoming year. Dark-haired men are seen as desirable first-footers. But women and fair-haired or red-headed men are often deemed unlucky.
The Norwegian tradition of Julbukk, or the “Christmas goat,” finds groups of costumed people walking through their neighborhoods on Christmas Day. As they wander about, they entertain people with songs in exchange for treats. This tradition derives its name because visiting groups bring a goat along with them. Or, lacking a real goat, they have someone in their party impersonate a goat’s typically unruly behavior. If two costumed goats meet, they often engage in a play fight to entertain the crowd.
In Italy, a witch-like figure called “La Befana” is said to fly around on her broomstick on the night of January 5th. She brings gifts to good children and lumps of coal to the naughty ones.
Greece and Catalonia
Greece and Catalonia in Spain can’t be outdone when it comes to quirky Christmas traditions in Europe.
Greek legend claims that malicious goblins called “Kallikantzari” come up to Earth’s surface from their underground homes on December 25. They then proceed to play tricks on humans until the 6th of January. To be rid of them, Greeks burn logs or old shoes, or hang sausages or sweetmeats in the chimney. This seems a bit like hanging garlic around the house to keep those pesky vampires away.
The province of Catalonia, in Spain, may very well claim the trophy for the most uniquely bizarre tradition, however. Known as the Caga Tió, or “pooping log,” local children create its image by decorating a small log. They add wooden legs, a face, clothing and a Catalan hat. (Maybe this is where the creators of South Park got the idea for “Mr. Hanky, the Christmas Poo.”)
They keep their “pooping log” in their home or school, feeding it small pieces of bread or fruit every day. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, they hit the Caga Tió with a stick while singing a special song encouraging him to poop out plenty of sweets, such as turrón, a popular nougat treat. MMMmm, good.
Germans and Americans in a pickle
Arguably, we might find the favorite contender for the best quirky Christmas tradition among more recent holiday customs, one of which has Myth Trivia in a real pickle.
Though mistakenly believed to be an old German custom, nobody seems to know exactly how the Christmas Pickle tradition started in America. One story of the myth involves an American Civil War soldier of Bavarian birth. Imprisoned by the opposing side, he begged a guard for one last pickle before he died. The guard granted his request. And miraculously, after eating that pickle, the soldier regained his will to carry on.
Because the current version of the tale arose out of the American Civil War, “Find the Pickle” evolved into a relatively common American Christmas tradition. Someone in the family hides a pickle-shaped ornamentsomewhere on the Christmas tree. And the person who finds it receives an extra present as a reward. In actual fact, the town of Berrien Springs, Michigan holds a pickle festival each year in December, maintaining this strange tradition.
One other myth regarding the Christmas pickle revolves around St. Nicholas rescuing two boys from drowning in a pickle barrel. In truth, most authorities opine that the legend most likely got started by retailers selling appropriate glass ornaments imported from Germany.
This all just goes to show you that when it comes to Christmas anywhere in the world, there’s always time for a “dill” moment.
— Headline image: A Christmas Pickle Ornament. Screen grab from YouTube video.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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