From crashing your neighbors’ homes to noshing on KFC Christmas dinner, maybe it’s time to add some international Christmas traditions to your celebrations.
All across the globe, people celebrate the holidays in creative and some downright quirky ways. As you prepare your own holiday festivities this year, take note of these nine unique Christmas traditions from other countries.
1. The Gävle Goat in Sweden
In 1966 a man named Stig Gavlén decided to build a giant version of the traditional Swedish Christmas straw goat. Ever since then, the goat has become a symbol of Christmas in Sweden, and it has even been crowned the world’s largest straw goat in the Guinness World Records. The goat is over 40 feet high, and it’s inaugurated every year on the first Sunday of Advent.
However, the most interesting aspect of this tradition is another ritual that accompanies it. Every year people try to destroy the goat. The goat has been hit by a car, set on fire, sabotaged and even endured staged kidnappings. Twenty-four-hour surveillance cameras and guards are used to protect the goat, but it has been destroyed 36 times. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the Gävle Goat’s official website says, “You can follow the Gävle Goat from the first Sunday of Advent until after New Year or until the sad day that it meets its notorious fate.”
2. Krampus in Austria
While most people in the United States would think demons and monsters are a weird way to celebrate Christmas, a lot of other countries like these darker elements to the holidays. Take, for example, Krampus — a half-goat, half-demon horned figure who is part of common Christmas tradition in countries like Austria, Bavaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
In many Christmas festivities, young men will dress up as Krampus — who appears alongside the jovial St. Nicholas with a birch rod in hand, menacing children into being good. He is featured on Christmas cards with his scary form and lolling tongue as he apprehends children inside a basket. Imagine getting a card that said, “Greetings from Krampus!” Anthropologists and folklorists have theorized that Krampus is pre-Christian in origin — maybe hailing from the Horned God of the old witches. Whatever his origin, he offers a devilish foil for the jolly, generous St. Nicholas, and every year celebrants delight in his sinister appearance amid the otherwise cheerful holidays.
3. The Yule Lads & Yule Cat in Iceland
Iceland has the tradition of the Yule Lads or Yulemen — 13 mischievous trollish characters. Each troll has a name and embarks on a unique act of devilry — including Sausage-Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir), who hides in rafters and snatches smoked sausages; Doorway-Sniffer (Gáttaþefur), who boasts a larger-than-average nose with which to locate and steal good food; and Door-Slammer (Hurðaskellir), a particularly obnoxious imp who likes to slam doors in the middle of the night. These 13 Yule Lads visit children across Iceland and leave presents in good little children’s shoes. But if the child has been naughty, they get a rotting potato in their shoe instead.
Iceland also has the tradition of the Yule Cat — a monstrous feline who lurks in the snowy countryside and eats people who haven’t received any new clothes before Christmas Eve. Poor Icelanders — not only are they cold, but they really have some pesky beings terrorizing them during Christmas!
4. Fanals & Masquerades in Gambia
Christmas in Gambia, Africa, is a lighter celebration — in more ways than one. On the week of Christmas and New Year’s, citizens of Gambia make lanterns called fanals out of bamboo and papers and then shape them into gigantic boats or houses. Once the lanterns are lit, the fanals make for a spectacular, colorful display of artistry and light. The fanals are put on wheels, and the magical boats and houses are then paraded around the towns, followed by large groups of singers. At each house where they stop, they collect donations for the community’s Christmas party.
In Gambia — as well as many other parts of Africa — citizens love to have masquerade parties to celebrate Christmas, too. People of all backgrounds dress up and join together to roam the streets for donations with a masquerader known as Agugu. Masqueraders take their costumes very seriously, and competitions and clubs are formed around making costumes. Many of the clubs make costumes all year round in preparation for the holidays.
5. Winterfest in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is already a huge metropolis known for its stunning city skyline, but it outdoes itself with a celebration called Winterfest. Hundreds and hundreds of shopping centers, hotels, buildings, streets and plazas are all decorated with thousands of lights, and the display is magical and full of holiday spirit. It’s arguably one of the best cities to visit during Christmas.
Hong Kong starts preparing right after Halloween, and the Winterfest goes all the way from mid-November to January 1. They have an ongoing free 3D light show in December, and the Starlight Garden at the New Town Plaza is always heavily Instagrammed. Every year the city seems to try to outdo itself, and the results are breathtaking.
6. Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good KFC dinner! Yes, you read that right. In Japan it has become a huge tradition to celebrate Christmas by devouring a yummy meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tradition took off in the 1970s when KFC was looking for a way to grow sales in Japan. They decided to push the idea of KFC being a great Christmas meal, and it worked.
Today an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families invest in a KFC meal to celebrate Christmas. They have to order the meals weeks in advance, because the chain is often booked solid for the month of December. KFC even has special family meals with sides, wine and other goodies that Japanese people can buy. For anyone outside of Japan it seems like an odd Christmas tradition — but it’s definitely a delicious one.
7. Getting to Church on Roller Skates in Venezuela
Some people drive, some people walk — and some people roller skate to church during Christmas. No one knows exactly where the tradition came from, but the inhabitants of the capital city of Caracas, Venezuela, have been roller skating to church for years.
Roller skaters traverse to and from the early morning services held December 16-24. It’s become such a big deal that the entire city shuts down roads in the mornings so that cars won’t get in the way of the roller skaters. Little children will tie strings to their big toes and dangle the strings out of windows, and roller skaters can tug the strings to wake them up each morning. This stuff can’t be made up.
8. Mari Lwyd in Wales
The Mari Lwyd (which can mean both “Holy Mary” and “Grey Mare”) is a wassailing custom found in South Wales involving a hobby horse made from a a horse’s skull mounted on a pole. A person hidden underneath a cloth then carries the horse on a wassailing — or caroling — procession that consists of singing, playful troublemaking and entertainment.
The official Mari Lwyd party includes four to seven men usually fancily dressed as leaders, along with other stock characters like Punch and Judy or a few minstrels called Merrymen. The group stops to knock on people’s doors, singing songs. The inhabitants of the homes offer excuses — but after they’re out of them, they must finally let the procession in. The Mari Lwyd then prances around the home trying to scare people, and the Merrymen play instruments and entertain the inhabitants, while the leader comically tries to keep order.
9. Spiderwebs in Ukraine
Ukrainians have a tradition of decorating their Christmas trees with fake spiderwebs. Why? Because there’s an ancient legend about a poor widow who lived in a small hut with her children. When Christmastime came around, her children were excited about a Christmas tree, but they didn’t have money to decorate it — so they went to bed on Christmas Eve with an empty tree.
During the night, however, a spider spun her web all around the tree, and when light struck it in the morning, the tree glistened all over. The widow and her children were overjoyed. And that’s why spiderwebs are still used today in Ukraine. It’s believed that this Christmas tradition led to the custom of adorning trees with silver tinsel.