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Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Christmas traditions go far beyond carols and mince pies

Christmas traditions go far beyond carols and mince pies: For so many of us, the festive season conjures images of stockings hanging beside roaring log fires, trees laden with decorations and presents, turkey, gingerbread cookies and carol singers. But though western-centric traditions may dominate celebrations of Christmas in popular culture, countries all over the world have developed their own unique ways of marking the holiday — often blending religious themes with their own distinct cultural flavors.

Around the world, Christmas activities are varied: In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, Christmas morning sees throngs of roller-skating churchgoers making their way to mass. A very different note is struck in Finland, where people will spend Christmas Eve in the sauna before heading out to evening celebrations.

And some are really outlandish: A key part of Christmas in Sweden is the 3pm viewing of the Donald Duck Christmas special, which over 40% of the population reportedly still regularly tunes in for. In Catalonia, Tió de Nadal — a homemade Christmas log with stick legs and a red hat — is nurtured with water and treats between 8 and 24 December. Then on Christmas Eve, children hit Tió de Nadal with sticks and sing songs to encourage him to produce (read: defecate) presents and sweets, before throwing him in the fire.

Weird and wonderful characters make an appearance: Krampus, the evil companion of St Nicholas, is believed to walk the streets of Austria at Christmas time, looking for badly-behaved children. Over in Iceland, it’s a giant cat — Yule Cat — who’s expected to be seen prowling around, ready to devour workers who haven’t been working hard enough. In Italy, an old woman called Befana is said to visit children on 5 January and leave them sweets and presents. And in Norway, witches and spirits are believed to come out for some fun on Christmas Eve.

When it comes to food, turkey’s not for everyone: some prefer KFC and Christmas caterpillar. In Japan, the slogan “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas) has become a well-known seasonal refrain, with families often heading to KFC for a special meal on Christmas Eve. China sees the exchange of Christmas “peace apples” as gifts: the apples are wrapped in colorful paper or put in special boxes. And over in South Africa, it’s fried caterpillars that are the delicacy of choice. The creepy crawlies are supposed to bring luck to anyone who eats them.

In Germany it’s customary to hide a pickle in the branches of the Christmas tree and give a gift to the child who finds it. Meanwhile in Ukraine, people like to put up decorations that look like dew-covered spiders’ webs, rather than fairy lights and baubles. In the Philippines, special Christmas lanterns are made from bamboo and paper, and hung throughout towns and villages. And while Senegal is primarily a Muslim country, Christmas — like a host of Christian and Muslim holidays — is widely celebrated. Christmas trees and traditional Senegalese masks covered in lights are the decorations of choice in the country’s capital, Dakar.

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Not down under. With Christmas coming during the height of summer in Australia and New Zealand, Christmas Day is often spent feasting on a lunchtime barbecue, before heading off to the beach. New Zealand also has its very own native Christmas tree: the beautiful, red-flowered pohutukawa.

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