The holiday called Christmas is an amalgam of many winter holidays from around the world. The name is designated as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, although the date is not recorded in the Bible, and people at that time did not place particular important on birth dates. Scientists say the actual date was June 17th, 2BC because of the appearance of the star that beckoned the Magi. December 25th was set as the date for Christmas in the 4th century by Pope Julius I as an attempt to Christianize midwinter pagan holidays such as Solstice and Saturnalia. Customs such as bringing evergreens inside, eating fat-laden foods, and hanging lights are universal responses to the cold, dark winter season. Some of the stranger Christmas traditions are remnants of those older pagan holidays, and some have been changed over the centuries until their origins are hard to discern. Others were just made up to boost business!
St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus is the weirdest Christmas tradition ever, but he is so well known and so well documented that his origins are beyond the scope of this particular post. As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. People dress as Krampus and roam the streets looking for someone to beat with a stick. Since it is also a night for drinking, the beatings probably don't hurt much. (Image by Flickr user salendron.)
2. Caga TiÃ³
In English, Caga TiÃ³ is "the pooping log". Really. The Catalan custom is still celebrated in Spain, where you can buy your own el Caga TiÃ³. The log is hollowed out, with legs and a face added. You must "feed" him every day beginning on December 8th. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, put him in the fireplace and beat him with sticks until he poops out small candies, fruits, and nuts. When he is through, the final object dropped is a salt herring, a garlic bulb, or an onion. Oh yeah, there is a traditional song the family can sing to encourage the process.
poop log, poop turrÃ³n, hazelnuts and cottage cheese, if you don't poop well, I'll hit you with a stick, poop log!
Another Catalonian tradition is the Caganer, a Christmas statue found in nativity scenes in Andorra and parts of Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The scenes depict the entire town of Bethlehem, and the Caganer is usually tucked away in a corner, far from Mary and Joseph. The Caganer needs privacy, because he is defecating. There are quite a few explanations for this custom, but none have been confirmed as the original source. Caganers have been used for at least a couple hundred years. You can even buy Caganers that resemble modern-day celebrities. (Image by Flickr users clare_and_ben.)
4. The Pickle Ornament
The story goes that when German families decorate the Christmas tree, the last ornament to be hung is the Christmas pickle -usually a blown glass ornament that may have been passed down through generations. It is tucked away in a hard-to-see spot (it is green, after all). The first child who finds the pickle on Christmas morning gets a special gift and good luck all the next year. The trouble with this legend is that people in Germany were unfamiliar with it. Glass tree ornaments were indeed made in Germany, in the shape of fruits and vegetables and other objects. These ornaments became very popular in America when F.W. Woolworth began importing them in the 1880s. An old German legend no doubt helped to sell more glass ornaments! (Image by Flickr user the queen of subtle.)
5. Kentucky Fried Chicken
The celebration of Christmas in Asia usually involves imported western traditions, but in Japan those traditions have been shaped by commercial interests. The holiday places special emphasis on romantic love, so it's a day to spend with a sweetheart or spouse. Bakeries sell Christmas cakes as traditional sweetheart treats. And you might have to make reservations to get a table at KFC. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast food franchise let it be known that fried chicken is traditional for the Christmas feast. And so it is -in Japan. (Image by Flickr user sleepytako.)
6. Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter is Santa's helper in the Netherlands. Sinterklass arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas Day in a steamship with his slave Zwarte Piet, portrayed in public processions in several cities. Since about 1850, children who don't behave during the year were told that Black Peter might take them back to Spain, where Sinterklaas lives. The racist aspects of the custom have been downplayed in recent decades, and the tale of Black Peter now describes him as a chimney sweep instead of a slave, which explains the blackface. But charges of racism still follow Black Peter, as he is often portrayed with an Afro and exaggerated features.
7. TV Yule Log
The Yule Log is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. The Yule Log on TV is a relatively new tradition for those who have no fireplace to burn their own log. WPIX in New York has broadcast 24 hours of a burning fireplace on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since 1966. The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion, but a carpet fire during the first filming made the mayor wary of a reshoot a few years later, so the loop seen now was filmed in California.
8. Mari Lwyd
Mari Lwyd, an old midwinter custom in Wales, is a holdover from pagan celebrations before Christmas was introduced. Mari Lwyd means "gray mare" in English.
In its purest form (still to be seen at Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, every New Year's Day) the tradition involves the arrival of the horse and its party at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses. Then comes a battle of wits (known as pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song.
The horse in the above scenario is made of a horse's skull attached to a pole. The person operating the horse is concealed by sheets, and sometimes has a contraption to work the horses jaw! (Image by Flickr user arosmae.)
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