11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

More Than 100 National Parks Are Waiving Fees on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

noblige, iStock via Getty Images
noblige, iStock via Getty Images

The National Park Service is hosting five "free days" in 2020—the first of which lands on January 20. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the NPS is waiving its regular entrance fees at 110 national park properties around the country, USA Today reports.

Of the 400-plus parks managed by the agency, 110 charge admission fees ranging from $5 to $35. These include some of the most popular sites in the system, like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon national parks.

Every one of those parks will be free to visit on Monday. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a day of service, and parks across the U.S. will be hosting service projects for volunteers looking to give back to their communities. If you'd like to participate, you can find volunteer opportunities at your local NPS property here.

If you're just looking for a place to reflect, you can't go wrong with any of the sites in the national park system. Before planning a visit to one the parks below participating in the free day, read up on these facts about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here are the National Parks that will be free on January 20, 2020:

  • Acadia National Park, Maine
  • Adams National Historical Park, Massachusetts
  • Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
  • Arches National Park, Utah
  • Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland/Virginia
  • Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  • Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico
  • Big Bend National Park, Texas
  • Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
  • Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
  • Cabrillo National Monument, California
  • Canaveral National Seashore, Florida
  • Canyonlands National Park, Utah
  • Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
  • Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
  • Capulin Volcano National Monument, New Mexico
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
  • Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, Florida
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
  • Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Georgia
  • Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Maryland/West Virginia/Washington, D.C.
  • Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia
  • Christiansted National Historic Site, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia
  • Colorado National Monument, Colorado
  • Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
  • Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, Idaho
  • Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
  • Death Valley National Park, California
  • Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
  • Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
  • Dinosaur National Monument, Utah
  • Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
  • Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York
  • Everglades National Park, Florida
  • Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
  • Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas
  • Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Maryland
  • Fort Pulaski National Monument, Georgia
  • Fort Smith National Historic Site, Arkansas
  • Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park, South Carolina
  • Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Oregon/Washington
  • Fort Washington Park, Maryland
  • Gateway Arch National Park (formerly Jefferson National Expansion Memorial), Missouri
  • Great Falls Park, Virginia
  • Glacier National Park, Montana
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah/Arizona
  • Golden Spike National Historical Park, Utah
  • Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
  • Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  • Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
  • Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi
  • Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii
  • Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia/Virginia/Maryland
  • Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
  • Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, New York
  • Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado/Utah
  • Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
  • James A. Garfield National Historic Site, Ohio
  • Joshua Tree National Park, California
  • Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Georgia
  • Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada/Arizona
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
  • Lava Beds National Monument, California
  • Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, Oregon/Washington
  • Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana
  • Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
  • Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
  • Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
  • Muir Woods National Monument, California
  • Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
  • Olympic National Park, Washington
  • Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
  • Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
  • Pea Ridge National Military Park, Arkansas
  • Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial, Ohio
  • Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
  • Pinnacles National Park, California
  • Pipe Spring National Monument, Arizona
  • Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota
  • Prince William Forest Park, Virginia
  • Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Hawaii
  • Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  • Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, New York
  • Saguaro National Park, Arizona
  • Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, New Hampshire
  • San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, California
  • San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California
  • Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
  • Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Arizona
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
  • Thomas Edison National Historical Park, New Jersey
  • Tonto National Monument, Arizona
  • Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona
  • Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona
  • Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico
  • Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, New York
  • Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi/Louisiana
  • Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona
  • Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, California
  • White Sands National Park, New Mexico
  • Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, Missouri
  • Wright Brothers National Memorial, North Carolina
  • Wupatki National Monument, Arizona
  • Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Idaho/Montana
  • Yosemite National Park, California
  • Zion National Park, Utah

[h/t USA Today]

Queen Elizabeth II Keeps Her Holiday Decorations Up Through February—Here’s Why

John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images
John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

If your family and friends have been ribbing you lately because your lawn still looks like Santa’s satellite workshop, here’s a reasonable counterargument: Queen Elizabeth II Ieaves her holiday decorations up at least until February 6.

Travel + Leisure reports that the Queen and Prince Philip spend the holiday season at Sandringham House, a stately Norfolk country residence that Prince Philip is responsible for maintaining. Ownership passed to the Queen after her father, King George VI, died there on February 6, 1952. Since then, she has observed the anniversary of his death at Sandringham, letting the decorations remain until after she has returned to Buckingham Palace.

According to HELLO! magazine, Sandringham House’s seasonal trappings are supposedly a bit more subtle than the extravagant lights and towering evergreens of the Crown's more public estates like Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. At Sandringham, however, the royal family actually helps decorate; as mentioned on the official royal website, the Queen and members of her family “usually put the final touches on their Christmas tree.”

Long-lasting Christmas decorations aren’t the only way the Queen celebrates King George VI’s legacy during the holidays. Following the tradition set by her father (and his father before him), the Queen gifts a total of about 1500 Christmas puddings to her staff, including palace personnel, police, and Court Post Office workers. Each pudding—a spiced fruit cake, rather than the creamy, gelatinous dessert Americans think of when they hear the term pudding—comes with a holiday greeting card from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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