Some Christmas traditions, like bringing a tree into the house and decorating it, are so widespread that they seem normal, even if they’re really quite bizarre. Others are less common, and even crazier. Here are 7 of the world’s most unusual Christmas traditions.
1. Parading around a horse’s skull
One unusual tradition in Wales is the Mari Lwyd, where a horse’s skull is attached to a pole and carried by someone hidden under cloth. Four to seven men form the Mari party which goes from door to door, singing songs in exchange for food.
In one version of the tradition, the horse’s skull was kept buried throughout the year and then dug up just in time to use at Christmas.
2. Eating rotten birds
Many Christmas traditions have their roots in pre-Christian winter traditions that helped people get through the tough winter months. In few places is the winter tougher than in Greenland, which is 80% covered in ice.
Kiviak is a traditional Greenlandic winter food made by stuffing a seal’s carcass with birds, which are then left for months to ferment. Roughly 500 auks (a type of seabird) are stuffed into a seal skin, with all their feet, beaks and feathers intact. The seal skin is then sealed with fat and left for 3-18 months. The birds are then eaten raw around Christmas time.
3. Christmas Day swimming
For most people, Christmas Day is a time to stay warm and overindulge in the physical comforts of good food and drink. One more daring alternative to this is to take a swim in the near-frozen sea.
Groups all over the world get together to brave the cold waters on Christmas Day. One of the oldest Christmas Day swimming clubs is Brighton Swimming Club, which has held a Christmas swim almost every year since 1860. Swimmers, many dressed in festive costumes, take a dip in the English Channel on Christmas morning, though the drunken state of many participants has led to safety concerns in recent years.
4. Krampus – the Christmas devil
In Austria and the south of Germany, Krampus is the evil counterpart to Santa Claus. Krampus is a terrifying half-goat, half-demon creature who, instead of giving children gifts, punishes them for misbehaving. The tradition is thought to have its origins in pre-Christian folklore.
One related event is the Krampuslauf (Krampus run), where young, often alcohol-fuelled, men compete in a race dressed as Krampus. Runners are served Krampus schnapps, a seasonal alcoholic drink.
5. Skating to Mass
The Venezuelan capital Caracas sees a strange sight on Christmas morning: almost the whole city roller skates to Mass.
Masses are held every morning from December 16 and December 24, during which time the roads are closed until 8am to make it safe for people to skate.
A particularly bizarre part of this ritual is that children tie a piece of string to their big toe and hang it out the window before going to bed. As people skate past in the morning, they pull the string to wake the child up.
6. Hiding brooms to stop witches stealing them
In Norway, there is a superstition that witches and evil spirits come out on Christmas Eve. For this reason, after the evening meal on Christmas Eve, Norwegians hide any brooms in their house to stop witches stealing them. Lights are also left on during the night to stop evil spirits coming near.
7. Leaving out a shoe for St. Nicholas
On the night before St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th), German children put a shoe or boot outside their front door for St. Nicholas to leave sweets, oranges and nuts in. If the child has been bad, St. Nicholas’ servant, Knecht Ruprecht, just leaves a branch in their shoe.
In the Netherlands children also receive gifts on the eve of St. Nicholas Day. In fact, this is the main present-giving day in the country. This tradition is linked to the origin of Santa Claus in the United States—Dutch settlers took stories of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) to America, from whom we get the name ‘Santa Claus’.
Happy holidays from TravelStarter and a very Merry Christmas.