Inside 27 Unique Christmas Traditions From Across The Globe — And The Bizarre Stories Behind Them
By Austin Harvey | Edited By Cara Johnson
Published December 21, 2023
In parts of Spain, children celebrate Christmas by beating a log until it "poops" out gifts — and that's far from the only unusual holiday tradition that can be found around the world to this day.
Christmas is one of the most popular global holidays, with more than two billion people participating in Christmas traditions of some sort around the world every year. Even in countries with a small Christian population, Christmas remains an important celebration.
Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas in the same way. In fact, it would be fair to say that no two Christmas celebrations are entirely alike, even just going from house to house in America. Still, the overall picture is bound to look somewhat similar: a decorated Christmas tree with presents beneath it, stockings hanging above the fireplace, and a feast on the dinner table.
But when you compare Christmas traditions around the world, those differences become much more noticeable — especially when you consider that many of them did not start as Christmas celebrations at all.
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Since the 1970s, KFC restaurants across Japan have dressed their life-sized Colonel Sanders statues in Santa Claus outfits. This caused locals and tourists alike to flock to KFC around Christmas — and started a somewhat strange tradition.
Despite the fact that only around 1.5 percent of the Japanese population is Christian — which is still nearly two million people — many families across the country line up outside of KFC to buy a bucket of fried chicken around Christmas.
In fact, according to KFC's own reports, the restaurants in Japan often pull in up to 10 times more revenue than usual on Christmas Eve.Instagram/KFC Japan
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Though the origins of the Mari Lwyd tradition are relatively obscure, most scholars agree that it began as a pagan ritual.
The tradition itself involves a group of people parading a horse's skull around town decorated in a white robe with streamers or holly and ivy flowing off as a "mane." The group goes door to door with the skull, singing Welsh songs or engaging in a ritual known as pwnco, a rhyming game in which participants exchange playful, rude quips.
If the homeowner loses the contest, they must invite the Mari Lwyd procession inside and will purportedly have good luck for the year. If they win, Mari Lwyd is supposed to provide them with a feast.Wikimedia Commons
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Krampus has certainly grown in recognition in recent years — in America, at least. But in Austria, where tales of Krampus have circulated for centuries, the Christmas devil has always been a popular figure.
He is so popular, in fact, that every year in Munich, hundreds of people dress up as Krampus and his perchten and parade through the streets. The event is known as the Krampuslauf, also called the Krampus Parade or the Krampus Run.
This festive tradition isn't limited to Munich, either. The parades can be found all across the Alpine region, including parts of Bavaria and Germany — and now, even in a few American cities. Sergio Delle Vedove / Alamy Stock Photo
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Every year on Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans participate in a tradition known as la quema del diablo, or the "Burning of the Devil."
The tradition began during colonial times, when it was common for people to hang lanterns or make bonfires outside of their homes on special occasions. This later evolved to the burning of a Devil effigy, as many believed that the Devil lurked within their homes.
On the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Guatemalans burn the effigy to rid themselves of the Devil and signify the Virgin Mary's triumph over evil. The tradition also marks the official start to the Christmas season.Priscila Del Cid / Alamy Stock Photo
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Long ago, Norwegians thought that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve. The superstitious believed that these witches and spirits would steal their brooms to ride upon.
As a result, many families opted to hide all of their brooms to prevent the witches from taking them. This tradition has continued into the modern day. Norphoto / Alamy Stock Photo
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It might not seem unusual, but the American custom of drinking eggnog is incredibly weird to some other cultures.
Eggnog is a relatively modern drink, but many historians have compared it to a popular medieval drink known as "posset," which was a hot mixture of milk and either beer or wine. By the 16th and 17th centuries in England, posset became a drink exclusive to the upper crusts of society.
When settlers arrived in the Americas in the 18th century, posset came with them, but they made a few changes to the recipe. Rum and whiskey were much easier to come by on this side of the Atlantic, and so posset evolved into eggnog.
Still, many cultures would scoff at the idea of drinking a combination of sweet milk, egg yolks, and strong liquor. Wikimedia Commons
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In Denmark, one Christmas tradition involves families dancing around the Christmas tree and singing festive songs either before eating dinner or before opening presents.
While this tradition isn't quite as unusual as some of the others in this gallery, it's certainly a different experience than most Americans would be accustomed to. imageBROKER.com GmbH & Co. KG / Alamy Stock Photo
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Icelandic Christmas traditions are equal parts fun and terrifying.
Two popular Icelandic folk tales speak of figures known as the Yule Cat and the Yule Lads. The Yule Cat is a massive feline creature said to belong to Grýla, the Christmas ogress. It prowls around and searches for naughty children to eat on Christmas Eve.
Grýla was also said to have children, known as the Yule Lads. While these 13 figures were once as frightening as their mother, they have taken on a more humorous and jovial demeanor over the years.ARCTIC IMAGES / Alamy Stock Photo
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In Canada, the post office officially recognizes Santa Claus' address, down to the postal code. Letters to Santa in Canada are addressed to: Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, H0H 0H0. Wikimedia Commons
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Nothing brings the holidays to mind more than a gift-pooping log, right?
In America, that might sound like total nonsense, but this strange tradition, known as Caga Tió, is incredibly common in Catalonia.
The log makes its first appearance on Dec. 8, during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when parents set it up and inform their children that they must feed the log and keep it warm. Every night leading up to Christmas Eve, children feed the log dried fruits, nuts, and water.
The night before Christmas, children gather around the log, beat it with a stick, and sing to it. They then leave the room to pray that Caga Tió will bring them gifts — and when they return, they find that the log has "pooped" out presents.
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The Elf on the Shelf is a relatively new tradition in the United States, based on the 2005 children's book The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition.
Ever since, families across America have been incorporating the Elf on the Shelf into their yearly holiday routines.
The tradition itself is fairly simple. Each December, the family "invites" the small elf into their home, and every morning when the children wake up, the elf is in a different position. The elf keeps an eye on the children and reports back to Santa whether they have been naughty or nice.
Of course, the little dolls aren't really alive. But the tradition serves to bring a little extra Christmas magic to children in the weeks leading up to the holiday.simon collins / Alamy Stock Photo
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In Greenland, the traditional holiday meals for Christmas are two dishes known as kiviak and mattak.
Kiviak is dead seal skin stuffed with auks, a small type of sea bird. Mattak, meanwhile, is whale blubber, which is traditionally served to women by men during Christmas meals in Greenland.mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
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Poland has a number of Christmas traditions that differ from those in the U.S., but the strangest ones come down to what — and how — everyone is eating.
In Poland, Christmas Eve is considered a day of fasting. It is set aside to prepare traditional meals, clean up the house, and take care of all the chores before the first star appears in the sky.
But nothing is to be eaten yet — not until everyone in the family has broken Christmas wafers and exchanged well wishes. Then, it is time to sit down and feast. It is expected that everyone will at least try a bite of each of the 12 dishes laid out on the table. Olga Sol / Alamy Stock Photo
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In Ukraine, Christmas trees are decorated with a seemingly out-of-season adornment: spiders and cobwebs.
While these decorations might be more suited for Halloween in America, the Ukrainian tradition harkens back to a classic folktale about a generous spider that spun beautiful Christmas decorations for a poor family who let the creature stay warm in their home.
Decorating a Christmas tree with a spider is said to bring good fortune for the next year. Wikimedia Commons
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While many families who celebrate Christmas might set out stockings for Santa Claus to leave small gifts in, children in the Netherlands leave out their shoes while awaiting a visit from Sinterklaas.
And rather than setting out empty shoes for Sinterklaas to leave presents inside, children actually fill the shoes themselves with carrots, apples, and hay for Sinterklaas' horse to eat. Vetre Antanaviciute-Meskauskiene / Alamy Stock Photo
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Christmas is a big deal in Brazil, given that more than half of the population is Catholic.
On Christmas Eve, many families gather together for a late dinner that begins around 10 p.m., and once the clock strikes midnight, the gift exchange begins. Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
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La Befana is an Italian Christmas figure who brings gifts to children around the country, much like Santa Claus.
According to local folklore, Befana was visited by the biblical magi — the Three Wise Men — just days before Jesus Christ was born. Befana sheltered the magi for the evening and sent them on their way the next morning. The magi were so impressed by Befana's hospitality that they invited her to journey with them to see the infant Jesus.
Befana declined, however, as she was too busy with her housework. She later regretted her decision, but she could not find the magi or the infant Jesus on her own, and now it is said she continues to roam the Earth searching for the baby boy and delivering gifts to good children. Wikimedia Commons
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Saunas are widely available in Finland, with some estimates saying there may be as many as three million of them in the country — while the population of Finland is only around 5.5 million.
With saunas being so commonplace, it only makes sense that there would be some traditions associated with them.
Every year on Christmas, Finnish families warm up the sauna to refresh their mind and enjoy some peace and quiet. Wikimedia Commons
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Each year in Venezuela, certain roads are closed off to traffic for a time during the holiday season. The reason? Countless Venezuelans strap on their roller skates and glide to morning mass, sometimes as early as 5 a.m.
It isn't entirely clear why this unusual tradition began in the first place, though some have suggested that it may have initially been a warm-weather alternative to sledding.World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
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In the Philippines, Christmas is celebrated with the Giant Lantern Festival, a massive event held in the city of San Fernando that has earned it the name the "Christmas Capital of the Philippines."Wikimedia Commons
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In the Czech Republic, it is customary for young, single women to their toss shoes over their shoulders at Christmastime.
This strange tradition is said to offer a prediction about marriage for the coming year.
The young woman stands near the doorway of a home, faces away from it, and tosses her shoe. If it lands with the toe pointed towards the door, then the woman will find herself in a relationship within the next year. If it lands facing away, however, she will remain single. TravelMuse / Alamy Stock Photo
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New Orleans has a variety of traditions that harken back to the region's Cajun roots, and Christmas is no exception.
Each year, the people of New Orleans put on an event known as the Bonfires on the Levee. They construct large fires along the Mississippi River, presumably to light the way for Papa Noël, the Cajun Santa Claus. Ninette Maumus / Alamy Stock Photo
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The Christmas pickle is a unique tradition that became bizarrely common among German-American families.
It's a simple concept. One person hides a pickle-shaped ornament on a Christmas tree, and whoever finds it is said to receive an extra present from Santa Claus or have good fortune for a year.
And though many believe the tradition made its way to the United States from Germany, it seems that the tradition is much more common here than it is across the sea. Wikimedia Commons
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A Christmas cracker is a British Christmas tradition in which two people pull from each end of the cracker — a cardboard tube wrapped in bright paper — until it makes a bang sound.
Inside the cracker, there is often either a paper crown or a small strip of paper with a humorous joke or motto written on it. Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo
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Each year on Dec. 23, the people of Oaxaca, Mexico, celebrate the Night of the Radishes.
Legend says that the tradition began because, one year, there was an overabundance of radishes growing near the town. Two friars then took the radishes to a Christmas market and attracted a significant amount of attention.
Then, in 1897, the city's mayor declared that there would be an annual radish-carving competition. Wikimedia Commons
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Like many Scandinavian Christmas traditions, the Yule Goat originated with old pagan religions and later adjusted to adhere to more Christian sensibilities.
While the original meaning of this tradition has been lost to time, there are several prominent theories. One suggests that the Yule Goat was connected, in some way, to worshipping the Norse god Thor, who rode in a chariot carried by two goats.
Regardless of its origins, though, the Yule Goat is still a popular tradition in modern Scandinavia, with many towns throughout Sweden constructing their own massive, straw goats — which often don't survive until Christmas, as they are almost always burned down. Anders Tukler / Alamy Stock Photo
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Much like many Scandinavian traditions, Latvian Christmas traditions also harken back to pagan times.
One common pre-Christian tradition still celebrated around Christmastime involves mumming, a form of masked miming. Each year, groups of Latvians don masks depicting various animals such as bears, wolves, dogs, and goats. They visit other locals and perform songs and dances in exchange for treats.
The exact nature of the tradition varies widely between regions, though. For instance, in some areas, the mummers will visit a person's home and spank them with a bundle of twigs. Pinterest
Inside 27 Unique Christmas Traditions From Across The Globe — And The Bizarre Stories Behind Them
How Pagan Rituals Became Christmas Traditions
Long before Christianity dominated much of the Western world, religion was much more varied and localized. Today, we call this Paganism, but to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Germanic peoples, tales of nature spirits, pantheons of gods, and legendary heroes were the subjects of daily worship. Pagan religions often revered the natural world and paid tribute to it.
This eventually led to the all-important celebration of Yule, or Yuletide, the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.
Yule was an end-of-the-year celebration commemorating the previous year's events, honoring the gods with a festival of song, food, and drink — and sometimes sacrifice. Yule occurred during a sort of double month that combined December and January into a period known as Giuli, which was based around the winter solstice and the darkest part of the year.
Wikimedia CommonsYule was a celebration of the preceding year that was held on the darkest night of winter.
The ancient Vikings and Goths likewise believed that the days leading up to Yuletide were ripe with magic. They thought that undead creatures known as draugr wandered the Earth and that Odin himself led a ghostly Wild Hunt across the sky. Hence, they made sacrifices to appease the gods.
And although Christianity all but wiped out many of these pagan religions, a lot of their rituals had become engrained in society. Rather than outlawing these practices, the Catholic Church typically found ways to reincorporate local traditions into their new religion in a process known as "Christian interpretation."
In fact, this is how the Christmas tree became popular. Likewise, many historians believe Jesus was born in the spring. The Church changed that date to Dec. 25, possibly so that it would align with Yuletide celebrations.
Remnants of Yule can still be seen in many Christmas traditions around the world, especially those of Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. For instance, there's the Yule Goat in Sweden, the legend of Frau Perchta in Germany, or the many Icelandic tales of horrifying monsters like the Yule Cat and Grýla the ogress. And many of these once-pagan customs have even made their way to America.
The Most Common American Christmas Traditions
Public DomainAlthough Santa Claus was primarily a North American concept, his iconic red suit and bushy beard can be seen depicted in cultures across the world.
Although it is generally considered to be a religious holiday, it's fair to say that Christmas has changed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In America, it is recognized as a national holiday, and the "Christmas season" now begins — at least according to retailers — as early as October.
Around the beginning of the 19th century, a man named Santa Claus first entered the cultural zeitgeist, drawing inspiration from the Dutch Sinterklaas and the German Saint Nicholas. Santa's eternal popularity was solidified in the 1823 poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," more commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
Since then, the American idea of Christmas has only expanded. There are countless films and television specials about the holiday, ranging from family-friendly cartoons to horror movies. Nearly every family who celebrates will decorate their house with a Christmas tree. Many may make small gingerbread houses and fruitcakes. Radio stations play a mix of traditional Christmas carols and contemporary Christmas hits.
It's certainly a far cry from Christmas' Yuletide roots.
But it isn't all bad, either. For all of the jadedness that comes with the commercialization of Christmas, this end-of-the-year holiday period is also a time when many people set their differences aside and act out of the kindness of their hearts, paying goodwill forward and performing charitable acts.
It can certainly be a stressful time, but humanity has always found a reason to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another. Across the world, people want to spread joy and celebrate together at the end of the year — and there's something reassuring about that.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.