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12 quirky Christmas customs from around the world

1. Spinning a yarn

No baubles and tinsel for Christmas trees in the Ukraine; here only spider webs will do. It’s a sign of good luck, stemming from a traditional tale of a poor woman who couldn’t afford decorations and awoke in the morning to find her tree covered in a sparkling web.

2. Eat the carp, spot a golden pig 

Don’t expect roast turkey with all the trimmings; the traditional Czech Republic Christmas meal will include fish soup, fried fish – usually carp – and potato salad. And do make sure it’s your first meal of the day; legend has it that if you fast all day until the Christmas meal you’ll see a golden pig! 

The Christmas Carp: it's not quite Turkey, but when in the Czech Republic... Photo © AdobeStock
3. The Christmas Goat is coming to town 

Lapland may be the traditional home of Santa Claus, but he’s not known as the rotund, ruddy-cheeked Santa finetuned by Coca Cola campaigns in the ‘30s in this part of the world. In Finland he’s referred to as Joulupukki, the rather unflattering “Christmas Goat”.

4. Child-eating troll helpers 

We all know Santa can’t handle the gift load for all the children in the world, so he enlists the assistance of Santa’s Little Helpers. That’s the sanitised version, here’s the real one: in Iceland these happy helpers are known as Yule Lads or Yuleman. There are 13 of them and they come down from the mountains each year to help Santa pack the goods. Sounds sweet…until you discover these little guys are descendants of Gryla, a cruel troll hag whose favourite dish is a stew of naughty children. They’ve even been given macabre names suited to their naughty child stew tastes: Spoon Licker, Bowl Licker and Meat Hook are just some…

Naughty children can head to one of Iceland's many ice caves to escape the evil troll hag's clutches on Christmas. Photo Warren Sammut
5. A mass skate 

In Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, it is customary for the entire city, young and old, to roller-skate to early morning Christmas Mass. All roads are closed to vehicles until the big roller-derby is done and after mass everyone goes out for tostadas and coffee. It’s not clear how this tradition started, but it sure does seem like fun.

6. Beat the Christmas log 

This has to be the weirdest Christmas tradition of them all: in Catalonia families create a character out of a small log, usually with a grinning face and perhaps even a little hat, called Caga tió — "defecating log". It then sits on the dining room table for the fortnight leading up to Christmas and is “fed” fruit, nuts and sweets daily. On Christmas Eve the family beats Caga tió with a stick, singing traditional songs until it excretes the treats. We’re not even making this up.

The Christmas log; beat it until it drops its treasures. Photo © AdobeStock
7. Deck the halls with radishes

La Noche de Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes, is an unusual festival held on December 23 in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Here artisans compete for the most festive and creative sculptures made by carving large radishes. The custom originated with 16th Century Spanish missionaries. While converting the indigenous people of the region to Christianity, they decided to incorporate local carving practices into the conversion drive. The giant local radish was an obvious choice of material, and La Noche de Rabanos was born.

8. Frosty reception

Christmas was all but banned in Russia from 1917 until the fall of Communism in 1992. In an unlikely battle of the gift-givers, the communist bloc pushed it even further by pitting their own Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) against Santa Claus. Needless to say Santa, like Chuck Norris, won. 

If you’re in Mother Russia on January 7 – Christmas Day on the Russian Orthodox Julian calendar – loosen your belt and prepare to feast on a Holy Supper of 12-courses, one for each disciple. 

Russia may have lost the Santa race, but it sure makes up for it in white-topped forests. Photo © Stas Ovsky 
9. Santa’s watching you…

In Japan Santa Claus is named Santa Kurohsu and is said to have eyes in the back of his head, to allow him to keep an eye on naughty children. If you stay on past Christmas and into the New Year expect a party of a different sort: on New Year's Eve houses are cleaned from top to bottom so that the following day the man of the household, followed by his family, can throw dried beans into every corner to drive out evil spirits and bring good luck for the year.

10. Gra’ma packs for Santa 

It’s not a tradition so much as a very peculiar event: every year the Scottsville Gun Club in Arizona, an American state fond of its right to bear arms, hosts “Santa and Machine Guns”. Families – from babies right up to gun-toting gra'ma – are invited to take their pick from an arsenal of pistols, shotguns, AK-47s, grenade launchers and machine guns and sit on Santa’s lap for a family snapshot. But there’s no need for concern; a team of shotgun-wielding elves is always on hand to brief the festive participants on gun safety.

Peaceful Seasons Greetings from Scottsdale 
11. Whale skin feast 

You’ll be hard-pressed to find turkey or trifle in Greenland on December 25th: Christmas fare on this icy island wedged between the Arctic and North Atlantic consists of delicacies such as mattak — raw whale skin with a little blubber — and kiviak, made by wrapping a small arctic bird called an auk in seal skin, burying it for several months and then digging it up for the festivities.

12. Hide the brooms

In Norway they believe evil spirits – witches in particular – arrive en masse on Christmas Eve. This means you should hide all brooms in the house before bed, naturally.

Once you've hidden all the brooms from witches, gift yourself the Northern Lights for Christmas Tromsø, Norway. Photo © Warren Sammut.

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