Quirky Christmas fun worldwide

by Andy Bryenton

Christmas in New Zealand must seem strange and interesting to those in the northern hemisphere, where a snowy yuletide with all the traditional trimmings is the norm. Looking at our pohutukawa flowers, festive barbecues and trips to the beach on a day, which is usually associated with snowmen and reindeer, must make the English and North Americans chuckle. Nevertheless, there are other ways to celebrate the holiday around the world which are even stranger — and no less fun.

In Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, it has become traditional for people — especially children — to roller skate the church on Christmas morning for a blessing. The deeply Catholic nation takes the birth of Jesus very seriously, but injecting a bit of fun into the proceedings by adding wheels has grown to be a big part of the holiday. Children even sleep with one lace of their rollerskates tied around one toe on Christmas eve so they can be woken with a gentle tug on the boot in the morning. So many folks take to the streets to roll their way to cathedrals and chapels, that the streets have been closed on previous Christmases to stop motor traffic.

A Ukrainian tradition deals with decorating the tree and comes from an old legend. While we here in New Zealand stick with baubles depicting angels, stars, candy canes and Santa Claus, people from this eastern European nation often deck the halls with spiders. Christmas trees are adorned with lacy webs, sometimes complete with glowing lights, and baubles shaped like glittering tarantulas appear. It all goes back to a story of a poor widow in medieval days who could not afford to decorate her home for the festive season. Unusually, jolly spiders took pity and wove glittering webs in the form of holiday decorations for her: not a story for arachnophobes, but one which is still celebrated today. In Finland, Christmas Eve can be cold and snowy, so it’s a good time to stay indoors. People give early gifts of books and sweets, then curl up by the fire to read together and enjoy hot drinks like mulled wine and hot chocolate while passing the time before Santa’s arrival with a story or two. While in Japan, a misunderstanding, which began with a 1974 campaign for Kentucky Fried Chicken has led to the restaurant’s icon, Colonel Sanders, being mistaken for Santa! The Japanese, who did not get into Christmas in a big way until recently, cheerfully adopted the chance to eat a meal of festive fried chicken on December 25, and pictures of ‘Colonel Santa’ can still be seen in advertising there today as the holiday approaches.

Recent controversy about Santa being female aside, there is a counterpart to Saint Nick in Italy who doubles down on holiday cheer. Belfana, the Witch, is definitely a sorceress of the good persuasion, and on January 5 she emulates Mr Claus, bringing children a second round of goodies to fill their stockings. Not so nice if you are on the ‘naughty list’ is Austria’s scary Krampus, who serves and a kind of anti-Claus. Before Christmas on Krampus Night this goat-headed being is said to stalk the streets, playing pranks on naughty kids. A big parade is held in which people dress as the horrible holiday figure, though these days the message is ‘be good until Christmas and you might just make the nice list after all’.

In Catalonia, Spain, they celebrate the strange tradition of Tio de Nadal — the Christmas poop log. For days before Christmas, a small log with a smiling face drawn on one end is ‘fed’ candy and treats by local children in each household. On Christmas Eve, comical songs are sung to the log, and it is ceremonially beaten with twigs. That causes the log to ‘poop’ out presents — actually revealed by the no doubt uproariously laughing parents. When it’s all over, the Tio de Nadal is thrown in the fire for warmth!

From the Dutch leaving carrots in their shoes on Christmas Eve to feed Santa’s reindeer, to watching certain movies every year as a family, to the German tradition of replacing one ornament on the Christmas tree with a pickle — yes, that’s real — cultures around the world have found hundreds of ways to make this holiday their own. Here in New Zealand, the addition of sunshine, pavlova, a trip to the beach and a game of cricket on the back lawn have made Christmas nicely unique. But spare a thought for the roller skating, spiderwebbed, Krampus-haunted holiday traditions of other nations this year. Perhaps we should adopt a few of these quirky customs for ourselves?