Holiday traditions around the world make me smile. After all, every country and culture does something that, well, we wonder how they could ever have become a real thing. And that’s the beauty of them.
You already know the American traditions: Fruitcake jokes, flying reindeer, Santa coming down the chimney, and recently, Elf on the Shelf. Admit it, they’re a bit odd. But we love them and happily share them with younger generations. Same in other places…
Japan: KFC = Kentucky Fried Christmas
I wrote about Japan’s “new” tradition (started in 1974) in my post, Holiday Foods From Around the World. How popular is it? People start placing their orders two months in advance. (Imagine ordering your Thanksgiving turkey or ham in September!) Read this article to learn how this tradition came to be.
Over 3.6 million Japanese families look forward to their feast. No KFC dinner is complete without the Christmas Cake, also part of the “full meal deal.” It’s a single layer chocolate cake–but just as essential as the “bûche de Noël” is to the French!
Romania: Sorcova says “Happy New Year” with flowery branches
On New Year’s Day, Americans celebrate with football and hangovers. In Romania, the year gets off to a happy start with Sorcova, a custom that goes back to when Romans ruled over Dacia, their name for Romania.
Children carry branches (originally olive branches, now store-bought sticks with flowers) and cast “spells” on family and friends, by touching them–especially on the head–with their sorcova, to wish them luck and happiness in the coming year.
Folklore says the branch is a magical stick, and wishes can come true with the magic song. (Watch and listen here–it’s catchy!) Children carry the sorcova because their purity and innocence allow the wishes to be fulfilled. Custom also declares the first entering in someone’s house on January 1 with the sorcova must be a little boy in order to bring the best luck for the whole year. (I hope this has changed by now…)
Italy: Forget St. Nick, La Befana delivers the goods
Italian children look forward to the eve of Epiphany, when La Befana fills their stockings with candy and gifts if they’ve been good…or the infamous lump of coal if they haven’t. Another similarity to a certain Christmas celebrity: She’s covered with soot from entering homes through the chimney.
However, La Befana is a good witch, even though she’s portrayed as an old hag who rides a broomstick.
Legend has it that she was the best housekeeper in her village. When the Wise Men stopped at her home to ask for directions, they invited her to join them. She declined, saying she was too busy cleaning. Later, she realized her mistake and set out after them, without success. The story varies, but the one I like has her eventually finding Jesus and presenting him with gifts to make him happy. Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.
No cookies and milk for the kind witch in this country. Italian families set out a glass of wine and a plate of top-notch food. YUM! And, still being a good housekeeper, she will sweep the floor before she leaves.
(If you’d like to share the story of La Befana with the children in your life, I recommend The Legend of Old Befana, illustrated by the magnificent Tomie de Paola.)
Spain: No sh*t, El Caganer is part of the Nativity scene
Fun–and funny–holiday traditions around the world? Right here! From the kind and sweet La Befana, let’s go to Catalonia, where the caganer is a popular figure in local pastoral and nativity scenes. Along with the typical manger scene, with its shepherds and angels, you’ll see a man squatting with his pants down…defecating. Often he’s hiding in the scene, so it becomes a game to be the first to find him.
The name “El Caganer” literally means “the crapper” or “the shitter.” He’s usually depicted as a peasant, wearing the traditional Catalan red cap, with his trousers down, showing a bare backside, pooping. He often has a little smile or a contented expression. New versions are made every year, and there are societies for serious collectors of the fellow.
The exact origin of this figure isn’t known, but it started showing up in Catalan in the late 17th century. Opinions regarding its (apparently) important inclusion in otherwise solemn scenes are varied. Some claim that it’s a symbol of fertilization…thereby bringing good fortune. Others believe it represents a comic relief to the contrived spectacle of religion. Still others say he’s just a mischievous guy who likes to have a little fun.
Ukraine: The more spider webs, the merrier & luckier
Once upon a time, a poor family grew their Christmas tree from a pinecone. But when the holiday season arrived, they couldn’t afford to decorate it, so it was bare when they went to bed on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, it was brilliant, covered with beautiful spider webs!
Ukranians decorate their trees with spider webs to continue the custom, and for good fortune in the new year. In fact, spiders (pavuk) are considered to be lucky all year long.
Just as Germans hide a pickle on their Christmas trees, Ukranians tuck a spider ornament in the branches. It could be fun to include ornaments from around the world, to learn how others celebrate the holidays.
Venezuela: Let’s roller skate to Mass…for nine days
Talk about Holy Rollers! In Caracas, streets are officially closed in the mornings until 8 am, from December 16-24, so citizens can roller skate to mass. And do they ever! Almost 90% of the country is Catholic, so the streets are full of happy skaters.
The masses before Christmas are called Misas de Aguinaldo. To make sure worshippers are up in time to skate there–and to add to the fun of the season–neighborhoods set off fireworks and ring bells in the mornings.
Even children have a special custom for this time of year. Before going to bed, they tie one end of a piece of string to their big toe and hang the other out the window. The next morning, rollerskaters give a tug to any string they see hanging.
Norway: Hide the brooms to keep the witches at bay
In Norway, on Julaften, or Christmas Eve, it’s customary to follow an old superstition: hiding the brooms. In “olden days,” Norwegians believed that mean witches and mischievous spirits came out on Christmas Eve to make trouble, including stealing brooms to use for riding in the skies.
To thwart the thieves, families hide their brooms before going to bed. Sometimes men will take guns outside and shoot into the sky, as a warning to the evil-doers. Just to be extra-sure, mops and brushes are hidden, too. Norwegians go all out with “an ounce of prevention” to keep their cleaning tools secure and Christmas Eve skies safe.
Ireland: Women’s Christmas…a day to herself!
We’ll wrap this up with one of the best holiday traditions around the world: Women’s Christmas in Ireland. Recognizing that women do most of the heavy-lifting during the season, January 6 is not only Epiphany, but Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Little Christmas.
On this day, the men stay home and handle the household. The women? Off they go, to do as they please! Pubs and restaurants are full of women, laughing and relaxing. The story behind it is that even God rested on the 7th day—but Irish women have to wait until the 12th day…of Christmas.
The tradition goes back to times when families were large and women did absolutely everything for the home. If a man did any of the work, he would be teased and called an “auld woman” by other men. No full-blooded Irish man wanted that!
I bet women from every country would love Women’s Christmas. Why not start in your own home next January 6?
Tis the season! More Christmas and holiday posts: