When you think about it, the concept of Christmas as it’s generally known around the world is pretty weird. A fat man in a red suit hops into a sleigh with a bag of presents made by his team of elves, and is pulled by magical flying reindeer around the world to deliver presents to billions of children…all in one night. If you were to hear that story for the first time, it’s likely you’d have trouble wrapping your mind around it.
Such is the case with many Christmas traditions around the world, from Iceland’s 13 half-troll Santa Clauses who play pranks and pillage throughout December together with their child-eating mother, to Venezuela’s festive roller skate mass. Let’s take a look.
Iceland: Yule Lads
Possibly taking the cake as the world’s weirdest Christmas chronicle, Icelandic parents tell their children stories of 13 troll-like creatures who roam around their villages in December, playing pranks on children. The Yule Lads, as they’re known, are reminiscent of Snow White’s seven dwarves, each with his own unique personality (but weirder — like the candle eater and the pot licker). Children leave their shoes on the windowsill, and the Yule Lads leave candy for good girls and boys, and rotting potatoes for bad ones.
The Lads usually travel with their mother, Gryla, an ugly woman with multiple tails, horns, hooves, and many heads, who, along with her cat, eats naughty children. The cat, however, has a more discerning taste, preferring to eat only those children who aren’t sporting any new attire around the holidays.
Believe it or not, tales of the Yule Lads are far tamer than days of yore, when they were said to be half-monsters without torsos.
Sweden: Gavle Goat
Every year at the holidays, the town of Gavle in Sweden erects the world’s tallest straw goat. The massive goat takes over 1,000 man hours to build. This is not the weirdest part. The weird part is that nearly every year, it gets burned down. It is, after all, tradition. In fact, over the goat’s five decades of existence, it has survived just 14 times. The most amusing part? The creative ways in which arsonists achieve their mission. One year, it was attacked by a flaming arrow-wielding gingerbread man. Another year, an American tourist was tricked into burning it down, caught by police, and spent 18 days in jail for the crime. Some years, the goat doesn’t even make it 24 hours before being burnt to a crisp.
Austria: Krampus Parade
In Austria, the Krampus Parade may be one of the world’s scariest Christmas traditions. Krampus has evolved from being a tyrant who terrorised the Tyrolean mountains with his army of grumpy elves to a form of Santa’s sidekick or evil twin. Austrian parents have traditionally told their children that the half-man, half goat demon will come for them if they don’t behave.
Nowadays, Krampus is celebrated with a parade, the central event of which takes place in Tyrol. Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run, has evolved from the wintertime tradition of people running from a runner dressed as Krampus. Entrants are meant to be drunk (something Krampus is said to hate and target), so that Krampus will want to catch them.
Ukraine: Cobweb-Covered Trees
The Ukraine has a rather sweet story behind its quirky Christmas tradition, which involves covering the Christmas tree in cobwebs. The custom stems from a folktale that has been passed on for centuries. It goes like this: there was once a poor widow who lived in a dilapidated hut with her children. Though they were able to grow their own Christmas tree, the family couldn’t afford decorations to adorn it. On Christmas Eve, a team of spiders took pity on them and wove sparkling webs along its branches. The family’s eyes gleamed with delight on Christmas morning when they woke up to the dazzling tree.
Ever since, Ukrainians have been decorating their Christmas trees with cobweb-like decorations. Nowadays, Christmas tree cobweb ornaments are made from crystal, metal, glittery plastic, and cut out paper. The webs are said to bring good fortune for the upcoming year.
Belgium And Netherlands: Black Peter
While Santa may have an evil twin in Austria, in Belgium and the Netherlands, he has a black slave. Black Peter, introduced in 1850, is said to be a Moor from Spain who helps Santa give out Christmas gifts, while also capturing naughty children and taking them to Spain (which was as bad as Hell in this rather racist Dutch tradition). The character is always played by a white person in blackface, which is now said to represent the soot that covers him when he goes down the chimney but was originally meant to act as the colour of his skin.
Italy: La Befana
Italy’s Christmas tradition may sound scary at first but is indeed rather charming. It’s said that an ugly old wart-covered witch with a flying broomstick was stopped by the Three Wise Men who asked her to lead them to the manger where Baby Jesus was born. The nasty woman simply shoved them away without helping. However, upon seeing a Christmas star in the sky, she felt remorse for her sin and decided to take Baby Christ gifts of her own. Sadly, though she followed the star, she could not find Him.
La Befana is said to continue flying around the world to this day, searching for the child. On January 6th of each year, she delivers candies to good children to make up for her past indiscretion, entering homes through their chimneys. She is also said to leave lumps of coal for bad children, but apparently, she is so kind that she’s usually compelled to swap it for a lump of black sugar.
Venezuela: Roller Skate Mass
Venezuelans also have an unusual way of celebrating Christmas. From the 16th to the 24th of December, locals in the capital, Caracas, strap on their roller skates and glide their way to Christmas Mass, even gliding all the way through the aisle of their church. The tradition is so popular that the government even closes down the streets until 8 a.m. to accommodate the parade. Many people open their homes and offer passing skaters coffee and hot chocolate during the festivities.