It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It may not, however, be Christmas time. One thing most cultures around the world have in common is a celebration of some kind to brighten the darkest and shortest days of the year. Almost world wide there are special foods, costumes or your best clothing. Often there are dances or rituals to ward off bad spirits and some form of showing gratitude. While the individual celebrations and traditions may differ, they all have in common a look forward into the new year, a light in the middle of winter, and a reason to celebrate. To show how many cultures celebrate the darkest months in different ways, here’s a list of 25 Unique Winter Traditions Around The World You Might Not Know About.
In Austria, Krampus comes and visits children much like Santa. Unlike Santa, however, Krampus comes to punish naughty children, and if he finds a particularly naught one, he takes them away with him in his sack. In Austria and other parts of Europe, people dress up as devils and witches to participate in the Krampuslauf (Krampus Run), which apparently involves getting drunk and carrying torches while dressed up as a devil to scare people.
Three Kings Day, or The Epiphany, is celebrated on January 6th as the day the Three Kings visited the Christ Child. (By the way, if you ever wondered about the 12 days of Christmas, they begin on Christmas Day and end on Three Kings Day.) In some countries, like Spain, this is the day children actually receive their gifts, as the Christ child also received His first gifts on this day.
Losar is the Tibetan word for New Year, and the Tibetan New Year is celebrated for 15 days. Traditions include the consumption of a special fermented drink called chhaang, the eating of special noodles, special dances in costumes, and on the last day, preparation and cleaning for the new year and the Dali Lama offers a sacrificial cake in the main temple.
Since 1929, the sitting President of the United States has lit the National Christmas Tree in Washington, DC. Surrounding the main tree are 56 smaller trees, decorated for each US state or territory. The National Christmas Tree is a living tree that remains in place year round.
Eid Al Adha (or the Festival of the Sacrifice) is a Muslim holiday celebrated on the tenth day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, and lasts until the 13th day. It celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Families dress in their finest clothing to perform the Eid prayer, and then families who can afford it sacrifice a halal animal. The Animal is then divided into three parts - one for the family, one for friends, and one for the needy.
La Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil) is a festival in Guatemala held on December 7th where families burn paper mache devils, and larger effigies are burned in town squares. The idea is to burn away the bad for the previous year and start anew. The tradition began in colonial times before the feast of Immaculate Conception, burning out the Devil to make way for Mary, the mother of Christ.
On the levees that contain the Mississippi River, residents of New Orleans light 30 ft bonfires on Christmas eve. Called The Christmas Bonfires by locals, the fires are usually tee pee shaped, but some people get more creative with shapes like steamboats. While the fires burn, families and friends visit and eat and mingle between the fires.
In Iceland, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill before bed for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, waiting for a visit and gifts from the Yule Lads, Iceland's version of Santa. The Yule Lads are 13 lads who are somewhat like dwarves and each have their own name. One is called Spoon Licker; you can guess what he's known for. If children have been naughty instead of nice, the Yule Lads will leave rotting potatoes instead of candy.
Note – This is the nice version. Apparently around the start of the 20th century, they started making it nicer for the kids. Even so, there’s also a mythical bad troll woman from the mountains that boils children and a giant black cat that eats anyone who isn’t wearing a piece of new clothing on Christmas eve.
If you find yourself in Wales around Christmas, don't freak out if you see a horse skull attached to a white robe or sheet being carried door to door by people singing. It's just the tradition of Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare). After singing, the group and "horse" are invited inside for ale and cakes.
Kiviak is a traditional fermented winter food from Greenland Inuits. It's small birds (hundreds) called Auks, stuffed, beak feathers and all, into a hallowed out seal carcass. The air is pressed out, and then it's sealed with the fat from said seal to prevent spoiling. Then it's fermented in a rock pile for a few months to over a year. This ferments the Auks so they can be eaten without technically being cooked. While this might seem gross to many of us, it's a clever way to make sure there is food available when there are shortages. It's probably fine if you add some garlic and butter.
In Norway, people hide their brooms on Christmas eve before going to bed. It used to be believed that witches and other mischievous spirits would come out and steal brooms to ride on Christmas Eve, so the women of the house still hide their brooms to this day.
If you think this is strange, wait until you see number 6!
On the 23rd of December, the Mexican state of Oaxaca starts a three day festival of carved vegetables. Specifically, radishes, carved to look like the nativity and scenes from Mexican folklore. The event is called Night Of The Radishes, and radishes are specifically grown for this event.
Every year on Christmas Day, the current monarch of England delivers a message to the people of the United Kingdom. This tradition was started in 1932 by King George V, but as Queen Elizabeth is reigning monarch, it's known as "The Queen's Message."
The Polar Bear Plunge in Maryland is an annual tradition held in January, where people jump into the ice cold Chesapeake Bay. The water is generally around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and the participants wear regular swimwear. The event has grown to over 10,000 participants, all of whom must donate to charity in order to "plunge."
Most families in Finland celebrate at least part of Christmas in a cemetery. It's actually quite beautiful as visitors leave hundreds of candles at gravesides of loved ones when they pay their respects, and everyone is respectful and solemn as they remember those no longer with us.
Yalda Night is a celebration of the winter solstice celebrated in Iran. The word Yalda means birth, and the festival is a celebration of victory over darkness. Family members gather together and stay awake all night. Fruits such as pomegranates, symbolizing the cycle of life, are served along with dried nuts.
Czech women throw a shoe at their house on Christmas day to predict if they'll get married in the new year. If the shoe lands with the heel facing the house, the woman will be single throughout the next year.
Winter isn’t all about the holidays. Check out 25 Free Fun Things To Do This Winter.
In the Ukraine and Germany, there is a legend about Christmas Spiders who were so excited to see the Christ Child they ran all over the tree, leaving their webs behind. So that the Lady of the house would not be dismayed, the Christ child touched the webs and turned them into silver and gold. Because of this story, they hang silver tinsel on their trees and include a spider in their ornaments, as a spider on the Christmas tree is considered good luck.
Dong Zhi is a celebration of the arrival of winter in China and several other East Asian countries around December 22nd. Traditions include worshiping one's ancestors and eating Tangyuan, a rice dumpling.
The Caganer is an extra figure in nativity scenes in parts of France, Spain, and southern Italy. Tucked at the back, behind the newborn Lord and Savior, a figure with his pants pulled down, squatting, taking a poo, sits. This is "El Caganer," which means, literally, The Crapper.
In Japan, Christmas isn't really celebrated. However, in 1974, KFC launched a "Kentucky for Christmas" campaign, and now the Japanese eat fried chicken on December 25th. People sometimes order months in advance or wait in line for several hours on Christmas day for their Christmas Chicken.