We North American Christians have a lot of very well-founded Christmas traditions. Drinking egg nog, decorating the Christmas tree, singing carols. There are some people around the world that might look at a tradition that involves dragging a perfectly good coniferous tree into a house, and then lighting it up, a bit odd.
With Christmas quite literally just around the corner, I wanted to take this time to talk about some of the most fascinating and weird Christmas traditions that I've found, from around the globe. Some might shock you, others horrify you. Well... I've warned you.
In Venezuela there are all kinds of different, and interesting traditions. For one thing, it's customary for the Magi to bring gifts to the children, and not Santa Claus. It kind of makes sense since the Three Kings brought gifts to Jesus and all that jazz. For the most part, however, things seem very aligned with our own traditions. They attend a mass at night on Christmas Eve, known to them as Nochebuena de Navidad, which they follow up with a big family dinner.
Between the days of of December 16th to December 24th, however, a very odd custom takes place. It is called Misa de Aguinaldo, which literally translates to Early Morning Mass. The custom is to go to church in the wee hours of the morning. The trick is, however... you have to roller skate to get there.
That's right. Officials in the city block off the streets until 8 am from any sort of pedestrian or motor traffic so that observers of this wild and wacky custom can throw on the older 4-wheelers and catch up with the Christ.
To make things more funny than weird, denizens of Caracas (mostly children) are also known to tie strings to their toes at night before they sleep. They then dangle the strings out of their windows, into the street below, and roller skaters passing by tug on them to wake them up so they can make it to church on time.
So here's the deal. In Germany the last decoration to go on the tree is the Christmas pickle. No, it's not a real pickle. It is a glass-blown ornament that, not shockingly, resembles a pickle. This ornament is hidden somewhere on the Christmas tree and due to its green colour is incredibly hard to spot. The idea is that the first child to find the pickle, on Christmas morn, gets an extra gift from St. Nicholas.
You're thinking, “It's a little weird, but I wouldn't put it on this list.” Are you a practiced list-maker? Did you graduate from the School of Five, Arts and Letters – Mega-Writer University? No, and that's why you're not writing this list, and I am. What makes this story so interesting is that it appears to be a complete and utter fabrication.
Stories of the Christmas Pickle tradition in Germany are well-known to people all over the world. The thing is Germany won't take ownership of it. The Western half of the country blame the East, saying that old stories of people in the East decorating their trees in pickles after the war, because they couldn't afford anything else, help to perpetuate the myth. The East-Germans aren't biting though, and claim that even that tale is a lie.
There are even two popular stories of how this weird Christmas tradition came to be, but not in Germany at all. The first is a tale of a soldier during the American Civil War that was captured and kept prisoner because of his Bavarian descent. Dying of starvation, he asked one of his captors for a pickle. The captor taking pity on the man found him one, and the prisoner survived because the act gave him the strength to live.
Another goes back to Medieval times, where two Spanish brothers were traveling the countryside. Needing a place to sleep, the two boys found their way to an inn, where an evil inn-keeper packed the two boys in pickle barrels. St. Nicholas, who happened upon the inn on Christmas Eve, found the boys and used his magical staff to free them (not a word of lie).
The latter of the stories is actually considered the canon folklore for one town in Michigan. Berrien Springs, MI considers itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World, and Christmas Pickle customs are carried out every Christmas.
No one really knows for sure who “owns” the Christmas Pickle, which is almost always attributed to the Germans that don't even want the myth. There is speculation it was started by a glass-blowing company from Germany that specializes in Christmas Pickle ornaments, but whatever the case may be, it is still one weird Christmas tradition.
The Norwegian Christmas, for all appearances, seems very close to what we would enjoy here in Canada, the UK, or in the US. There's feasting and beer drinking, church services and merry-making. The whole nine yards. Its roots, however, are a complete 180 from today's meaning.
The holiday started as Jul (pronounced Yule – its all coming together, isn't it?) which was a Viking holiday celebrated on the longest day of the winter, a dark time for Medieval culture, hence all the celebrations around this time to help take people's minds off of their hardships. Norway, however, was a very non-religious country. The whole pretense of Jul was simply at drinking holiday. It was literally all about getting silly drunk. Eventually King Haakon the First, who ruled Norway during the Christinization of many pagan religions (10th Century or so), changed the day to December 25th, and the reason for the season to Jesus Christ's birth.
Many of their Jul traditions were adapted and merged with Christian beliefs and customs. Some examples are Julebukk – whom are basically carolers, and their version of Santa Claus – Julenisse, a Norwegian forest elf that brings gifts to good children.
Everything pretty much screams a traditional Christmas in Norway, but one weird custom caught my eye. After Christmas Eve mass many Norwegians have a nice big feast with all of their family and friends. There's Julial – Norwegian Christmas beer. Lots of prepared meat, vegetables and sweets. One thing you won't find in a Norwegians house on Christmas Eve? A broom or a brush.
Norwegians hide all of their brooms and brushes on Christmas Eve. Why? Folklore says that witches and evil spirits will rise from their graves and hidden hovels on the night of Jul. They then steal the brooms and brushes in order to ride through the sky, causing havoc throughout the night.
It's a weird crossbreed of what we'd imagine a Halloween story. The Norwegians, however, had their Christmas built upon Jul, that old Viking tradition of drinking. To the Vikings, the dead would be heavily on their minds, especially in the dark days of winter, and so a tradition of placing candles on graves, during Jul, persists to today. A graveyard is a pretty creepy place, especially in blackest night. A story of evil creatures rising from the darkness doesn't seem so far off, if you think about it.
This one spans several areas throughout Southeastern Europe, and boy is it a doozy. In the principality of Catalonia, it was customary to have as decoration for Christmas a large model of the city of Bethlehem in one's home. This spread from Catalonia, a principality of Spain, into neighbouring countries and principalities, such as Andorra, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
This won't seem too foreign to us Westerners at all. I know that many people in my neck of the woods have small to large models built depicting Jesus' birth – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, Magi and all. One figurine that would be missing from our display, however, would be the Caganer.
Literally translating to “the pooper” in traditional Catalan language, it is a small figurine that would be tucked away from the manger scene, almost hidden in the back, which depicts a man defecating on the ground.
Can't imagine why that would be significant to Jesus' birth? Well, all kinds of reasons get thrown around from how it represents that God could come to any person, at any time, regardless of his or her readiness. Or how all men and women, even the very human Jesus, would have to deal with the woes of having to poop. There are even some Naturalism tales of how its about fertilizing mother Earth.
Just about any Catalan historian you come across will tell you this is all just some folk trying to come up with a reason behind finding this statue in the manger scene that isn't silly or lewd. The truth is... it's just funny. It's placed in the scene as a joke, and is often hidden away because anyone that would be pooping outside wouldn't want to be caught, and also so children can search the model of Bethlehem and see if they can find the Caganer.
Sometimes just having some fun during the holidays is enough reason for a weird tradition.
The culture of Wales is very distinct and interesting. That's one of the reasons it belongs to the UK. Although not technically its own country, the history and lore of Wales makes it a very separate world from that of the rest of the UK, much like Northern Ireland, England and Scotland have their own very different traditions.
The odd custom I'm about to describe doesn't technically fall on Christmas, but during the Christmas holidays. It is called Calennig, the Welsh New Year.
Calennig, at its roots, is just basically a big New Year celebration, which involves parades of lanterns in the streets, drinking and feasting; your basic New Year's sort of event. One really weird tradition that takes place curing Calennig is Mari Lwyd.
Mari Lwyd translates to “grey mare” in English, which comes from the fact that the Mari Lwyd party travel the streets of Wales carrying a pole, which has at its top the head of a dead mare. The skull is often decorated with glass in its eye sockets and a trick jaw, which can be used to make it appear that the horse itself is singing songs with the Mari Lwyd party.
If that weren't odd enough, when the Mari Lwyd party reaches a pub, or home that they intend to stop in at, they will stand at the door singing introductory songs. Once they're done with that, pwnco begins. The idea of pwnco is that the Mari Lwyd party will then begin to insult the people inside the pub in rhyme. Those inside the pub must then insult the Mari Lwyd party equally, and as well in full rhyme. This will go on until either the Mari Lwyd party is bested, or the individuals in the pub. When pwnco is over, the Mari Lwyd party then sing a song of entrance and join in the reveling for a time, before they continue their march.
Not entirely the same, but very close to Mari Lwyd is what's known as a Mummer, or Mummer's Play. A tradition that started in England, with wrenboys, a mummer is a group of people that dress up in costume and perform plays in the streets. This tradition can be seen not only in England, but in Pennsylvania, US. where Mummer Parades take place during Christmas time every year.
This tradition is seen in Canada, as well, in the province of Newfoundland, and is very different from the Mummer's Play of England or parade of Pennsylvania. A two-hundred year old tradition, a mummer run or janney, occurs during Christmas as well as on a Newfoundland holiday known as Twelfth Day (January 6th). People dress in costumes and go door-to-door to neighbours and pubs, where the people inside have to figure out who the costumed visitor is. Often insults and rhyme and thrown back and forth between the mummers and those whom they visit, and in the end there are drinks and food, before the mummers move on their merry way.
Although very different from our own traditions, you have to admit, some of these ideas seem awfully fun. I'd love Mari Lwyd to make its way to Canada, so that I could horribly insult a person and their friends and family, before coming in for something to eat and a drink. The Mummer Run sounds more my style, though.