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Holiday Traditions Around the World That Might Surprise You

By Jacqueline Kehoe

11.25.19

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On Christmas Eve, families in Norway hide their brooms to keep away evil witches.

Photo by Julehandel pa Roro Foto/Thomas Rasmus Skaug

On Christmas Eve, families in Norway hide their brooms to keep away evil witches.

Put down the eggnog and pick up a few of these singular holiday customs.

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Santa is just one of the world’s many holiday helpers. Bad witches, good witches, bears, cats, spiders, and even Colonel Sanders play a role in festivities across the globe. Before you deck the halls and trim the tree, get a fresh take on the season with some inspiration from these unique holiday traditions.

Hiding brooms

Norway

Julaften, or Christmas Eve, is the main affair in Norway. Families exchange presents, eat a grand dinner—perhaps pinekjøtt (mutton ribs) or ribbe (seasoned pork belly) with a glass of juleøl—set out a bowl of porridge for julenisse (a holiday gnome who gets pesky if not fed), and, of course, hide the brooms. Or at least the superstitious do. Norwegian tradition holds that evil witches and spirits come out on this night to wreak havoc wherever they can. With no brooms to ride, their medieval rideshare is out of service, and Christmas Day can remain a quiet, mischief-free celebration.

Spiders and webs

Ukraine

Ukranians decorate their Christmas trees with spider ornaments and artificial webs as a sign of good luck.

In Ukraine, legend has it that there was once a poor widow who couldn’t afford to decorate her tree on Christmas Eve. Her children were distraught, but in the morning, the family awoke to spider webs lining the tree branches, shimmering silver and gold in the sunlight—and they never felt poor again. Even today, pavuk (spiders) are still considered a sign of good luck in Ukraine. People often decorate their tree with homemade spider ornaments and artificial webs, hoping to usher in good fortune for the coming year.

KFC and Christmas cake

Japan

KFC “party barrels” are a popular choice for Christmas dinner in Japan.

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In 1974, KFC launched a campaign in Japan that read “Kentucky for Christmas” (or Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii)—and the country has never looked back. Thanks to the lack of established Japanese Christmas traditions, Colonel Sanders was able to walk right into the homes of roughly 4 million people, declaring KFC as the only way to celebrate the holiday. Today, if you want a “party barrel” from KFC, you better order it weeks in advance. It often comes with all the fixings, including Christmas cake—a tradition that dates back to World War II, when sugar, milk, and butter were signs of prosperity. You’re more familiar with it than you think: That cake emoji on your phone, round with white frosting, strawberries, and candles, is a Japanese Christmas cake. 

Panevin and La Befana

Italy

During Panevin, Italians burn witch-like puppets that symbolize last year’s wrongdoings.

In Italy, the holidays don’t end until Epiphany on January 6. The night before this final day, Italians—especially those in the northeast of the country—build massive bonfires to celebrate Panevin, a ritual of abundance that translates to “bread and wine.” Over the flames, which can reach 30 feet high, they burn la vecia, a witch-like puppet that symbolizes all the wrongdoings of last year. People gather in the streets to eat pinsa (cake) and watch the witch go up in smoke, wiping away last year’s troubles and prophesying next year’s fortune (if the sparks go south or east, the crops will be plentiful; if they go north or west, the harvest will be poor). 

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However, not all witches in Italy are bad. That same night, children wait for La Befana, a good witch, to come to their houses with gifts. Legend has it that she got lost on her way to see baby Jesus, arriving a week late with presents in tow. If you’ve behaved, you might receive toys or caramelle (candy); if you haven’t, you’ll likely end up with—you guessed it—a lump of carbone (coal).

Women’s Christmas

Ireland

On January 6, Irish women hit the the town while the men stay home and do chores.

If you’re a woman in Ireland—especially in Cork and Kerry counties—your holiday season runs until January 6. Technically Epiphany, the day is also known as Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas. On this date, the men stay home and take care of the chores while the women go out, often together, and do as they please. It’s the only day of the year you might catch Irish bars and restaurants full of nothing but women. The story behind it all is that even God rested on the 7th day—during the holiday season, Irish women have to wait until the 12th day of Christmas.

La Quema del Diablo

Guatemala

Guatemalans burn man-made devils to start the holiday season fresh.

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Every December 7 at 6:00 p.m, sharp, Guatemala alights with fire and hundreds of thousands of man-made devils burn in the streets. In both small and big cities like Antigua, Ciudad Vieja, and Guatemala City, you’ll see crowds sporting horns, families lighting their own small papier-mâché puppets, and even building-sized Lucifers blazing in the town square. This is La Quema del Diablo, the burning of the devil. With Satan in ashes, the holidays get a literal fresh start and families can head home for hot, sweet buñuelos and warm fruit punch to mark the official beginning of the Christmas season.

The yule cat

Iceland

It’s bad news if Iceland’s yule cat shows up on your doorstep.

If there’s one cat you don’t want showing up on your doorstep it’s Jólakötturinn, Iceland’s yule cat. He’s larger than your house, and he’s there to eat any child who doesn’t receive clothes before Christmas as a reward for doing chores. Next time you spot socks in your stocking, be grateful.

Caroling and dancing bears

Romania 

In Romania, dancers dressed as bears help ward off evil spirits for the new year.

Caroling is serious business in Romania, especially in the countryside. Throughout the holiday season, children go door to door starting around noon, usually accompanied by a bear. Decades and decades ago, a real animal might’ve escorted the carolers as a sign of good luck; now, it’s just a lucky person in a costume. Sometimes, groups of children will don bearskins to the same effect. The bear dance, most common in the Bucovina area, is the height of this tradition. Ursul, as it’s called, takes place between Christmas and New Year’s, with dancers, drummers, and a bear tamer gathering to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. Another version with dancing goats, called capra, is often performed as well. 

>>Next: These Are Europe’s Fastest Growing Destinations for Celebrating the Holidays

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