If your idea of Christmas involves angelic carollers, silent nights, turkey dinner, and a pine tree decked with baubles, you may need to adjust your expectations if you are planning to spend Christmas in these countries.
These five countries have some strange Yuletide practices that is worth to check it out.
Cobwebs in Ukraine
Like many countries whose population largely follows the Orthodox Church, Ukraine goes by the old Julian calendar for church festivals; Christmas is thus celebrated on 7 January. Cobwebs adorn the Christmas trees in place of the usual tinsel. The story of the Christmas Spider is very popular here. It says that there was once a poor family that could not afford to decorate a tree for Christmas – tinsel, which was created in Germany, was made from thin strips of beaten silver. A spider covers the tree on Christmas Eve while the family is asleep; the next morning, the cobwebs are magically turned into glorious silver and gold strands. Finding a spider or spider’s web on your Christmas tree is thus a sign of good luck.
Today, families decorate their Christmas trees with little spider’s web decorations made of paper and silver wire called ‘pavuchky’, which means ‘little spider’. Some even cover it with an artificial spider’s web! Traditionally, Ukrainians fast all day on Christmas Eve (6 January). Some start the day drinking holy water that has been blessed at church. They do not start eating the main Christmas meal, called ‘Sviata Vecheria’ (Holy Supper) until the first star is spotted in the sky. The star signals the start of Christmas, as it represents the journey of the three wise men and the birth of Jesus. Locals will start heading outside once it starts getting dark in the afternoon in their hungry quest to spot the first star.
Krampus in Austria
One Christmas carol we still sing today, ‘Silent Night’, was written in Austria in 1818. A traditional Christmas in Austria involves making Advent wreaths from evergreen twigs and decorating it with ribbons and four candles. A tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve with sweets, chocolates, jelly rings and meringues. Many towns also have a Christmas market selling festive decorations, gingerbread, and sweet mulled wine.
While children look forward to receiving presents from St Nicholas on 6 December, they are not so thrilled by his sidekick, Krampus. Krampus is depicted as a big-horned monster clothed in rags and carrying chains with bells attached, which he rattles to frighten children. Austrian kids are told that, if they are naughty, Krampus will stuff them into sacks and drag them to hell. Krampus, together with his army of ill-tempered elves, also cause mayhem, and delight in whipping lazy folks, unruly youngsters and drunks.
Santa’s evil twin, nonetheless, is hugely popular and celebrated as much as his generous counterpart. The rowdy spirit of Krampus is celebrated from November through Epiphany (12 days after Christmas). The Krampus Parade takes place on 5 December (St Nicholas Eve) or 6 December (St Nicholas Day), and is one of Europe’s most popular festivals. The nocturnal procession features Krampus figurines in elaborate and terrifying costumes. So if you are a huge fan of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas, the Krampus Parade might be just the thing to put you in a festive mood.
Fried Chicken in Japan
If you are in Japan in December, do not be surprised to find long queues outside Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). The Japanese do not generally celebrate Christmas, but they enjoy their tradition of eating fried chicken from the American fast food chain!
It all began in 1970, when the manager of the first KFC in Japan, Takeshi Okawara, overheard foreigners talking about how they missed having turkey for Christmas. Soon after, he came up with the idea of a KFC Party Barrel as a way to celebrate the holiday. The ‘Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii’, or ‘Kentucky for Christmas’, campaign became an instant hit nationwide — and an unusual tradition was born.
Unlike the KFC set meals we are familiar with in Singapore, the Japanese Kentucky Christmas dinner packages are special family-sized boxes filled with chicken, cake, and wine. It is usual to find a whole roasted chicken and sides in such set meals. The KFC special Christmas dinner is often ordered weeks in advance to avoid the long queues. According to KFC Japan, the packages account for about a third of the chain’s yearly sales in the country.
So don’t be surprised to find Colonel Sanders dressed up like Santa this time of the year; he’s a symbol of the holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun!
Candles in Colombia
You can pack light for Christmas in Colombia — the period between December and January is known to be dry and hot. In Colombia, Christmas officially begins on the Night of the Candles, or Noche de las Velitas.
This celebration occurs on the evening of 7 December, when candles and paper lanterns are placed on windowsills, porches, balconies, streets, sidewalks, squares and parks to illuminate each city in honour of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. The lanterns and candles will be left burning till the next morning for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holiday and national holiday in Colombia. On this day, devout Catholics wake up early to take in the atmosphere of the lit candles before they are extinguished at sunrise.
On 8 December, houses hoist white flags with the Virgin Mary’s image and have them fly all day long. Festivities on this day often include competitions and firework displays. The Christmas decorations will reach a peak on this day.
In the capital city of Bogota, you can look forward to grand decorations and family activities. Several streets are closed to vehicles, so you will have plenty of space to move freely and admire the lights and decorations. There will also be plenty to do as stores, museums and shopping malls often extend operating hours for the entire season.
Yule Creatures in Iceland
If it is a white Christmas you desire, you will be guaranteed of that in Iceland. But instead of Santa Claus, prepare to meet the 13 Yule Lads. The Yule Lads take turns visiting children on the 13 nights leading to Christmas. Icelandic children will place a shoe on their bedroom windowsill on each of these nights. Children who are well behaved get little treats, such as candy or chocolate, stuffed into their shoes; naughty ones receive a rotting potato!
This sounds much like the tales of Santa Claus until you hear the original version. According to folklore, the Yule Lads were trolls who lived in a cave in the mountains. They were pranksters who appeared around Christmas. Each had a name and distinct personality and performed a wicked task specific to it – including stealing food and resources essential to surviving the harsh Icelandic winter.
The Yule Lads, together with their menacing mother Gryla, were said to descend upon Icelanders during Christmas to kidnap children, who would be boiled alive and turned into stew. The troll family also had a demonic Yule Cat, which devoured anyone without a new set of clothes.
To this day, Icelanders keep to the tradition of getting new clothing for Christmas. Thankfully, this version of the folklore ended in 1746 when parents in Iceland were officially banned from tormenting their children with such gory tales. If you want to find out more about the Yule Lads, head down to the National Museum of Iceland.
We dare you to try the unusual Christmas delicacies unique to this land. Fermented skate – a dish that smells like ammonia and compared to rotten fish – is popularly served on 23 December, a day that marks the beginning of Christmas here. Another delicacy is Hangikjöt, or hung and smoked meat. The meat is smoked either with birch or dried sheep dung, then boiled and served either hot or cold in slices with peas, mashed potato, and a white sauce like béchamel. It is said to be delicious.