Inntravel's Aimée Smith takes a look at some of Europe's lesser-known but wonderfully quirky Christmas traditions.
We’re all familiar with the Christmas story: prophetic angels, expectant parents, a hard-working donkey and one overbooked inn with only a stable in which to lodge them all (not the kind of accommodation we’d ever use for Inntravel customers, we hasten to add!). Less well-known, however, are the myriad different ways Christmas is celebrated across the globe. As the big day is fast approaching, we thought we’d take a look at some of the most unusual...
1. SCHROTTWICHTELN, GERMANY
Participating in the office Secret Santa can be something of an etiquette minefield – should you really be buying your boss a beard-trimming kit, is a grow-your-own-Christmas tree a stroke of genius or a sure-fire flop, and what if you can’t find any vegan-friendly chocolate? Well, over in Germany, there’s no need to concern yourself with any of these dilemmas, for the Deutsch version of Secret Santa, Schrottwichteln, is all about finding the worst gift possible, be that a packet of out-of-date biscuits, an unwanted jumper or even a rusty old tin.
2. A FISH IS JUST FOR CHRISTMAS, CZECH REPUBLIC
Just to be clear, we are not suggesting that the good people of the Czech Republic don’t take fish welfare seriously. Rather, there is a long-held tradition in the country of enjoying a festive fried carp dinner on Christmas Eve. Nothing unusual here, you may think, but what if we tell you that in order to ensure the carp is as fresh as can be, it is often bought a few days in advance and kept alive in the bathtub as an unofficial family pet – until it’s time to transport it to the kitchen, that is. Best not to get too attached, then.
3. DONALD DUCK, SWEDEN
There are many excellent festive traditions in Sweden: listening to Gothenburg’s Singing Christmas Tree; celebrating the 400-year-old festival of light that is St. Lucia’s Day; tucking into a tasty Julbord … However, as this is a list of quirky customs, the Swedish tradition that we’re most interested in is the ever-so-slightly odd practice of watching Donald Duck cartoons on Christmas Eve. Yes, that’s right. Donald Duck.
Apparently, this tradition dates back to 1959 and is still going strong today, with the whole family gathering together to watch Donald and his friends on the small screen.
4. SANTA'S UNFRIENDLY HELPER, SOUTH TYROL
We tend to think of Father Christmas as a genial chap, comfortingly round and dressed in cheery red garb. Yet not all of his helpers are quite so friendly, especially in the mountainous north of Italy. Here, locals recreate darker times, when an intimidating horned creature known as Krampus used to accompany St. Nicholas on his present round, and frighten naughty children into good behaviour. If you visit South Tyrol in early December, you may well witness one of the many processions of Krampus demons parading through the region’s villages.
5. "SOMEBODY'S FORGOTTEN MY PORRIDGE", NORWAY
Norway also has its fair share of strange creatures who only make an appearance at this most wonderful time of the year. First up is Julebukk, or Yule Goat, whose origins go back to ancient Pagan times and who has, at different points in history, acted as both Santa’s trusty mount and a Christmas gift giver. Today, you are most likely to see the Julebukk in ornament form, or as a Christmas tree decoration. And then there is Jul Nisse, a mischievous gnome who plays tricks on any children who forget to leave the requisite bowl of porridge out for him (mince pies just won’t do, apparently).
6. DELAYED FESTIVITIES, GREECE
Christmas is celebrated somewhat differently in Greece, where Easter is by far the most important of the two festivals. That’s not to say that there are no quirky traditions or unusual customs, however, such as the exchanging of gifts on 1 January, rather than in late December like many other European countries. 1 January is St. Basil’s Day, and this saint plays a key role in the celebrations, acting as a kind of Greek Santa Claus. The herb itself is also important: many households keep up the practice of winding a sprig of basil around a cross and sprinkling it with holy water on each day of Christmas, in an attempt to keep bad spirits away.
7. A DIFFERENT KIND OF YULE LOG, CATALONIA
We’ve saved this one until last, as we think it could be the strangest tradition of all. Caga Tió is a hollow Catalan log, with a little red hat and a smiley face painted onto one end. He is brought into the house on 8 December, and it is then the children’s responsibility to look after him until Christmas Eve (if you’re wondering how one looks after a Catalan log, it’s not too tricky – just keep it warm and constantly fed and all will be well). When Christmas Eve arrives, Caga Tió is moved onto the hearth and beaten with sticks until he defecates Christmas presents – we told you it was a strange tradition!