From the sweet to the bizarre, some Christmas traditions from other countries

Christmas tree in a square. Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 18, 2011 | Photo courtesy of Paolo Costa Baldi through Wikipedia, cc-by-sa-3.0, St. George News

FEATURE — Traditions abound this time of year. For our part of the world, the kids get excited as they think of Santa coming to town and see Christmas lights being hung on the house, the tree being decorated and Nativity scenes on display.

Compared with some of the traditions observed around the world, ours can seem sort of usual and ordinary. From the gentle and sweet to what Americans would consider bizarre, here are holiday traditions from four other countries.

Gaiteros perform in Venezuela, undated | Photo by Dario Alvarez, licensed under CC BY 2.0, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

Venezuela

Fireworks, folk singers and Nativity scenes dominate this colorful season in Venezuela. Fireworks are popular throughout the season, which begins on Dec. 21 and ends Jan. 6.

“Gaita” music from the Zulia state is popular for Christmas. Folk-oriented native Christmas music played on traditional instruments, mostly bagpipes, “Gaiteros” is performed throughout the country.

Christmas trees are usually artificial, but Nativity scenes, called “Nacimiento,” are ubiquitous in the holiday season.

In the capital city of Caracas, there is a tradition of rollerskating to early morning church services from Dec. 16-24. Roads are closed each day at about 8 a.m. so churchgoers will be safe to skate to church.

The main gift-giving is done Christmas Eve. Presents are brought by “San Nicolás” and “Niño Jesús,” or St. Nicholas and Baby Jesus.

One more tradition in Venezuela is the painting of homes. About four weeks before Christmas, residents paint their homes so they will be all ready to be decorated for Christmas and welcome in the New Year.

Krampus cards from the late 1800s | Image in public domain due to age, St. George News

Austria

Most towns in Austria set up a “Christkindlmarkt,” or Christmas market, from late November to early December. Food, decorations and “Glühwein,” sweet, warm mulled wine, are sold all season.

Early presents might be delivered by St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, but children should be wary of this visit if they’ve been naughty, because Krampus accompanies St. Nicholas. Described as “half goat, half demon,” Krampus concerns himself only with the naughty, punishing them and bringing them coal. In earlier times, “Krampuskarten,” or Krampus cards, were exchanged.

Unlike the United States, Christmas in Austria does not start officially until about 4 p.m. on “Heilige Abend,” or Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree is brought in and decorated, the tree is lightedfor the first time, carols are sung and the special carol of the season is “Stille Nacht,” or Silent Night, written in Austria in 1818.

Some children are still taught that the “Christkind” decorates the tree and brings presents for the children. Described as a golden-haired, winged baby, the Christkind symbolizes the newborn Jesus Christ.

Christmas meals are traditionally “Gebackener Karpfen,” or fried carp, as Christmas Eve was considered a fasting day by a majority of Catholics and no meat could be eaten. But “Weihnnachtsgand,” or roast goose, is making inroads as a favorite meal.

The Yule Cat of Iceland | Illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, license CC0, St. George News

Iceland

According to Icelandic legend, there is a Yule cat that roams the countryside.

But this is not your typical cuddly cute cat.

The Yule Cat gobbles up anyone not equipped for the cold, wintry weather. The cat will devour anyone who has not received new warm clothes to make it through the long winter. Families work together to ensure no one will fall victim to the Yule Cat. There’s even a poem about the Yule Cat, way too long to publish here.

The Yule celebrations really start on Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. in Iceland. Called Aðfangadagur, the evening meal is served and then the children open their presents. Jóladagur, or Christmas Day, is traditionally spent with extended family and the main meal is usually Hangikjöt, or a leg of roast lamb.

The yule-themed milk carton from Iceland, portraying Stekkjarstaur, Giljagaur, Ketkrókur, and Skyrgámur. | Dec. 14, 2017 image by Ami Dagur, courtesy Wikipedia, license CC0, St. George News

One other Yule tradition is that of the Jólasveinar, or the “Yule Lads.” Magical people that come from the mountains, the Yule Lads show up one each day from Dec. 12 to Yule Eve. They leave presents in the form of shoes placed on the windowsill, filled with sweets and small gifts.

Here are 13 of the most common names of the Jólasveinar:

  • Stekkjarstaur – Sheep harasser
  • Giljagaur – Gully Imp
  • Stúfur – Itty Bitty
  • Þvörusleikir – Pot Scraper Licker
  • Pottasleikir – Pot Licker
  • Askasleikir – Bowl Licker
  • Hurðaskellir – Door Slammer
  • Skyrgámur – Skyr Gobbler – Skyr is an Icelandic yoghurt
  • Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Snatcher
  • Gluggagægir – Window Peeper
  • GáttaÞefur – Doorway Sniffer
  • Ketkrókur – Meat Hooker
  • Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar
El Caganer, or “The pooper” figurine from Spain, undated | Image by Roeland P., courtesy Wikipedia, license CC BY 3.0, St. George News

Spain

Finally, we travel to Spain for some very unusual traditions. Christmas trees, if present at all, are very small and unobtrusive.

The main attraction in homes and in the public areas are “pesebres,” or Nativity scenes. The usual figures are present in pesebres – Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the wise men, shepherds – but the Spaniards go even further, placing figures of everyday people and famous world leaders and entertainers in the Nativity scenes.

But the one figure in the Nativity scene that leaves most observers scratching their heads, said Brett Barrett, graphics designer for St. George News, is a figurine called “El Caganer,” or “the pooper.” This is a figure of a man, usually a Spanish peasant, with his pants down around his ankles squatting down and … well, the rest should be left to your imagination.

Barrett said that El Caganer has been a vital part of Spain’s Nativity scenes since the early 18th century, and is often hidden in a back corner of the pesebre, well away from the stable.

Caga tio, or “the pooping log,” date and location not specified | Image by Toniher, courtesy of Wikipedia, license CC-BY 3.0, St. George News

This fascination with waste elimination extends to presents in Catalonia, Spain. Barrett, who served a mission in Spain for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is married to a native of Catalonia, told the story of “Caga tio,” or the pooping log. From Dec. 8 through Christmas Day, the family leaves out small morsels of food for the log and covers it with a blanket to keep it warm.

On Christmas Day the children are lured out of the room where the log is kept and the adults arrange presents under the blanket. When the children are brought back in, they are given sticks with which they attack the log, and the blanket is removed, showing that the log has, indeed, “pooped” the presents.

Your traditions

Whatever your family traditions are, may your Yuletide season be filled with joy, laughter and fun. Tell us what your usual or unusual family traditions are in the comments.

Email: rwayman@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews | @NewsWayman

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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