NORWAY: LITTLE GNOMES AND (MAYBE) WITCHES
In the Land of the Midnight Sun, Father Christmas isn’t the only thing roaming the skies. Witches, amongst other evil spirits, ride above the rooftops on their broomsticks. How do you stop the brujas terrorising your household? Simple, hide your broomsticks of course. And all your other cleaning tools, just to be safe. One source even suggested that men go out and fire a shotgun into the night sky to scare them away. A quick browse of a few forums and it seems not many. Norwegians have heard of this one, with one person reminding us that locals love to invent things to make journalists look stupid…
In any case, Santa isn’t always the one to bring the gifts. Nisse, little gnome-like creatures, deliver the goods in Norway and surrounding Scandinavian countries. They also double up as protectors of your farm if you leave some porridge out, even chipping in with the workload if you’ve been really good. Handy.
NETHERLANDS: ZWARTE PIET
Santa’s little helper takes on racist undertones in the Netherlands. This becomes more understandable when you learn that Zwarte Piet in English means Black Pete, and many of the Dutch population darken their skin with makeup and hand out sweets to children.
This tradition has come under fire in recent years, with many institutions moving to call him ‘Sooty Pete’ and rebrand him as a chimney sweep, or simply painting the character gold instead of black. Things have even turned violent over the last few years as those who want to illustrate the racist implications of wearing blackface clash with those who want to defend their right to plaster themselves in black painted ignorance.
In case you’re wondering what the defence is for this relatively new tradition, supporters claim that Black Pete, a little black helper, is an essential part of their cultural heritage and cannot simply be wiped out or changed. In fairness, given the Netherlands’ history of slave trading and colonisation, they’re not too far off the mark.
So, yes, that’s a real thing that exists today. If it’s good enough for Justin Trudeau, it’s good enough for the Dutch. Interestingly, Pete is black because he was a Moor brought from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat. Presumably next door in Andalucía.
Everything goes in: feet, beaks, the lot.
JAPAN : KFC
In 2012, I was working in a language school in Oxford when a young teacher relayed some information given to her by one of her Japanese students.
‘Kenji just told me he’s going to KFC for Christmas, and that it’s a normal thing for people to do in Japan.’ She said.
‘That is utterly ridiculous.’ I scoffed in disbelief, ‘Kenji’s English is rubbish and you must have misinterpreted. There’s no way that’s actually a thing.’
With that I turned away, lamenting the gullibility of my fellow colleague. How lucky she was, to have me, a culturally omniscient man, to point out the things that could and could not possibly exist in the world.
Well, as it happens, I’m the idiot, as I found out when I moved to Tokyo in 2015. In the 70s, when KFC first breached Japan’s shores, there weren’t many traditions surrounding Christmas in Japan, as you might imagine. So when the manager of the first restaurant in Japan started promoting ‘Christmas Party Barrels’, it just sort of caught on, and has stuck around ever since. Families flock to the Colonel’s headquarters each December, booking well in advance, to enjoy some ‘festive’ fried chicken.
If gorging in a poultry-based, American fast food chain on Christmas Day seems strange to you, or, indeed, if it breaks your vegan heart, your feelings may be somewhat exacerbated by what goes on in the arctic island of Greenland.
If the word ‘fermented’ comes up when talking about food, alarm bells should be sounding in your head while your body succumbs to rising trepidation. Kiviak is made by stuffing a few hundred penguin doppelgängers, auks, into a seal carcass and leaving them to ferment for around three months. Everything goes in: feet, beaks, the lot. After the three months are up, you can eat the tenderised birdies raw by biting off the head and sucking out the insides.
Sounds… quite something. Where’s the nearest KFC?
If you ever meet a Venezuelan with missing toes, they probably tied the string too tight.
ICELAND: YULE CAT AND THE LADS
Unlike some of the other things on this list, the tradition of the Jólakötturinn is steeped in history. First written into the history book over 200 years ago, though likely spanning back many hundreds of years before that, the yule cat, or the Jólakötturinn bears a familiar tale (pun intended), taking on the role of a seasonal behavioural administrator.
The cat, taller than the houses themselves, peers into each sleeping child’s bedroom to check what gifts they’ve received. If a child has completed all of their chores before Christmas, they will receive some item of clothing, usually socks. If the Jólakötturinn sees they have their socks, then he passes to the next house. But, boys and girls, if you’ve been naughty, and received no clothes by the time the Yule Cat arrives at your window, you’ll be eaten as its dinner in a heartbeat. Be good or be eaten.
As a supplementary sprinkle of unique tradition, the Yule Cat isn’t Santa’s little helper, but is owned by the Yule Lads; thirteen little fellows who emerge from their caves at this time of year to wreak havoc. In the past, they took on a more sinister role in scaring the children into good behaviour, but nowadays they are known for the tamer tricks they like to play on children. Images of the rascals are normally projected on buildings around town, so if you see a slightly scary looking Santa-esque figures about town, don’t be alarmed, the lads have come out to play.
UNITED KINGDOM: CAPITALIST CHRISTMAS
Perhaps one of the strangest customs on this list is the brilliant work going on in the marketing departments of various huge corporations. At this time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, ‘It’s not Christmas until the Coca Cola ad comes on TV’ or, ‘Have you seen this year’s John Lewis advert? It made me want to laugh/cry/seize the means of production.’
It’s a timely reminder that the birth of baby Jesus is now a mere subplot; a parallel theme in the frenzy to buy superfluous toys and jewellery at inflated prices. These companies prompt you to remember that being together and enjoying the Christmas spirit is now not enough, as you watch a lonely looking grandfather brighten up with the receival of a gift from his granddaughter on the screen. It warms your heart. You must buy this thing for your relatives.
In what is largely a time of joy and quality time (and streets) with the family, it’s also a time of year where people are forced to spend beyond their means. Don’t be that person. If someone close to you is suggesting you must purchase their love, give them a dose of kiviak instead. Or perhaps ask the Jólakötturinn to pay them a visit.
VENEZUELA: ROLLER SKATING
In the traditional, Hollywood version of modern Christmas, it’s customary to wake up to snow-filled lands, grab a toboggan, and head to the nearest hill to quell your insatiable lust for uncontrollable speed. In Venezuela, unless you live on top of a mountain, this isn’t possible.
Roller skating to Christmas mass through the streets is thought to have derived from this lack of snow-based fun, and has become so popular among the locals that the government has taken to closing the streets off to cars at this time of year as a safety precaution, something to give them a break from tackling hyperinflation. Apparently, children go to sleep with a piece of string tied sound their toe, with the other end hanging out the window. Skaters gliding past then tug on the loose bits of string to let the children know it’s time for mass, so if you ever meet a Venezuelan with missing toes, they probably tied the string too tight one year.
After mass things take a turn for the familiar, as the Latinos take to the streets to eat, drink, and dance the day away. Now this is one I can get on board with!