11 Old Christmas Traditions From Around the World You Should Know

By Stephanie Weber

When one thinks of Christmas in the western world they likely think of traditions made popular by the Coca-Cola Company. That is, a rosy-cheeked Santa Claus decked out in red. Many of the western world’s traditions can be traced to Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and other relics of Victorian England.

It was a time when Queen Victoria popularized many modern Christmas traditions including sleighs, cards, and Christmas trees. However, Christmas has been celebrated for centuries around the world. What do others do for christmas? This list details

1. The Pickle Ornament

History Hustle Christmas pickle

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

If you are of German descent or live in a German area, then you definitely know about the pickle ornament. For the rest of you: sit back and learn.

In the 1880’s the department store Woolworth’s began selling glass pickle ornaments to honor the old German tradition of hiding a pickle in the Christmas tree. The first person to find the pickle, got a special present. It turns out, however, that this is not entirely true.

There are two far-fetched versions, one claims that Civil War soldiers ate pickles for strength and the other claims that St. Nicholas found two dead boys in a barrel of pickles and brought them back to life (seriously the real St. Nicholas has an incredible and bizarre story that is worth an entirely different article).

Regardless, neither of those has to do with Germany. It’s likely this tradition was completely invented by an ornament salesman trying to make a buck off a pickle. No one knows the true story behind it.

 
 
2. Mumming

History Hustle Christmas mummers

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Mumming is one of the oldest Christmas traditions that is still celebrated in some cities. This Pagan tradition was a huge excuse to party which feels like a far cry from Christmas today. People got drunk, put on masks, wigs, and other costumes to go door-to-door singing songs.

The leader of the group dressing up as Father Christmas. Mumming is a custom that dates back to Roman New Year parties. It is thought that the UK version of mumming began on St. Thomas’s day which is the shortest day of the year.

The tradition evolved into being a lot like Halloween. It got so bad during medieval times, with people begging for money and committing petty crimes, that King Henry VIII made mumming illegal. Today mumming is celebrated in cities in several English-speaking countries, but most notably there is a Mummers Day Parade on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia.
 
 
3. Wassailing

History Hustle Christmas Wassailing

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

This is an ancient tradition that is connected to mumming. Wassail – or “waes hael” – is an Anglo-Saxon phrase that means “good health”.

Wassail was originally a drink that was heavy on cloves, ginger, nutmeg, curdled cream, egg, and apples. Delicious! The drink was made in a huge bowl that would then be passed around for everyone to enjoy the wassail together. This was known as wassailing. Allegedly Jesus College in Oxford had a silver wassail bowl that held up to ten gallons of the drink! Legend has it that a Saxon maiden named Rowena offered the drink to Prince Vortigen and said “waes hael” to him. So, that’s it.

That’s how it started. Someone literally offered someone else a drink.
 
 
4. Mari Lwyd

History Hustle Christmas Mari Lwyd

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Welsh love Christmas and they especially love their Christmas animal with a horse skull. Mari Lwyd is made of a horse’s skull that gets mounted on a pole and carried around by someone under a hooded cloth.

It looks like a scary monster, but it’s meant to spread mid-winter cheer in rural Wales. There is debate over what Mari Lwyd even means. Mari Lwyd was believed to be a loose translation of “Blessed Mary”, thus it is believed that the horse figure is thought by some to represent Mary. The literal translation from old Welsh, however, is “Grey Mare” and is similar to old Manx and Irish hooded horse figures that exist in Celtic lore.

This is why many think this is a Pre-Christian tradition, however, it is still unclear what it was ever supposed to celebrate. Scholars debate nearly everything about Mari Lwyd, but the tradition has definitely been incorporated into Welsh Christmas. If you are in Cardiff during Christmas, you might see a horse skull with red-and-green ribbons being paraded about the city reciting poetry.
 
 
5. Jesse Tree

History Hustle Christmas Jesse Tree

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

A Jesse Tree might sound like the prototype for a Christmas tree – which has Pagan roots – but it’s slightly different. The Jesse Tree is a medieval tradition that was meant to help illiterate people understand the Bible.

Different ornaments were hung from the tree each day throughout Advent to symbolize a story in the Bible, from creation to the birth of Christ. The term comes from a passage in the book of Isaiah in which Isaiah predicted the coming of Christ: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”

Today most people prefer to have Christmas trees in their homes complete with ornaments from Hallmark, but many churches will still have a Jesse Tree during Advent.
 
 
6. Caga Tió

History Hustle Christmas Caga Tió

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

By far one of the most interesting Christmas traditions on the list is Caga Tio. Caga Tió comes from Catalonia and is celebrated by children all over the region who sing songs about the poop log.

That’s right: poop log. Caga Tió, or Tio de Nedal is a log that poops present and children feed it so that on Christmas morning it will poop them gifts. They even sing a song encouraging the happy-faced log to defecate. The history of Caga Tió is unknown and there are debates as to whether its inception was in the 19th century or as early as the 16th century.
 
 
7. Spider Webs

History Hustle Christmas Spider Webs

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Ukrainie decorates their Christmas trees with pure nightmare fuel: spider webs. But where does the tradition come from?

The Eastern European legend says that a poor family could not afford to decorate a beautiful pine tree, so a humble spider took it upon itself to decorate the tree in gorgeous webs that turns into gold and silver when the sun shone upon them. If only all spiders made golden webs, then most of us would be wealthy from abandoned attics and basements.

This is why spiders and spider webs represent good luck to Ukrainians on Christmas!
 
 
8. Kentucky Fried Chicken

History Hustle Christmas Kentucky Fried Chicken

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

This is one of the most interesting modern traditions and it takes place in Japan. Japan was not a Christian nation initially, so it is fascinating to see the ways that Christianity and western traditions are adopted by Japanese culture.

The Japanese celebrate Christmas with a traditional feast of fried chicken, specifically KFC. The colonel may as well be synanomous with Santa Claus ever since Japanese ads in the 1970s promoted KFC as a Christmas meal.

The marketing campaign worked as an estimate 3.6 million Japanese families enjoy the colonel’s chicken every December 25th.
 
 
9. The Christmas Cat
History Hustle Christmas The Christmas Cat

Forget Krampus or Belsnickel. Iceland has one of the most terrifying Christmas traditions: a cat that will eat you if you are lazy.

This old tradition states that Icelanders have to put out an offering of new clothes to give the cat, known as Jólakötturinn. If they fail to do so, then they will be eaten. It’s essentially the same idea of being a nice kid throughout the year except this tradition promotes working hard – and being fashion forward! Iceland doesn’t stop it’s Christmas cheer with this vicious cat.

They also have the Yule Lads who will make mischief in your house if you fail to watch out for them. The Yule Lads mother, Gryla, is a witch who lives in a volcano and is also the owner of Jólakötturinn. It’s one big, terrifying family!
 
 
10. La Befana

History Hustle Christmas Befane

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Nothing says Christmas like a witch! At least that’s how Italy has felt for centuries. La Befana has a lot in common with Santa Claus: a magical being that flies through the air to deliver good children gifts.

According to Southern Italian lore, the Magi stopped by La Befana’s house on their way to visit Jesus. They invited her to come with, but she declined because she had housework to do. Always a woman! However, she changed her mind, but it was too late. The Magi already left. She now journeys around the world on her broomstick on the day of the Epiphany – which is when the Magi visited Jesus – to give good children goodies in their stockings and bad children coal.

Families leave her wine, broccoli, and sausage for her in lieu of milk and cookies.
 
 
11. The Caganer

History Hustle Christmas The Caganer

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Okay, Catalan loves poop apparently? This one is truly unique. Catalonians have nativity scenes much like most Christians honoring the birth of Christmas.

The Nativity Scene is not much different than most complete with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, and a person pooping in the corner. Yes, you read that right. Catalonian Nativity Scenes include a Caganer, which translates to “The Shitter”. This person has their pants pulled down to below their butt and is scene squatting in the corner.

Caganers range from humble farmers to celebrities. You can even buy a Queen Elizabeth caganer…something that the queen would surely not be amused by.

 

Feeling inspired? Introduce some of these ancient and peculiar traditions into your next Christmas gathering and let us know how it goes!

About the Author

Stephanie Weber
Stephanie Weber is a comedian and writer whose work has been published on Atlas Obscura, Slate, The AV Club, Reductress, The Whiskey Journal and more. She performs stand up comedy at The Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.

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