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As if the threat of missing out on presents wasn’t bad enough, Austrian kids who end up on Santa’s naughty list also have to worry about Krampus: a horned, hairy beast that snatches misbehaving children in his wicker basket, serving as Saint Nicholas’ creepy enforcer. Many towns in Austria and neighbouring countries – especially the alpine villages around Salzburg and Tyrol – celebrate Krampusnacht on December 5, when dozens of men dressed as the half-goat demon parade through the streets brandishing sticks and terrorising children. We’ll just stick to our lump of coal, thanks.
For some inexplicable reason, Catalans observe not one but two poo-based Christmas traditions that will put a smile on your faeces, ahem, sorry, faces. The first is the ‘caganer’, roughly meaning ‘the pooper’ – a figurine of a pants-less peasant laying a cable that’s snuck into nativity scenes alongside Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The second is ‘caga tió – or the ‘pooping log’ – which is a small stick with a smile on its face that lives on the dinner table in December, is ‘fed’ every day with nuts and sweets and kept warm with a blanket, then gets beaten with sticks on Christmas Eve to poop out presents (in reality, the kids duck out to pray for pressies while relatives pop the gifts under the blanket).
There’s nothing particularly unusual about Christmas in Canada – snow, turkey, mince pies, and all the usual Northern Hemisphere stuff Australians get jealous of – but they do have one quirky tradition you’d expect from a country of people so nice they’d apologise to a tree if they bumped into it. Since 1982, an army of elves has helped the big fella in red respond to every single letter that’s addressed to Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, HOH OHO. Thanks to Canada Post, every kid who sends a letter to Santa before December 11 and includes their return address can expect a reply by Christmas Day… no easy feat, given he attracts more than one million Chrissy correspondents.
Icelandic kids don’t just get one Santa Claus, they get 13 mischievous trolls roaming the country in the fortnight before Christmas. Like Snow White’s seven dwarves, each of the 13 ‘jólasveinar’ (Yule Lads) has his own personality – including Doorway-Sniffer, Spoon-Licker, Sausage-Swiper, Candle-Stealer, Curd-Gobbler, and the ominously named Window-Peeper – and takes turns visiting children who leave shoes in their bedroom window, dropping off pressies for the good kids and rotting potatoes for the bad ones.
Introducing the greatest Christmas marketing triumph since Coca-Cola popularised the fat, jolly, red-suited image of Santa Claus we all know and love. Christmas isn’t huge in Japan but a ridiculously successful KFC ad campaign during the 1970s established the tradition of families tucking in to buckets of fried chicken on December 25. In fact, holiday-themed dirty bird has become so popular around Japan that restaurant reservations and specially packaged delivery orders are placed months in advance.
Italian Christmases are celebrated with a wine-drinking witch – and no, we don’t mean that alcoholic auntie from the dodgy side of the family. Twelve days after Santa’s visit, on the eve of the Epiphany (January 5), families across Italy leave out a glass of vino and a plate of sausages for ‘La Befana’, who pops down the chimney on her broomstick. According to folklore, the old lady knocked back an invitation from the Three Wise Men to witness the birth of Christ, and was so devo about missing it she spends every Christmastime gliding around Italy searching for Baby Jesus (despite the fact he was born a couple of thousand miles away in the Middle East), and doling out presents to good kids and coal to naughty ones.
If you thought your street went all out with their Christmas lights, visit Medellín on December 7 for the ‘Día de las Velitas’, or the day of the little candles. We’re talking about a whopping US$10 million production that features 31 million lights, 200 tonnes of ironwork and 900km of rope lighting across countless elaborate light displays. ‘El Alumbrado’ – the lighting – dates way back to 1851 but has exploded over the last decade, attracting four million visitors to Medellín over the Christmas period, and helping to dislodge the city’s reputation as the former capital of Pablo Escobar’s drug empire.
The Ukrainians take a different approach to Christmas decorations, swapping fairy lights for spider webs. The legend of the Christmas spider explains that a poor widow and her kids cultivated a Christmas tree from a pine cone but couldn’t afford any decorations… then, on Chrissy morning, they woke up to see their tree blanketed in cobwebs, which sunlight then transformed into gold and silver. Nowadays, trees across Ukraine are decorated with little spider ornaments called ‘pavuchky’ and fake spider webs, which is said to be the origin of the sparkly tinsel that shimmers at Christmastime all around the world.
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