Surprising Holiday Traditions From Around the World



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Merry Creepy Christmas

Santa, his toy-making elves, and Rudolph may be larger-than-life figures in this country, but around the world, the holiday season brings a unique and colorful array of celebrations and characters. Depending on the country, or region, the traditions may include witches, spiders, or even feasts of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

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La Befana

La Befana

Santa is hardly the only star during Italy's holiday season, says travel blogger David Tooke, creator of the site Camping Fun Zone. Italy’s oldest and perhaps most celebrated holiday tradition involves an old witch who goes by the name of Befana. “Italian children are also visited by Befana, who gives gifts to children that leave wine and food out for her,” Tooke says. Unlike Santa Claus traveling the globe in a sleigh, Befana arrives riding a broom and doesn’t show up until early January during the Feast of the Epiphany. How did this tradition come to be exactly? Legend has it that when Jesus was born, Befana decided not to visit his manger with the three wise men. Feeling bad about her decision later, the witch decides to bring gifts to the child but is unable to find him and instead leaves gifts for other children.

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Spider Web Trees
Spider Web Trees by Erika Smith (CC BY-SA)

Spider Web Trees

If you have any sort of dislike for spiders, this particular holiday activity may not be for you. In Ukraine, Christmas trees are decorated with artificial spider webs. The spider web tree tradition traces back to an ancient tale about a widow and her children who were too poor to decorate their Christmas tree. It seems spiders heard the children crying about this sad predicament. On Christmas Eve, after the family went to bed, the spiders created intricate webs on the tree to decorate it for the family. The next morning, the children were overjoyed upon discovering what the spiders had done. Ukranians continue decorating their trees with webs in honor of this miracle and to bring themselves good luck and good fortune in the year ahead.

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Kids far and wide are warned about being naughty in advance of Christmas or they will suffer the consequences, which, for many, means receiving a paltry lump of coal. But in some countries, the consequences are far worse: a visit from Krampus instead of good ol’ St. Nick. Half man and half goat, it is said that Krampus will chase naughty kids and even (shudder) drag them all the way to hell. Seems a little harsh doesn’t it? Krampus has apparently been striking fear in the hearts of children in Austria’s Alpine region for hundreds of years now.

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The Yule Cat
The Yule Cat by Christine Rondeau (CC BY)

The Yule Cat

Yet another quirky (and somewhat disturbing) tradition involves 13 Father Christmases and a creature called Grýla who boils children alive. And did we mention the black Christmas cat? Here’s how it works. In the days leading up to Christmas, children in Iceland enjoy visits from each of the 13 Father Christmases, who are called Yule Lads. These lads take turns delivering candy to boys and girls who leave a shoe on their windowsill. (Kids who’ve been bad, however, find their shoe filled with rotten potatoes).

“The Yule lads are quite mischievous, and each one has its own personality,” says Gabby Stuckenschneider, travel blogger and creator of the site Office Escape Artist. “This tradition may sound cute, but on Christmas Day, it becomes a bit terrifying. Naughty children get taken by mother Grýla and are boiled alive in her soup. Meanwhile, the Christmas cat prowls around and eats anyone who isn't wearing at least one new piece of clothing on Christmas Eve.”

Related: Here's How to Visit Iceland Without Spending a Fortune

Tio de Nadal
Tio de Nadal by GrupdAlliberaciodeTiosdenadal (CC BY-SA)

The Christmas Log

While in many countries around the world, it’s Santa who delivers presents on Christmas morning, in parts of Spain, holiday gifts are provided courtesy of a smiling Christmas log. Yes, you read that right: a log. And not just any log. One that defecates to provide the gifts. The tradition is known as Tió de Nadal and involves children caring for the log.

“Tió features a log of any size that has legs, a face, and a red hat on his head, which the children must take care of during the whole of Christmas by constantly feeding it and covering it with a blanket, so it can defecate presents on Christmas Eve,” explains travel blogger Torben Lonne, co-founder of, a snorkeling and scuba diving website. On Christmas Day, the log is placed into a fire, and children sing songs and beat it with sticks to make it defecate treats, all of which makes a lump of coal seem almost preferable doesn’t it?


Hiding Brooms

Some Norwegians believe that the Christmas Eve holiday also happens to bring evil spirits and witches. To perhaps prevent these evil entities from getting all too carried away and causing mayhem, many Norwegians hide all of their brooms before heading to bed on the all-important night.

Christmas in San Juan


Puerto Rico
In many places, the holidays are a time to go door to door singing carols. Puerto Rico has added a unique twist to this tradition: the parranda. There, groups of friends and family wait until after 10 p.m. and then gather outside a household to sing and make music with maracas and guitars. Why wait so late to start the parranda party? The goal is to surprise the household’s inhabitants, waking them with happy music. Once awakened, the household traditionally offers refreshments to the carolers and then joins them singing for another household. The house-to-house music fest sometimes continues until the sun comes up in the morning.

Noche de los Rábanos
Noche de los Rábanos by AlejandroLinaresGarcia (CC BY-SA)

Night of the Radishes

You know those seemingly useless garnishes often sitting on the edge of your dinner plate in a restaurant? It seems they may not be so useless after all. In fact, there’s an entire holiday tradition in Mexico that revolves around them. Known as Noche de los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) and held annually on Dec. 23 in Oaxaca City, this Christmas festival involves carving radishes into elaborate shapes ranging from mythical creatures to wild animals. The tradition dates back to 1897 when the city’s mayor decided to make the contest part of the Christmas market as a way to promote local agriculture.

Related: 15 Memorable Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico's Culinary Capital

Broken Dishes

Smashing Dishes

In Denmark, you may want to hide the china as the holidays approach. At least the intact china. The country has a particularly unusual way of celebrating friendships, which takes place at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “To show your friendship and affection, the custom is to smash broken dishes on the doorways of friends’ homes,” says Elizabeth Avery, founder of Solo Trekker 4 U. “The bigger the pile, the more popular you are.” The tradition is said to be a sign of affection and ever-lasting friendship.

Lighting Graves
Jaakko Heikkilä/istockphoto

Lighting Graves

Somber as it may sound, many people in Finland mark Christmas Eve by visiting cemeteries. They do so to place candles on the graves of deceased loved ones. The tradition is so popular, special traffic accommodations typically need to be worked out in order to handle all the crowds. The tradition is, by some accounts, very uplifting with the sight of the many graveside candles bringing light and joy. The tradition dates back to at least to the 1920s.

La Quema del Diablo
La Quema del Diablo by Conred Guatemala (CC BY-NC-ND)

La Quema del Diablo

Burning effigies of the devil is yet another unique approach to marking the holiday season. This one takes place every Dec. 7 at exactly 6 p.m. when hundreds of thousands of these man-made devils are set afire in the streets throughout Guatemala. The idea behind the tradition is that with Satan in ashes, quite literally, the holidays can kick off with a fresh start. After the devil burning is complete families feast on hot, sweet buñuelos (a fried donut-like sweet) and warm fruit punch. 

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Christopher Ames/istockphoto


Some of us are all about the presents during the holidays. Others are all about the parties. In Scotland, New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay as it is called, is far more important than Christmas. The celebrations begin on Dec. 30 when thousands of torch bearers march through Edinburgh creating a streaming, visual river of fire. On Dec. 31, locals typically dance the night away in a Hogmanay street party, followed by the Loony Dook on Jan. 1. Need clarification on what a Loony Dook involves exactly? You’re not alone. Think of it as a way to clear your head after a night of serious partying. The tradition involves parading through the streets in a fancy dress and then jumping into the River Forth. In Scotland. In January. Let’s all say it together: Brrrrrrrr.

Romania Christmas
Romania Christmas by Romania Photo Tours (CC BY-NC)

Caroling Bears

Caroling seems to take all forms during the holiday season, and in some parts of Romania, it even includes bears. Not live ones, thankfully. At least not anymore. On Christmas Eve throughout the country, children go caroling from house to house. Some incorporate whips, bells and drums into the act, which is said to help scare away any malevolent spirits that may be present. But still other carolers step up their game further, wearing costumes symbolizing bears, goats or horses, which apparently represent evil forces. Years ago, real bears were even included in the tradition in some parts of the country.

Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sanders Claus
Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sanders Claus by sfgamchick (CC BY-NC-ND)

Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sanders Claus

Who needs Santa Claus when there’s Sanders Claus? Thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign rolled out by Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan during the 1970s, Christmas Eve is marked by many Japanese families with buckets of fried chicken and all of the fixings, including Christmas cake. “Saunders (sic) Claus shows up each December and buckets of KFC are in such demand on Christmas Eve that Tokyo residents put their orders in as early as October,” Japan expert Marian Goldberg wrote in an article on the topic in Love2Fly. The tradition arose from the lack of turkey available in Japan during the holiday season.

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