8 Festive Traditions From Around the World

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

By Google Arts & Culture

Mask (Contemporary) by UnknownMuseo de Arte Precolombino e Indígena (MAPI), Uruguay

Kids in Austria better hope they’re not on the naughty list this time of year because otherwise they might find themselves face-to-face with the Krampus. Forget presents, the half-goat, half-demon sidekick of Saint Nicolas swats wicked children, stuffs them in a sack, and takes them away to his lair. In the run up to Krampusnacht on December 5th, revellers don terrifying masks and run around the streets scaring anyone they come across with ghoulish pranks. 

Salesman sample pickle kit (c. 1910)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

An old German legend supposedly states that the last decoration needing to be hung on the Christmas tree is not tinsel or a star – but a Christmas pickle. On Christmas Eve the first child to find the pickle hidden among the branches is said to get good luck for the year to come. However the tradition is actually more widely celebrated in the American midwest and most Germans have no idea where the tradition came from.

The Feast of St Nicholas (1665 - 1668) by Steen, Jan Havicksz.Rijksmuseum

While many homes around the world will be setting out a stocking for Santa on Christmas Eve, in the Netherlands children leave their shoes out in front of the fire for SinterKlaas. The Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus visits on December 5th and leaves small gifts for good children, while bad children traditionally receive a potato. Instead of reindeer and a sleigh, Sinterklaas arrives on a horse and it’s his companion Zwarte Pieten who shimmies down the chimney.

Yule Goat head (1917) by UnknownNordiska Museet

In Sweden, goats have long been a symbol of Christmas. According to 17th century records, a terrifying Yule goat demon (julbok) prowled the countryside on December 25th looking for food. The legend changed over the years until it became a benevolent figure and people began to dress as the Yule goat to go door-to-door delivering gifts. A straw goat can now commonly be seen hanging from Christmas trees across Scandinavia.

Gilbert Family (1982-09) by David McgoughLIFE Photo Collection

In Venezuela there’s no excuse for being late to mass on Christmas Day as it’s customary for people to whizz to church on rollerskates. The story goes that children used to sleep with a piece of string tied around their toe and another hanging out of the window so their friends could tug on it to wake them up as they went past. In Caracas the tradition is so popular that the streets are closed on Christmas morning until 8am so that families can skate together safely.

The Bookworm (ca. 1850) by Carl SpitzwegGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

During WW2 in Iceland, paper was one of the cheaper things to import into the country so books became the go-to gift at Christmas. The tradition has continued to this day and in the run up to the festive season hundreds of new titles are released in what is known as Jolabokaflod or the Christmas Book Flood. Icelandic families exchange new books on Christmas Eve and spend a cosy evening inside reading. 

Pohutukawa (c 1905) by Edward FriströmAuckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

In New Zealand it’s not the traditional conifer tree that’s the arboreal star of the festive season. The native Pohutukawa tree blooms with crimson flowers from November to January and reaches it peak in late December, making it known nationally as the self-decorating symbol of the holidays. The festive-colored blossoms can be spotted on Christmas cards, are used to decorate homes, and feature in traditional songs.

La Befana (1821) by Bartolomeo PinelliNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

According to Italian legend, when the three wise men were on their way to Bethlehem to meet baby Jesus townspeople were running out and joining them as they passed by. One old woman called La Befana didn’t make it out in time because she was too busy doing housework, and now every year on January 6th she flies from house to house on a broomstick giving all the gifts she didn’t get to give to Jesus to good children.

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