Around the world in 12 weird and wonderful Christmas traditions

From Greek goblins to KFC feasts – we count down 12 Christmas traditions from around the word that make mince pies and presents under the tree seem reassuringly boring.

1. The Alps: Santa’s evil helper

We’re used to reminding children about Santa’s naughty list in the run up to Christmas. But Austro-Bavarian folklore goes one step further, warning badly behaved children that they’ll get carried off by the Krampus, St. Nicholas’ right hand man (well, devil-goat). His get-up probably came from 17th-century alpine parades, when villagers used goat pelts and horns for costumes.

Our Trips: Austria Vacations, Germany Vacations
Read more: Austria Travel Guide, Germany Travel Guide

2. Britain: the power of mistletoe

Pliny the Elder reported that druids in “Britannia” would worship mistletoe shrubs and only harvest the winter berries with a golden sickle. It was then hung up in homes as a symbol of peace. It’s still a part of Christmas folklore these days, of course, largely thanks to the Victorians breaking taboos by using it as an excuse to have a quick smooch.

Our Trips: United Kingdom Vacations
Read more: United Kingdom Travel Guide

3. Canada: North Pole politics

Canada has claimed Santa Claus as a citizen, so you can send your letters to his zipcode at H0H 0H0. It’s not all peace and goodwill, though. Placing the North Pole in a Canadian zipcode turned out to be politically rife, with plenty of territorial headbutting between Canada, Russia, Denmark, USA and Norway.

Our Trips: Canada Vacations
Read more: Canada Travel Guide

4. Finland: Christmas spirits

It’s pretty common for northern Europeans to defrost in their sauna on Christmas Eve. In Finland, however, you’ve got to be out of there by sunset – that’s when the spirits of the ancestors creep out of the woodwork.

Our Trips: Finland Vacations
Read more: Finland Travel Guide

5. Greece: beware the kallikantzoroi

There’s no rest in Greece between Christmas Day and the Epiphany (January 6). Instead of Santa, the kallikantzoroi goblins will sneak down the chimney and cause mischief, souring milk and kicking up flowerbeds. And woe betide those born on Christmas Day. They’re cursed to become kallikantzoroi – unless, of course, their mother quickly binds them with garlic.

Our Trips: Greece Vacations
Read more: Greece Travel Guide

6. Iceland: the Christmas book flood

Rations were in full force in far-removed Iceland during World War II – apart from in the book industry. Since books were so plentiful, they became a traditional gift during wartime when publishers would flood the market with new books just before Christmas. That rush still exists: it’s called jólabókaflóð (the book flood).

Our Trips: Iceland Vacations
Read more: Iceland Travel Guide

7. Ireland: a very merry Christmas

Many Irish families keep the sherry to themselves and instead leave a half pint of stout by the fireplace for Santa. In Dublin it’s Guinness; in County Cork, it’s the local Murphy’s or Beamish. Now you know where Santa’s rosy cheeks come from...

Our Trips: Ireland Vacations
Read more: Ireland Travel Guide

8. Japan: finger lickin’ good

Japan is no stranger to unique customs, but KFC Christmas might just take the (gingerbread) biscuit. With just 1% of Japan’s population identifying as Christian, KFC started selling the Party Barrel on Christmas Day for visitors missing their traditional meal. Over 40 years, KFC at Christmas has snowballed into a country-wide tradition paired with massive family reunions.

Our Trips: Japan Vacations
Read more: Japan Travel Guide

9. Mexico: Night of the Radishes

The Night of the Radishes falls on 23 December in Oaxaca, Mexico. Nativity and political scenes sculpted from giant radishes have filled Zócalo square since 1897. This is just one of the events in a month-long series of Christmas celebrations that also ticks off piñatas, plate smashing and puppet processions.

Our Trips: Mexico Vacations
Read more: Mexico Travel Guide

10. Ukraine: star in the east

Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on January 6 (The Epiphany). But that’s not the only unusual thing. The Svyata Vechera (Holy Feast) can’t begin until the first star rising in the east is spotted. It usually falls to the youngest child in the family to stay on watch.

Our Trips: Ukraine Vacations
Read more: Ukraine Travel Guide

11. USA: the birthplace of Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells is practically a national anthem in Medford, Massachusetts, where the carol was said to be born. But did you know that it was actually written for Thanksgiving, when (the very merry) sleigh racing season kicked off? Jingle Bells also counts itself as the first song ever broadcast from space – the harmonicas the astronauts used are now in the Smithsonian Museum.

Our Trips: USA Vacations
Read more: USA Travel Guide

12. Venezuela: get your skates on

Some roads in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, are on lockdown from 8am on the week leading up to Christmas Day. Not for parades, but to make way for the locals roller-skating to early morning mass. Traditionally, children tie a string to their toe the night before, before dangling it out the window so that passing skaters can tug it as an alarm call for mass.

Our Trips: Venezuela Vacations
Photo credits: [Page banner: Aleks Dorohovich] [The Alps: Santa’s evil helper: David McGregor] [Finland: Christmas spirits: Miika Silfverberg] [Mexico: Night of the Radishes: AlejandroLinaresGarcia]