Weirdest Christmas traditions from around the world

Christmas demons and surfing Santas — have a very merry Weirdmas
ES composite

From dressing the tree to raiding tins of Quality Street, what is Christmas without its tinsel-covered megamix of customs, traditions and rituals?

There are the wholesome, nostalgic classics; carol singing and setting out milk and carrots on Christmas Eve. Others are newer; think Friendmas, Whammegeddon (beware the West End's disco rickshaws) and Elf on the Shelf, an American ritual that only came into our consciousness this century.

But what’s Crimbo like in other countries, especially in ones where Christianity isn’t the dominant religion? 

From post-lunch sauna sweat-outs to tucking into decomposed birds and a TV address from one Donald Duck, here are the weirdest festive traditions from around the world. Crack them out when you can feel family squabbles over Monopoly brewing.

Japan, where the Colonel rules the Christmas roost

For some, making Christmas lunch is a labour of love. For others? It's straight-up labour. If you happen to find yourself in Japan on December 25, you can kiss goodbye to endless turkey basting and sprout-shucking: KFC's bird is the word.

Fried chicken trumps turkey here thanks to a marketing campaign from the mid-70s that’s now snowballed to the point where orders for the chain’s Christmas Party Barrel are reserved as early as October. 

A three-piece with coleslaw and chips is bound to outrage the turkey-or-die brigade, but if you’re looking for a fuss-free alternative and don’t mind being cut out of family wills, it’s a move worth considering.

Japan Christmas With KFC
A man holding a Christmas meal box leaves a KFC restaurant on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan
Getty Images

Sweden: don’t sweat it

Sauna is a way of life in Sweden, Christmas included. Whole clans squeeze together for a hot box session at some point in the day, unless it happens to be 3pm when it’s time for the country’s annual Christmas address from… Donald Duck. Watched by some 40 per cent of the population, this tradition goes back to the 60s when Disney cartoons were pretty much all you got on Swedish telly.

Think that's quackers? Let’s not forget the Yule Goat, an ‘invisible spirit’ that ensures Christmas prep stays on track, like some sort of bovidae festive project manager. Giant straw goats are part of many towns’ public decorations and are so irresistible to wannabe arsonists that every year will always see some idiot trying to burn it down after one Schnapps too many.

A family sauna in Sweden
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Austria, where the Krampus is gonna get you

They take the Nice and Naughty list seriously in Austria where for every well-behaved child rewarded by Father Chrismas, his counterpart Krampus comes for bad kids. 

Mentioned in Brothers Grimm folklore, the demonic Krampus is a devil-horned beast that terrorises small children into good behaviour, threatening to eat them or spirit them away to hell — perhaps not such a bad tale to tell at 3am on Christmas morning when they’re clawing at you for presents. There's even an annual Krampus parade in Vienna and Innsbruck, held around December 5, to scare kids good and proper. Makes the Grinch look about as threatening as a Christmas robin.

Krampusnacht sees people dress up as the devil-like character and chase people in the street
Getty Images

Venezuela: watch out for roller skating church-goers

Between December 16 and 24, the streets of Caracas are closed off to allow streams of churchgoers to rollerskate en masse to… er, Mass. Known as Patinatas, kids tie a piece of string around their toes and dangle the other end out of the window for skaters to tug at when it’s time to pray. 

Why rollerskates? Some think it’s the Latino answer to sledging (preferable when the mercury hovers at 30 degrees), this wild custom is accompanied by Christmas fancy dress and plenty of fireworks — and all before breakfast. 

A boy performs a railtrick on his roller
Rolling skating in Caracas
AFP via Getty Images

Florida, where Santas swap sleighs for surfboards

It feels strange to imagine needing to cool down at Christmas when you live in the icy reaches of the Northern Hemisphere. Floridans have found a novel way to take the edge off a boiling Christmas Eve, where the annual Surfing Santa competition gets underway in Cocoa Beach near Orlando. More than 800 participants, decked in full Santa gear, take to the water from 7.30am, watched by thousands of spectators and with merch sold to raise funds for local charities.

Surfing Santas in Florida
Surfing Santas

Greenland, have a queasy Christmas

After learning of Greenland's alternative, you’ll find a few reasons to whine about sprouts. Kiviak is a super-niche foodie tradition practised mainly by the country’s indigenous Inuit community. It involves up to 500 auks, small black and white-feathered native birds, trussed up in seal skin and buried for a few months until they reach a ripe level of decomposition. When Christmas comes, it’s time to tuck into the delicacy, which reportedly bears a flavour similar to incredibly mature cheese. We'll stick to Stilton, thanks.

Starting to look quite appealing, all things considered