If your idea of a Christmas tradition involves decorating a tree, stringing up lights and baking cookies, then prepare to be surprised. Different countries around the world have developed their own unique customs to celebrate the holidays – relating to everything from pickles, to roller skates and even KFC (yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken). So whether you just need a little chuckle, or are looking for a new custom to incorporate into your holiday festivities, read on.
GERMANY: The Christmas Pickle
I stumbled on this Christmas tradition when I was walking through the Christkindlmarket (a traditional German holiday market) in Chicago. Germany is known for its beautiful blown-glass ornaments and this market was full of them. Most of the ornaments were of the typical Christmas-y variety – angels, snowmen, Santas, bells and so on – except for one ornament that was shaped like a green pickle.
Strange, right? So apparently, the pickle is part of a very old Christmas tradition in Germany. The legend goes that every year, parents would decorate their Christmas tree, and before the children were allowed to see it, the parents would hide a pickle ornament somewhere deep in the foliage. The first kid to find the pickle would be rewarded with an extra present from St. Nicholas for being the most observant child.
Naturally, I thought this was hilarious and brilliant and promptly bought a pickle to hang on my own tree. But when I later asked several Germans if they also participated in this quirky holiday tradition, the legend started to unravel. It turns out, none of them ever had a Christmas pickle on their tree growing up – nor had any other German families they knew. They’d heard of this tradition and assumed others did it, but never actually met anyone who had.
A bit more sleuthing revealed that the Christmas pickle might not actually be a German tradition, but might be a more recent custom… invented in order to sell more ornaments to the US market (although the legend is so widespread that the pickles are now sold in Germany too). Whatever the origins of the tradition might be, it’s a fun idea all the same – so I for one will be hanging on to my pickle!
VENEZUELA: Roller-skating to Church
Attending a church service is a regular Christmas activity for people around the world, but in Venezuela, they’ve found a way to make attending mass a little more exciting.
In the days leading up to Christmas, it’s typical for Venezuelans to attend “Misa de Aguinaldo” or Early Morning Mass. However, rather than driving or walking to church, those who live in the country’s capital, Caracas, make the journey on roller-skates.
The activity is so popular that the city shuts down most of its roads to make way for the church-going skaters.
But that’s not even the strangest part, because there’s also this: the night before each service, children going to bed tie a piece of string to their big toe and hang the other end of the string out their window. In the morning, skaters passing by on their way home from mass tug on any pieces of string they see dangling. Why? Your guess is as good as mine… but tradition is tradition so the practice continues.
CZECH REPUBLIC: Marriage Predictions and Death at the Dinner Table
In the Czech Republic, Christmas is the time to tell how your love life will bloom over the coming year, with lots of different traditions specific to unmarried women.
If you want to find out whether you’ll get married in the year ahead, why not try one out for yourself? For the first fortune-telling custom, all you need is a shoe. Stand with your back to a door and toss the shoe over your shoulder. If the shoe lands with the toe pointing in the direction of the door – congratulations: you’ll be tying the knot in the new year.
In case you’re worried the shoe throw was a fluke, you can test out the prediction with another marriage-related fortune-telling custom: the shaking of the elder tree. Simply find an elder tree and give it a shake. If a dog barks, you’ll be marrying a man who lives in the direction from which the bark came.
The Czech Republic also boasts a number of other traditions all related to the Christmas meal. Among them: no one should get up from the dinner table before the meal is over, as doing so will bring bad luck or death. This might not be so difficult if it weren’t for the fact that everyone is obliged to sit through nine courses of food, including a soup. In other words, you’d want to keep the drinks to a minimum or sit with your legs tightly crossed! And when the time does come to leave the table, don’t rush – the first person to get up from dinner will die in the coming year. The solution? Everyone gets up from the table at the same time.
There are a ton of other quirky customs in the Czech Republic – way too many to list here – but you can read about many of the other fascinating Czech holiday traditions here.
JAPAN: Eating KFC
The makeup of the traditional Christmas meal naturally varies from country to country. Some people eat turkey, others carve up a ham, some go for a seafood platter and on and on. But of all the typical Christmas meals out there, Japan takes the cake for having the strangest holiday menu: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Eating KFC for Christmas dinner is a serious matter in Japan, so much so that if you try to go to the popular fast food chain during the holidays, you’ll have to stand in line for up to two hours to pick up your chicken. But the Japanese aren’t daunted by that – they simply order their food months in advance to ensure they’ll be able to enjoy some finger lickin’ come Christmas.
Why is KFC so popular in Japan? Well it all boils down to good marketing. Back in the 1970s, a bunch of foreigners who were unable to find turkey (an extremely rare food in Japan) decided to eat fried chicken instead. KFC saw it as a great marketing opportunity and jumped on the idea with an ad campaign urging everyone to eat “Kentucky for Christmas”.
Since only one per cent of Japanese are Christian, the non-religious nature of the activity appealed to everyone as a more commercial way of celebrating Christmas, and the KFC Christmas feast has been a tradition ever since.
What do you think? Have you come across any other unusual Christmas traditions? Do you have your own unique way of mchristkindlmarktarking the holiday?