For some, the thought of a large bearded man sliding down their chimney may sound like cause for alarm. Christmas traditions vary widely around the world, and here are five Christmas customs you might not know about, from caroling horse skulls to cheeky figurines and buckets of fried chicken.
HORSE SKULLS IN WALES: Don’t be alarmed if you find a caroling horse skull on your doorstep in Wales. From Christmas to early January, the Mari Lwyd tradition sees a decorated horse skull and cloak placed on a stick and displayed by the person hidden inside. Accompanied by other folk characters, the group will visit homes and sing Welsh songs in exchange for food and drink. The custom, first described in the 1800s, is believed to have much more ancient pagan roots. Although Marie Lwyd may look terrifying, visiting it is actually considered good luck.
FRIED CHICKEN IN JAPAN: In Japan, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a plate of steamed chicken. Although Christmas itself is not widely celebrated in the country, many in Japan celebrate the holiday season by going out for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tradition dates back to a wildly successful 1974 marketing campaign for the holiday meal, which has now evolved into lines, packed restaurants and special Christmas “barrels” that usually have to be ordered weeks in advance. Just add a red hat and jacket and Colonel Sanders is an easy replacement for Santa Claus.
NUMBER TWO IN SPAIN: In Spain’s Catalonia, your den wouldn’t be complete without something a little sassy. The festive figurine, known as El Kaganer, or the defecator, traditionally depicts a bare-backed farmer taking the number two. Although its origin is unknown, this custom probably originated in the 17th or 18th century and is believed to be associated with fertilization, good health and prosperity. El Caganer can be found elsewhere in Spain and Europe, but Barcelona is the best place to pick it up as a souvenir, where you can also buy celebrities, athletes and politicians who have sat on the benches, such as former US President Donald Trump and Prem Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Catalonia also has an emoticon and a similarly crude Christmas log that children poke with sticks as gifts.
A WITCH IN ITALY: Although she may look like a witch, well-behaved children in Italy should be delighted to visit La Befana. She is often depicted as a kind and cartoonishly ugly old lady with a broom. On the night of January 5, she visits children all over Italy to deliver treats and gifts to the good, and pieces of coal, onion or garlic to the bad. Covered in soot, she can enter houses through the chimney like Santa Claus, but then sweeps before leaving. Many families leave her wine and snacks. The tradition is believed to date back to medieval Rome and marks the beginning of Epiphany on January 6, which is a national holiday in the country.
FASHION CAT IN ICELAND: Iceland’s holiday cat, or Yolakturin, roams the snowy countryside to devour people who don’t get new clothes in time for Christmas as a reward for doing work or chores. The huge and terrifying creature also encourages clothing donations and is part of the folklore characters that either scare children or give them gifts every holiday season. The other is a Krampus-like giantess who devours bad children and her 13 children who do mischief but also leave small gifts in the shoes of well-behaved children. The first written information about the holiday cat dates back to the 19th century, although it probably dates back much earlier.