Growing up in the U.S., Christians learn that Santa visits every little girl and boy all over the world in one night. However, not everyone thinks that Santa visits them. In fact, many cultures that do gift exchanges never even involve a sweet little old man with a white beard. We’re all for embracing cultural differences, but some holiday traditions are just downright bizarre.
You might have heard of Catalonia, that little province in Spain with a loud voice – they’ve been trying to defect from the mainland for years and form their own country. They even have their own language (which isn’t totally uncommon in Spain, which has 5 officially-recognized languages), which Catalans will tell you is definitely their own, but is actually a combination of Spanish and French. This sounds random, but when you look at a map of Catalonia, you can see that it’s on the French-Spanish border, hence the logical combination of the languages. Everyone in Catalonia is at least bilingual – they can speak both Catalan and Spanish. The holiday, on the other hand, does not appear to translate from another culture. While the Three Wise Men are in charge of bringing big presents, Catalonia has one of the most bizarre holiday traditions that centers around defecation: the tío de Nadal (Christmas Uncle) is a wooden log in the living room who delivers little presents to children out of his rear end. On the front end is a happy face with a nose that sticks out (not unlike a snowman), and the family keeps a blanket over the tío (log) to make sure he doesn’t get cold. In the days leading up to Christmas, children take good care of the it and sing it songs, so it delivers the anticipated presents. Whatever comes out is shared by the family, and is usually edible, like candy, chocolate or figs (don’t overthink it). Meanwhile, the caganer (pronounced ca-ga-NAY) is the personification of the tío, a little figure doing his or her business who has a place in Catalan mangers. Catalan Christmas markets are full of famous Caganers, such as modern politicians, famous soccer players or actors (yes, somewhere out there is a George Clooney caganer, and one of the Pope, and the Queen of England).
On to another bizarre holiday. Iceland, a country that is growing in popularity. There’s been a 25 to 30% increase in tourism per year since 2010, and with good reason: Europe’s most geographically separated member is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, thousands of hot springs, lamb hot dogs and, of course, Bjork. In Iceland, the tradition is not to be visited by Santa, but rather by Yule Lads (jólasveinar), of whom there are 13 — men who go around putting rewards or coal into naughty and nice children’s shoes. Shoe rewards are a bit normal, much like our own stockings, but the star of this show is the Yule Cat. The Jólakötturinn (pronounced “YOH-la-kyur-tur-in”… we’ll just call it the Yule Cat) of Iceland is a monstrous, viscous cat who goes around during the Christmas season, eating badly-dressed people. For your Bjork fans, there’s even a song about the Yule Cat. According to Icelandic folklore, the cat lurks in the snowy countryside around Christmastime. If you haven’t received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve, you are in danger of becoming his lunch. A variation of the holiday tradition is that the Yule Cat does no such thing, rather eats food, but the main idea behind the Yule Cat is to encourage people to work hard. The Yule Cat was originally used as a threat by farmers to make sure their employees processed wool by the Holiday Season. It serves as a motivation for rewards, or at least to avoid punishment.
And now we move a little further inland to Southern Germany and Austria. Have you ever met anyone from Bavaria? Some Bavarians might even tell you they’re not from Germany — they’re from Bavaria. Bavarians are very proud of their heritage, which dates back to the 6th century. Bavaria and Austria share common roots, and that translates into dialectical similarities as well as holidays. Most Alpine towns celebrate their own version of Chistmas with Santa’s evil alternative Krampus, a cow-goat-man demon meant to whip children into being nice. This holiday tradition of a black hairy figure with cloven hooves, goat horns, and a long, pointed tongue and fangs, is centuries old. Krampus carries chains which he throws around, and a basket which he straps to his back to store and cart off bad children for his dinner. He allegedly comes to the little Bavarian and Austrian towns on the evening of December 5th (Krampusnacht or, logically, Krampus Night), visiting homes and businesses. He dispenses coal and ruten, bundles of branches for swatting children. Those who survive Krampusnacht make it successfully to December 6th, or St. Nicholas Day, the celebration of Krampus’ good counterpart, which also usually involves shoes and presents in them. The parades in the towns at this time of year feature men dressed as Krampus, and everybody who goes knows to wear not one, but two pairs of jeans, as Krampus is known to literally hit people with his stick bundles when they get too close.
Whatever your tradition, celebrating the holidays is celebrating a culture, and all cultures have something about them that makes them special, even if it is a bit bizarre. Want to learn more about cultural disparity among cultures and how they relate to you? Give us a call to get in touch with one of our experienced cultural trainers.