Holidays

World's Wackiest Holiday Traditions

Filed Under: Europe, Italy, Japan

Hanging stockings by the fire, waiting for jolly old St. Nick to deliver presents, drinking eggnog and eating turkey, waiting for the New Year's ball to drop in Times Square -- these traditions are such a big part of our American holiday season, we barely bat an eye at them. But our traditions are far from the norm in other countries. From a goat-like monster to a benevolent old witch, and even the skull of a horse, some holiday traditions across the globe may cause you to raise an eyebrow. Check out our top 5 picks for the world's wackiest holiday traditions.

Giulio, flickr
Krampus
Where: Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia

Naughty boys and girls in Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia would be wise to perfect their hiding places each holiday season, or they'll be tossed in the sack of Krampus, St. Nick's nasty counterpart. As legend has it, the mythical Krampus keeps St. Nick company during the Christmas season. But while St. Nick dishes out the holiday cheer, Krampus has other plans; he's warning ill-behaved children to shape up.

When a particularly rotten kid crosses his path, Krampus shoves him in his sack to be taken back to his lair and, in a rather twisted twist, eaten. Looking a bit like an evil Satyr or monster goat, complete with horns and mangled fang-like teeth, Krampus appears in towns on December 5th, when locals don costumes and wander streets, terrifying the children -- and a few adults, we'd imagine -- who dare cross his path.

Vassilena Valchanov, flickr
Black Pete (Zwarte Piet)
Where: Belgium and Netherlands

In many countries, Santa isn't quite the solo traveler whom we in the United States paint him to be. In Belgium and the Netherlands, it's believed St. Nick is accompanied by Black Pete, a character thought to have developed from pagan traditions. There is, quite literally, a dark side to Black Pete; controversy surrounds the character, who is often depicted with dark skin, pantaloons and a feathered cap.

Townspeople often blacken their skin with face paint, stoking claims of racism. Some towns have responded with protests or by canceling celebrations featuring Black Pete, though the tradition remains popular, particularly in the Netherlands. Much like Krampus, Black Pete appears on December 5th or 6th, typically in a parade or town celebration, when he and St. Nick dole out candy and presents to children.

Paul Seligman, flickr
Mari Lwyd
Where: Wales

When your doorbell rings during the holiday season in Wales, don't expect to see a gaggle of carolers; rather, you might come face-to-skull with the head of the Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, and a small gang of attendees who will, in fact, be singing. The Mari Lwyd is a rendering of a horse and typically consists of a wood or cardboard horse skull, attached to a pole and carried by an individual draped in a sheet and accompanied by a small crowd of revelers.

The Mari Lwyd is brought around on or near the New Year by an ofttimes rowdy group who challenge homeowners to singing contests, and hope to be rewarded with entry to their homes and celebratory food and drink. The tradition is thought to stem from ancient Celtic rites, and is believed to bring luck to all the participants.

rjzii, flickr
KFC Holiday Meal
Where: Japan

Japanese gear up for the Christmas holiday -- which, it should be noted, is not officially celebrated in Japan -- up to 2 months in advance with an unexpected action: making reservations at their local KFC. Yes, that's right. KFC. The marketing geniuses at the corporation have managed to position its packaged fried chicken meals as a great American holiday tradition, stoking a fevered rush for the meals on Christmas Eve in Japan.

The demand for fried chicken is so high at this time, that the company suggests reserving a meal at least 2 months prior to the holiday's arrival. The standard Christmas meal here typically features fried chicken, a salad and chocolate cake. If you plan to join the fray, be prepared to settle in for a wait; lines can wrap out the fast-food joints' doors and down the block.

Eleonara Gianinetto, flickr
La Befana
Where: Italy

Santa Claus (not to mention Mrs. Claus!) has competition across the Atlantic, in Italy, where the kindly old woman known as La Befana delivers presents to children every January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, when it's believed the 3 Wise Men arrived at the manger of Jesus Christ delivering gifts.

La Befana is a gentle character, bestowed with magical powers, who appears every bit a witch, down to her long crooked nose and broomstick -- which she apparently uses both for transportation and to tidy messy homes. Eh, why not? Much like St. Nick, La Befana delivers Christmas presents to good boys and girls, and lumps of coal to the naughty. Though now tied to Christmas, the tradition of La Befana is thought to date as far back as the ancient Romans' pagan festival, Saturnalia, when people would go to a temple to have their fortunes read by an old woman.

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer, editor and producer who has worked with the Travel Channel for more than 14 years, specializing in travel topics including the world's best beaches, outdoor travel and romantic getaways. Her work also appears in many online and print publications including, Aol Travel, Discovery Channel, World Hum, Frommer's Travel Guides, the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer. She's happiest when eating spicy Thai food, snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia and bargaining for bangles in Indian markets. She blogs about her travels at PassengerConners.com.

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