Tales, Treats, Tricks & Traditions

By Jake Cleaver, in Lifestyle · 23-12-2020 01:00:00 · 0 Comments
Tales, Treats, Tricks & Traditions

A few Christmases ago I was in Barcelona and I came across a strange Catalan yuletide tradition that I wanted to tell you about to see, well… if you will actually believe me.

But it also inspired me to look into what other odd festive traditions there might be around the world, because after all, if you believe this first one - then like me, you will now believe anything.

Walking around Barcelona visiting lots of Christmas fairs I noticed a distinct lack of that big bearded, round bellied and jolly fellow we think of as the Father of Christmas, and instead, there seemed to just be lots and lots of logs - with happy faces painted on them. Apparently in Catalonia presents aren’t delivered by Santa on his sleigh - they have an entirely different method of transportation. Santa leaves the distribution of presents in this part of Spain to this jolly bit of wood called the ‘Tió de Nadal’, which translates to ‘The Christmas Log’, but he's also known more widely as ‘Caga Tió’ which means, how shall I say this nicely, the ‘defecating log’. This is a big clue about what's going to happen and yet, I still don’t think you will believe me. The tradition goes like this: The Tió de Nadal is a hollow log, with stick legs, a red hat and a big smile that comes to live with you at the beginning of December. It's the children's responsibility to keep him warm with a blanket and feed him well with fruit and nuts (good fibrous foods that help with digestion), and if they do this well then on Christmas Eve everybody gets together and the children beat the log with a stick (I know, not very nice way to treat a house guest) and they sing a song that roughly translates to this: "Poop log, Poop nougats, Hazelnuts and mato cheese, if you don't poop well, I'll hit you with a stick, Poop log!". After this musical encouragement and quite a few bashes with the stick, Tió de Nadal feels his bowels move and he, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now - excretes treats. Once he's pooped out all his presents and candy he's no longer useful so they throw him on the fire to keep the house warm.

I promise you it's true, also as if to compliment this ‘latrine Christmas theme’, as I walked around the stalls in Barcelona I would see little figurines of any famous person you care to mention, from Santana to the Queen - on the loo with their pants down to their ankles. These ceramic figurines are known as ‘caganers’ and they are made to decorate nativity plays. Allow me to set the scene, you will see Joseph and Mary and little baby Jesus asleep in his manger, the three wise men doting on him, the donkey happily eating his hay and, of course, no nativity play would be the same without - Ronaldo sat on the toilet. I do feel like this is a good message to send to people though, as it shows you that even famous people are human too.

Feeling like I’ve truly seen it all now I thought I’d have a little look to see if I could find out about any other bizarre Christmas traditions in other places in the world. I found quite a few and what I noticed is that a lot of them seem to have a bit of a spooky theme. It's a bit like they still had some costumes and decorations left over from Halloween a few months ago and didn’t want to waste them.

Let's start in Austria, where St Nicolas has an evil counterpart called ‘Krampus’ who plays bad cop to Santa's good cop. He's a sort of demon creature who roams the streets before Christmas carrying chains and buckets and if he finds out you’ve been naughty (rather than nice) he will chain you up, put you in his bucket and haul you down to hell.

But Krampus isn’t the only one who forgot to go home after Halloween. In Norway Santa and his sleigh of reindeer's are just one of the unusual things coming up on the air traffic controllers radar. At Christmas evil spirits and witches are out haunting the skies, and the Norwegians make a point of hiding their brooms before they go to bed on Christmas eve to make sure an opportunist witch doesn’t steal it and take it for a joy ride.

In Guatemala they have an entirely different approach to dealing with monsters, and instead of hiding their brooms - they actually get out all their cleaning equipment. They believe that the devil and other evil spirits lurk in the dark and dirty corners of your home. Therefore, the week before Christmas they start sweeping and collecting all their rubbish and putting everything in a big pile outside. Finally a model devil is placed on top (a bit like Guy Fawkes I suppose) and the whole thing is set alight. The idea is actually quite a good one, it gets the spring cleaning done early and burns all the bad things from the previous year and so, like a phoenix, they can rise from the ashes and start a fresh new year.

The Ukraine is not the place to be an arachnophobe as they not only cover their Christmas trees in the usual tinsel, fairy lights and baubles that we do - but they also add a few spider webs (and spiders).

Creepy you might think, but the story behind it is actually quite nice.

The rather believable legend has it that once upon a time a poor old lady couldn’t afford to decorate her Christmas tree, but when she woke on Christmas morning she discovered that a spider had taken pity on her and spun the most glorious and sparkling web all around the tree.

On my search for odd Christmas traditions I was surprised to find one here in Portugal too - that I didn’t know about. It's also, surprise surprise, rather spooky. On the ‘consoada’ the traditional festive feast that the Portuguese normally have on Christmas Eve, they set extra places at the table and serve food for their deceased relatives. I had to ask some Portuguese people about this to find out if it's really true. It is, and apparently they aren't even allowed to wash up their plate til the morning. Gosh, I would have thought it's hard enough to feed your living relatives let alone the passed away ones, but apparently it brings luck, and also the food does sometimes mysteriously go missing (possibly as people get a little peckish later in the evening).

It seems that in a lot of places it's not enough to tell people they will get presents if they are good, there also seems to be consequences if they aren't. Farmers in Iceland came up with a myth of a giant feline called ‘The Yule Cat’ that roams the snowy countryside at Christmas time. They used to tell their workers that if they worked hard they would receive a new set of clothes, but if they didn’t - they would be devoured by a giant monster cat. Bit harsh, but probably effective as people in Iceland still try to dress nicely at Christmas so the cat knows to get it's Christmas dinner somewhere else.

I found a few odd Traditions that aren’t quite so eerie and intense.

Some actually sound like a lot of fun. In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas for instance, they all roller skate to church on Christmas day.

This is such a widespread and popular event that the police close the roads to make sure everybody gets there safely.

When it comes to Christmas dinners every country has its own signature dish, here in Portugal it's Bacalhau, as you might expect, but in Japan however I bet you can’t guess what it is. Due to a particularly clever marketing campaign in 1974 a fast food chain convinced locals that Kentucky Fried Chicken is a traditional American yuletide feast.

Consequently, Colonel Sanders puts his Christmas hat and get-up on, and you now actually have to make reservations at KFC on Christmas day.

My favourite thing that I found out though was that in New Zealand they have the BEST Christmas tree. Due to a happy natural coincidence the local Pohutukawa tree blooms in between November and December with the most beautiful red flowers that provide the perfect yuletide decorations. This means that the Christmas trees stay in the ground outside and people bring in cuttings to decorate their house with (Christmas twigs shall we call them?). They also draw pictures of the tree on Christmas cards and even sing about them in their Christmas carols.

These ideas all seem a little odd, don’t they? But the oddest story I heard during my research was this. Are you ready? Apparently there's this big bushy bearded old chap who lives up in the Arctic somewhere with a crew of little pointy eared workmen. Despite the freezing temperatures he's quite a jolly fellow by all accounts. The weather keeps him housebound most the year and so he and his little squad of helpers sit inside (eating maybe one too many cookies) and making lots of toys and playthings. On an evening in late December though, he packs up all these toys in his sledge and pulled by, as far as I can tell, some kind of magical flying caribou he takes to the sky, and watching out for rogue witches (particularly as he flies over Norway) he travels around the whole world in one night. He stops to dock on your rooftop, sucks his tummy in and slides down your chimney where, if you are lucky, he fills the odd sock you left by the fire with gifts. He then refreshes himself with a glass of milk and maybe a little cookie (or two) before he gets on his merry way.

After all those other stories it seems perfectly believable to me. Happy Christmas everybody.

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