As we all know, Christmas is a holiday celebrated on the 25th of December by the Christian faith to honour the birth of Jesus Christ.
In this day and age, it is the world’s most mainstream religious December holiday besides the Jewish Hannukah. Christmas is so widespread that even non-Christians embrace it as their own since it is so easy to empathize with the festivities. Festivities which are synonymous with the white-bearded Santa Claus delivering presents (or coal) to children, frosty snowmen/women, Christmas carols and family dinners.
Even though Christmas may have started with Jesus’ entrance to the world of Christianity, many European countries included their traditions based on regional folklore, mythology and beliefs – which date back further than Christianity itself.
To recognize the individuality of their heritage, listed below are 3 examples of unusually quirky Christmas traditions around the European continent:
1. Catalonia (Spain): El Tió de Nadal – The Christmas log
Catalonia, the North-Eastern autonomous region of Spain, celebrates Christmas time in the most peculiar way. In a mythological tradition that spans to pre-Christian (Pagan) times, El Tió de Nadal is a wooden tree trunk with a face and legs that sleeps in the forest all year, until it wakes up on December 8th to receive a warm welcome from every Catalan household. Each night, the children feed it chocolate, tangerines, apples and various snacks to fatten it up, and the following morning, they find out that the log has eaten everything. On Christmas day (or Christmas Eve), the log is ready for its big debut. A cloth is placed on top of it, and the whole family gathers around it with wooden sticks. Everybody then proceeds to beat it with these sticks while singing the traditional song “Caga Tió” (Poop, log) to make it poop presents. When the song finishes, the cloth is lifted and presents are unwrapped. This process is done several times until there are no more presents for the log to poop. When this happens, the cloth is lifted to reveal an onion or a potato – symbolizing the Tió’s final push of the year.
2. Czech Republic: A shoe as a dating omen
Some customs in the Czech Republic are rooted upon superstition, with a considerable portion of the Czech population taking positive or negative omens quite seriously. On Christmas Eve, single women perform a match-making ritual that will foretell their romantic future. They will stand at the doorway of their home facing backwards and throw one of their shoes or heels over their shoulder. If the shoe lands and points towards their direction, a wedding is in store for them in the near future! If it doesn’t, they will remain single until next year. There is yet another tradition if the odds are in their favour. If the woman wants to know where her future husband is from, she will first need to find an elder tree and shake its branches. If a dog barks during the same time she is shaking the tree, she will marry a man from the same direction that the dogs’ bark came from. An odd tradition, isn’t it?
3. Iceland: Gryla, the Yule Cat & the 13 Yule Lads
Icelandic traditions during the month of December are anything but ordinary, or gentle, for that matter. They are profoundly embedded in folklore stories directed at children to frighten them into being on their best behaviour. These folk tales involve fantastic entities whose personalities range from passive, to humorous, to downright terrifying, and whose natural habitat is the unforgiving volcanic landscape of the Icelandic Highlands. The first character is Gryla: a horrid-looking giantess who lives inside a rocky cave with her lazy husband. During Christmas time, she leaves her cave and goes hunting – For children who misbehave. When she finds them, she stuffs them in a bag and devours them as her favourite snack! Gryla’s relationship with Christmas (Yule) is not mentioned until the 17th Century, but her origins trace back to Norse mythology, as she is mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda” written in the 13th Century. Another nightmare-inducing creature is The Yule Cat: Gryla’s gigantic black cat which is said to pounce on and eat anyone who hasn’t been gifted any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. The final and most popular Christmas tale is The Yule Lads – Gryla’s 13 mischievous sons. They are depicted as trickster gnomes or trolls dressed in traditional Icelandic attire, each of them with their own personality. Every night from December 12th until Christmas Eve, a different Yule Lad visits children’s homes and plays pranks or steals from them, but that is not all! Children place a shoe on their window sill, and if they have been good, the Yule lad leaves a present inside the shoe, if they haven’t, all they receive is a miserable potato. Below is a list of every Yule lad in consecutive order, with a short description of their own individual mischief:
- Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote-Clod): Harasses sheep.
- Giljagaur (Gully Gawk): Steals milk.
- Stúfur (Stubby): Steals pans with leftover food.
- Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker): Licks wooden spoons with leftover food.
- Pottaskefill (Pot-Licker): Steals leftover food from cooking pots.
- Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker): Steals bowls from under the bed.
- Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer): Wakes people up by slamming doors.
- Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler): Steals Skyr (Icelandic Yoghurt).
- Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper): Steals sausages while they are being smoked.
- Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper): A voyeur – likes to look into windows for things to steal.
- Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer): Has an acute sense of smell – which he uses to locate and steal bread.
- Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook): Steals meat using a metal hook.
- Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer): Follows children to steal their candles.