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Gävle Goat 

8 little known Christmas traditions from around the world 

In Sweden, straw goats are a traditional decoration and in the town of Gavie they erect a giant version every year | Image:

Christmas is nearly upon us and as we all know ‘tis the season to eat caterpillars, celebrate a half-goat demon and dress your children in new clothing to stop them being eaten by a monstrous cat…wait, hang on! 

It seems that beyond our British shoreline Christmas is not just baubles, turkeys and jolly Old Saint Nick. So let's broaden our horizons and discover some of the more bizarre festive traditions from around the globe.  

1. Krampus  


Descending from folklore in the Central Alpine regions of Europe, Krampus is a horned, long-tongued, half-goat, half-demon monster that punishes naughty children during the Christmas season by beating them with sticks.  

Originating during Pagan times, Krampus has evolved to become the accomplice of St. Nicholas, the evil yin to his good yang so to speak. The pair arrive on the evening of 5 December, which is known as Krampusnacht  (‘Krampus Night’). 

Particularly popular in Austria and Germany, Krampus processions or 'runs' involve people dressing up as the demonic creature and parading through the streets to scare as many individuals as possible. 

2. La Befana 


Known throughout Italy, La Befana is a magical being who flies around the skies at Christmas. After climbing down a chimney, they fill the good children’s stockings full of sweets and presents, and the bad kids with a lump of coal. Whilst that might conjure visions of a round, bearded man dressed in red and white, La Befana is best described as looking like a witch.  

Complete with raggedy clothes, a pointy hat and a warty nose, the Christmas witch flies about on a broomstick on the eve of Epiphany (the 5th of January) the twelfth day of Christmas. Since Santa is also well known in Italy, lucky Italian children get gifts from two festive deities during the Christmas season. 

3. Mari Lwyd 


The Mari Lwyd might be one of the most menacing and eerie Christmas traditions in the world. The skull of a dead horse is festively decorated and hung from a poll. A white cloak falls from its sides under which a person resides controlling the movements of the skeletal head.  

First documented in the 1800s, the Mari Lwyd is traditionally taken around a village sometime between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. The haunting creature is often accompanied by other folk characters and when they reach your door they sing songs in the Welsh language and exchange rude rhymes. 

If the Mari Lwyd gains entry to your house it is considered good luck for the year ahead. However, the mischievous creature may also choose to chase you or snap its jaw at you. 

4. Yule Cat 


Christmas folklore around the world often revolves around ensuring children behave themselves if they want to receive something nice. Iceland takes that theme one step further by introducing a fearsome feline called the Yule Cat that eats those not dressed in new clothing at Christmas time.  

Why new clothing you ask? It can get pretty chilly in Iceland during the wintertime, so the huge beast acts as a simple reminder to wrap up warm.  

5, Grýla 


It turns out the enormous festive Icelandic cat running around eating people in Iceland at Christmas, known as the Yule Cat, has an owner. Quite befitting their pet, the owner is a grotesque cave-dwelling giantess known as Grýla.  

First appearing during the 13th century as part of Norse mythology, the giantess (like her cat) has a penchant for naughty children, devouring any she comes across. At some point, she became associated with Christmas and was equipped with a giant sack in which she stores her naughty childrenkids. 

6. The Yule Lads 


Completing our trio of Icelandic festive folklore characters are the Yule Lads and (of course) they’re linked to Grýla and the Yule Cat. The Yule Lads are said to be the sons of Grýla and consist of 13 mischievous pranksters, who descend upon villages and towns one by one during the last 13 nights before Yule. They either leave sweets in the shoes of good children or rotten potatoes in those of bad ones. 

Nowadays, the Yule Lads are depicted as warm, friendly figures most of us would recognise as miniature Santa Clauses. However, in times yonder their depiction was so terrifying that stories about them were legally banned in Iceland in 1746. 

7. Gävle Goat 


Nothing says Christmas more than a 43ft high straw goat, especially if you live in the Swedish city of Gävle.  

Each year since 1966, a giant straw goat has been erected in the city at Christmas time. Why a goat you ask? In Swedish folklore, Father Christmas’ sleigh was originally pulled by goats not reindeer, a legend tracing back to Norse mythology and the two goats that pulled Thor’s chariot across the sky.  

In Sweden, straw goats are traditional Christmas decorations and so when the idea came in 1966 to build a giant straw creature to draw shoppers into the southern part of the city, the goat was the obvious choice.  

It has now become a world-famous annual Christmas display that’s even in the Guinness Book of Records. 

8. Tió de Nadal 


This list wouldn’t be complete without the defecating Yule log of Catalonia. That’s right, in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain, family members draw a face onto a log known as Tió de Nadal (‘Christmas log’), which is then fed treats in the lead-up to Christmas.  

Come Christmas Eve, the family gathers around the log and puts it into the fire, singing traditional songs and taking turns to whack it with sticks in the hope it’ll poop out lots of sweets. 

Festive feasts 

Japan/South Africa/Greenland 

For us Brits, most of our Christmas tables will be adorned with a turkey, Brussels sprouts and a Christmas pudding. However, around the world, other culinary delights find themselves skewered by festive forks.  

Thanks to an ingenious 1970s marketing campaign, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has become synonymous with Christmas in Japan and is now enjoyed by an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families during the festive season.  

In South Africa, families enjoy a crunchy snack on Christmas Day of deep-fried Caterpillars from the Emperor Moth.  

And finally, if you find yourself in Greenland during the month of December you may be offered some 'mattak’ to eat. The festive dish is comprised of a strip of whale skin with some blubber inside. Usually too tough to chew, it’s often swallowed whole.