5 Creepy Christmas Traditions from Around the World
Everyone has different Christmas traditions: Some of us decorate trees, some of us drink egg-nog, some of us eat fruitcake and some of us cover ourselves in feces, threaten to murder our children and foster racism in their hearts.
Hey, different strokes and all that.
The Nativity scene is a Christmas tradition all around the world. In Catalonia though, they do it just a little bit differently. For one thing, the model encompasses the whole town of Bethlehem, not just the manger, so there are a ton of characters you have to buy to get the full set. Hey, if it's good enough for Star Wars, why not Jesus? But in addition to the all-stars -- Mary, Joseph, that bitchin' camel -- they add in something called a "Caganer," which roughly translates as "shitter." And the name is accurate: He's the one guy in Bethlehem who had the misfortune to be moving his bowels during the birth of Jesus, and is now immortalized that way for all time.
You had some bad goat on the day Christ was born. This is your legacy.
Because their nativity scenes are so much larger, finding the Caganer is a popular game in Catalonia. Kind of like a biblical-themed, three dimensional, fecalphiliac Where's Waldo -- which makes no difference to us (we've always played that game like that anyway). Although traditionally, the Caganer is a peasant in a red hat, nowadays you can buy Caganers that resemble almost anything you can think of. There are nuns, popes, George W. Bush, Santa even Barack Obama:
We won't bother with a caption, we're sure half the comments section will be Tea Partiers filling in those blanks.
And in case you're thinking this is just some niche tradition started by a couple of whatever the Catalonian equivalent of frat boys are, think again: In 2005, Barcelona's city council tried to leave the Caganer out of the city's nativity scene, and all hell broke loose. A massive "Save the Caganer" campaign was started, a media blitzkrieg ensued and eventually the government caved to the overwhelming demand for a man shitting next to Jesus.
13 Yule Lads
In America, we have Frosty, Rudolph, Santa, the elves and that little bastard with the Red Ryder BB Gun who refused to practice good shooting habits. In Iceland, they have a traditional cast of characters too. They're referred to as the "Yule Lads," and they're like a dickhead version of the Seven Dwarves: each named after their primary character trait. There are such lovable characters as Spoon-Licker, Pot-Scraper, Door-Sniffer and most worryingly, Window-Peeper and Sausage-Swiper. We guess "Second Degree Sexual Assault" and "Homosexual Predator" just don't have that "Christmassy" ring to them.
What? Think we're reading too much into it?
Don't let the name fool you. The Yule Lads are not children. They look like this:
But regardless of their crazy hobo appearance and proclivity toward sex crimes, the Yule Lads do serve a nice, Santa-like function: Kids in Iceland receive a gift from each of them on the 13 days leading up to Christmas. That's sort of sweet, right? It's like equal parts Hanukkah and Christmas, with just a little implied rape thrown in to keep the kiddies on their toes. But there's one more, significantly less jolly member of the crew: The Yule Lads also have a pet -- the Yuletide Cat -- and his job is to eat all the children that don't receive new clothes in time for Christmas. Snap! Take that, poor people!
We know there's a theme of punishment in all Christmas myths, but this isn't like Santa and his list -- as a child, this is totally out of your hands. You have to sit up every night for two weeks, hoping to God that, by the end of it, your parents remember to buy you some new socks, or else you get devoured by an apex-predator.
But if you want to get on their good side, you can join the Yule Lads in their annual bath. "Just ... hop right in there, son, enjoy your bath with a dozen lecherous old men, and whatever they ask you to do, by God, you do it. If you anger them, they might not bring you new pants, and you'll be mauled to death in your bed for Christmas."
Try to stay away from Sausage-Swiper, though; even as the meat in an old man stew, you pick your battles.
The Tio de Nadal
From holding the world's biggest lottery and their version of April Fools' Day both around Christmas time, to their throat slashing Santa-like figure, Spain is basically the Japan of Christmas time. And now here's the Tio de Nadal. It's a log that poops out presents.
No, seriously. That's not tricky wording or overstating on our part. You beat the log until it voids its bowels, and then you pick up and cherish its fecal matter.
Traditionally the log is placed in the fireplace on Christmas morning and ordered to poop out its various treats, like nuts and dried fruit, which is pretty much the worst risk vs. reward ratio possible.
"Go ahead and reach in there kids. There are raisins!"
But the tradition has evolved, and these days the log is capable of pooping more elaborate gifts than just fruit and nuts. Also, since not everyone has a fireplace, the children have to find other ways to impel their magic wood to crap festivity all over them. The aforementioned beating of the log often serves to get all that precious shit out, but singing a song to it also works. Here are some actual lyrics to the Tio de Nadal song. All together now!
Poop Log, poop turron
Hazelnuts and cottage cheese.
If you don't poop well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
So enjoy the winter holidays, children, and always remember the lesson we learned from the Tio de Nadal: "If you don't poop well, I'll hit you with a stick."
The Netherlands have a version of Santa Claus much like our own, with one exception: He has a sidekick. His name is Zwarte Piet, and he's the Robin to Sinterklaas' Batman. The pair arrives by boat every Christmas to hand out gifts to all good children. The bad children, however, are abducted by Zwarte Piet, who takes them back to Spain as punishment. Prior to this article, we would have laughed at the ineffectiveness of that "punishment." "Oh no, please don't take me back to a sunny and beautiful European vacation spot! I'll be good!" But now we understand the reluctance to relocate to a land where Christmas time is like living underneath a ruptured sewer line for a fortnight.
Still, could be worse
There's another problem, though. Time makes fools of us all, and what's an acceptable tradition one century can be considered monstrous the next. Zwarte Piet is no different: The Netherlands has been trying for years now to downplay the idea that Zwarte Piet is ... you know ...
There are efforts in the Netherlands to discontinue the tradition, understandably, but purists argue that Zwarte Piet is something like a chimney sweep. He's the one who goes up and down the chimney delivering presents on behalf of Sinterklaas, so it's only natural that he would be covered in soot, right? That's the only reason why white people dressed up as Zwarte Piet paint their faces black! And, uh, he has cartoonishly large lips because the soot it ... it swells them? And he has an afro wig because ... well, shit. OK, fine, he's racist.
Also, he leaves a pack of Kools beneath your pillow. Just ... uncalled for, Netherlands. Not cool.
Krampus and Perchta (The 'Belly-Slitter')
Austria's version of Santa Claus is also pretty close to ours, except that instead of extremely racist sidekicks, Santa Claus does his rounds with an entourage of demons. First, there's Krampus, who accompanies Saint Nick as he visits your house. If you've been good that year, you get presents from Santa. If you've been bad that year, Krampus abducts you and hurls you straight into the pits of hell.
It's just another method of child-rearing, really. You have positive reinforcement, like we use in the West, where we encourage our kids to be good so they can get presents. And then you have negative reinforcement, like in Austria, where every year they tell their children that a demon sneaks into their bedrooms at night and may burn them alive for all eternity if they don't finish their goddamn vegetables this instant, Franz.
"Are these Legos on the stairs? Oh, you kids! I know somebody WHO IS GOING TO FUCKING BURN TOMORROW!"
Perchta is the slightly kinder alternative to Krampus -- though we use the word "kinder" in the Austrian sense, which only means that her horror is slightly less than the alternative. She traditionally shows up during the 12 days of Christmas, before Santa and his pet devil, to sort of pre-punish misbehaving children. Because burning in hell isn't quite enough incentive to get your homework done, apparently. Perchta won't drag you to hell, though. Her nickname is "the belly-slitter," and it's pretty much what you think: She slits open your damn belly if you've been bad.
We don't mean to pass judgment on other cultures here, but the cons seem to drastically outweigh the pros: As a child in Austria, if you've been good, you either get a firetruck and some Pokemon cards, or else something comes to your house and disembowels you. Jesus, can you at least opt out of Christmas altogether? Is there a third box to check between 'inexpensive toy' and 'tortured to death'?
Thomas Calnan also performs stand-up comedy.