8 wacky holiday traditions

CHICAGO — It’s hard to think of anything wackier than honoring the birth of Jesus — a man who preached peace, love and charity — by maxing out your credit cards, gorging on turkey, fighting with in-laws and drinking yourself into a stupor. But that’s largely what we Americans do.

In large parts of the world Christmas is not a major holiday because most people aren’t Christian. In countries like Russia and China, the new year is a much bigger deal. But that hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from embracing the commercialism of Christmas.

In Thailand, for instance, where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, Santa has become a best seller in December, “Little Drummer Boy” plays on a Muzak loop at shopping malls and synthetic Christmas trees come not just in green, but bright orange, pink and yellow.

Around the world, people put their own twist on the Christmas holiday. And on New Years Eve, everyone has their own way of scaring away bad spirits and ushering in good luck. Cubans throw a bucket of water into the street to wash away bad luck, the Chinese refrain from sweeping or dusting to avoid brushing away good fortune and Colombians walk around the block with suitcases to ensure travel in the new year.

In honor of the season, we’ve compiled a list of the wackier Christmas and New Year traditions from around the world for you to marvel at while you sit around munching from a supersized box of candy canes from Costco or the perfect combination of Chex cereal with Worcestershire sauce.

1. Krampus (Austria)

Krampus with St. Nicholas
Men dressed in costumes of St. Nikolas and Krampus walk through the snow near Salzburg, Nov. 30, 1998.

It’s a common theme in the Western world to view Christmas as a judgment day for children: Have they been naughty or nice? Many European countries have a good-cop, bad-cop Santa system. While St. Nicholas makes the rounds handing out presents to the good children, his evil twin disciplines the bad ones. No one takes it quite to the level of Austria, where Krampus, a mutant goat-like creature, roams the streets threatening naughty children with rusty chains and birch sticks. The creature is rooted in legend and re-enacted in many parts of the country on Dec. 5, when men dress up like Krampus and terrorize the neighborhood with bells, chains, whips and baskets (to carry away bad children). Krampus even made a frightening appearance on The Colbert Report earlier this month:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude - Hallmark & Krampus
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2. Black Peter (Netherlands / Belgium)

In Belgium and the Netherlands, Santa’s helper wears blackface, an Afro wig, gold jewelry and bright red lipstick. On St. Nicholas Day, he walks the streets throwing candy to crowds as children chant his name. Know as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”), he was traditionally a more menacing figure who threatened to stuff naughty children into his bag and cart them off to Spain. The blackface, a reference to Black Peter’s Moorish roots, has become the subject of controversy recently, as the tradition is increasingly viewed as racist.

 3. Ded Moroz (Russia)

Despite the legacy of communism, Russia does have a Santa, although he appears on New Year’s Day rather than on Christmas, which was banned during the Soviet era. Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”) and his granddaughter Snegurochka (“Snow Maiden”) deliver presents to children on New Year’s Day, when families gather for a lavish meal and fireworks. And because this is Russia, no New Year’s Eve would be complete without an odd ritual involving alcohol. As the clock strikes midnight, Russians write their wish for the new year on a piece of paper, burn it with a candle, mix the ashes in a glass of champagne and drink it down before the last stroke of midnight to guarantee it comes true.

4. A centerpiece of hay (Poland)

From beginning to end, Christmas Eve in Poland is filled with symbolism. Dinner, which begins when the first star appears in the sky, is comprised of 12 different entrees — one for each of the apostles. Hay is placed under the tablecloth in the middle of the table to represent Jesus’ birth in a manger and an extra place is set to symbolize that no one will be turned away (like Joseph and Mary were at the inn). Children stay up until midnight because this was supposedly the hour Jesus was born and the only time during the year that barn animals (present at Jesus’ birth) are able to speak in a human voice. For good luck in the new year, many save the scales of carp, a traditional dish served during Christmas Eve dinner, and keep it in their wallet to draw money to them throughout the year.

5. Old maid cake (Japan)

What do old maids and Christmas have in common? A lot, according to the Japanese. Most Japanese are Shinto or Buddhist so Christmas in Japan is primarily a commercial event, but it has definitely taken hold. Christmas Eve is an important date night, similar to Valentine’s Day in the U.S., when restaurant reservations are hard to come by and single women are embarrassed to spend the night alone. Cake shops throughout the country try to sell their Christmas cakes by Dec. 25 so they don’t go stale. Unmarried women over age 25 are sometimes referred to as "ure nokori kurisumasu keki," or “unsold Christmas cake.” There’s also a Japanese superstition that if a family leaves its Christmas tree up after Dec. 25, it will take the single women in the household a long time to marry. That’s why no one in Japan procrastinates taking down Christmas decorations. By Dec. 26, every sign of the holiday is gone.

6. Gobbling grapes (Spain)

Minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Spaniards gather around the TV to wait for the clock tower at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid to strike 12. But unlike Americas watching the ball drop in Times Square, Spaniards have something unusual in their hands: grapes. When the clock strikes midnight, they start popping them into their mouths and furiously chewing to get the next one in by the next chime. The tradition dates back to 1909 when grape growers in Alicante, a southeastern province on the Mediterranean Sea, had a bumper crop of grapes and marketed the idea of eating 12 grapes on New Years Eve to use up the surplus. Since then, the tradition has continued as a symbol of good luck in the new year, washed down with cava (sparkling wine) or champagne.

7. Songkran (Thailand)

In Thailand, the new year is celebrated mid-April, during the hottest time of the year. And what better way to cool off than a nationwide water fight? What started out as cleansing ritual of bathing Buddhist statues and elders with jasmine-scented water as a sign of renewal and respect now involves water guns, garden hoses and buckets to dump water over other peoples’ heads. Throughout the country, Thais gather in the streets to squirt each other at Songkran festivals. In cities like Chiang Mai, Buddhist images from the local monasteries are paraded through the streets so the crowds can douse them with water.

8. Color-coded new year (Brazil)

If you want to know what a Brazilian is hoping for in the new year, pay attention to what he or she is wearing on Jan. 1. Throughout the country, people dress in certain colors to symbolize the type of luck they’re seeking. White, which most Brazilians wear, particularly in Rio, represents harmony, peace and overall good luck. Gold symbolizes wealth, silver means new things, red signifies love and green indicates hope. The tradition is rooted in Candombe (Afro-Brazilian) religious beliefs that colors attract energy.

GlobalPost correspondents contributed ideas for this report, including Paul Ames in Belgium, Gavin Blair in Japan, Miriam Elder in Russia, Seth Kugel in Brazil and Patrick Winn in Thailand.