It’s getting to that time in the Christmas period when I am starting to, once again, become tired of the overwhelming presence of mince pies and Mariah Carey in my life. The world is, however, full of many more eccentric Christmas traditions: flaming goats, whale blubber and intoxicated Germans to name a few…
1) Greece: The Kallikantzaroi
According to Greek tradition, the twelve days of Christmas coincide with the annual reappearance of the kallikantzaroi (καλλικάντζαροι): malevolent goblins that otherwise spend the year underground sawing away at the trunk of the earth tree. Although there is no consensus as to what the kallikantzaroi actually look like (or indeed as to whether they are multiple goblins or merely one), there is more agreement as to what they do, with their activities including making milk go off, breaking furniture and urinating in bushes (so the activities more typically carried out by the other people in your staircase…). In order to protect themselves from these festive pests, the Greeks keep fires burning in the grate throughout Christmas (the kallikantzaroi’s preferred method of entering your home is through the chimney) and leave out shallow wooden bowls with a crucifix wrapped in basil suspended from a wire stretched across the rim. Once a day the mother of the family will dip the cross in holy water and sprinkle it around the home, ensuring widespread deterrence against marauding goblins. If you don’t have a crucifix or a superstitious Greek mother to hand, try leaving out a colander on your doorstep: separate tradition dictates that the kallikantzaroi can’t count above two and will be so baffled by the number of holes in front of them that they will be far too distracted to enter your home.
2) Germany: Feuerzangenbowle
A relatively recent tradition that was first popularised by a cult 1940s comedy film of the same name, Feuerzangenbowle involves drinking spiced wine from a bowl suspended above a fondue set. Placed on top of the bowl is a grate supporting a flaming sugarloaf dipped in rum, which caramelises to give the wine a sweet taste. Once the equipment is up and running, all that is left to do is get drunk on a concoction that aims to give you liver failure and diabetes simultaneously. So popular has the tradition become that there’s even an annual Feuerzangenbowle festival in the charming Black Forest town of Tübingen, where the attendees drink from a huge municipal Feuerzangenbowle whilst watching the eponymous film. If you think Southern Germany is too far to travel for mulled wine, then try your own Feuerzangenbowle at home. Just remember to have a fire blanket handy!
3) Portugal: Janeiras Singers
Resembling traditional Christmas carollers in the UK, but with a dose of social humiliation thrown in for good measure, Janeiras is supposed to date back to an ancient Roman tradition of playing music to ward off evil spirits at New Year. During the first six days of January, groups of friends will meet together, and after exchanging gifts and cards, go from house to house in their neighbourhoods holding an icon of Jesus, whilst singing and playing folk instruments such as the tambourine, accordion and the ukulele. After performing at each doorstep the owner of the home is supposed to invite the singers inside for snacks and wine. If your hospitality is not forthcoming, expect to be on the receiving end of some mocking songs. If you are welcoming, however, you can expect the opposite, with the musicians going back outside to sing in praise of your generosity and, where (in)appropriate, of the beauty of any single daughters you might happen to have.
4) New Zealand: The Pohutukawa Tree
Popularised in this country by Prince Albert, the Christmas tree (often a Norwegian Spruce) has become one of the most globally recognizable symbols of Christmas. Faced with this wall of coniferous homogeneity, New Zealand resists. Down in the land of the long white cloud, Christmas is symbolised by the pohutukawa tree (not even New Zealand being renegade enough to unshackle Christmas from its arboreal connotations altogether). With its beautiful crimson flower, splendid spreading, willowing shape and its extraordinarily hard and flexible wood, the pohutukawa was long venerated by the Maori, who regarded its colour to be symbolic of a young warrior who died whilst trying to avenge the death of his father. Since the mid-1800s the tree has also come to be associated with Christmas (which coincides with the tree’s flowering), and today it frequently appears on postcards, calendars and has even become the subject of some (distinctly average) Christmas songs.
5) Sweden: Yule Goats
Perhaps the best-known tradition to make this list, Sweden’s Yule goat has long been a by-word by for perceived Scandinavian eccentricity. Like many Christmas traditions, the goat’s origins may well be pagan (goats having held a prominence in pagan theology that Christianity has never been pleased to afford them). More recently the Yule goat came to be seen as an invisible spirit that spied on Yuletide preparations to ensure that everything was in order. In this function it became the object of several festive traditions, including trying to prank neighbours by leaving a straw goat on their property without them noticing, and dressing up as a goat in order to dispense presents. Although the Yule goat has been muscled out of his gift giving functions by the all-conquering Santa Claus Inc., it endures as a popular Christmas ornament, normally depicted with its horns stretched back and draped in red sashes. Large-scale straw models of the Yule goat are frequently erected in Swedish town centres, most famously in the mid-eastern town of Gävle, where a separate tradition of trying to burn down the Gävle goat has since grown. Despite 24 hour surveillance, and the convenient (if very necessary) proximity of the local fire station, the Gävle goat has been struck by arsonists 36 times since it was first erected in 1966, with it last falling victim to the flames two years ago. If the goat is burned down before the 13th of December it is rebuilt, later than that and the citizens of Gävle have to make do without it. At the time of publication the Gävle goat still stands. Going to Sweden? Pack your matches.
6) Greenland: Mattak and Kiviak
With one person for every 10 square miles, Christmas can be a little hard to come by in Greenland. This has not stopped the Inuits from producing some of the worlds more novel (read into that word what you will) Christmas delicacies. First up on the list is Mattak, which consists of raw blubber from the unfortunate bowhead whale, which is then diced and ferociously chewed to produce a flavour not unlike biltong. These days the faint hearted may ask for their Mattak with soy sauce, which for some may be too small a mercy. Kiviak, which like Mattak was only relegated to the status of a Christmas delicacy after falling out of more mainstream consumption, is perhaps more challenging still. Little auks (a species of bird), are captured, killed, and then stuffed in great quantity into seal skins, which are then sewn up and buried underground for several months. Upon fermenting they are ready to serve at festive occasions, often to varying degrees of enthusiasm if foreigners are present.