No More Mr. Nice Santa: Bizarre Holiday Traditions from Around the World
Nice kitty: Small children may be a little put out by sitting in Santa’s lap in the shopping mall, but for the most part, Santa Claus is a friendly figure and a symbol of unconditional generosity. On the other end of the spectrum we have the Yule Cat. This Icelandic feline doesn’t care so much about moral categories like “good” and “bad,” he just wants to know if you’ve finished your work. If your chores are all done, you get a new piece of clothing, often a pair of mittens. If not–oooh, bad choice!–The Yule Cat will eat you.
Mummers and guisers: An old European custom that’s been revived, folk dramas performed by mummers and guisers (from “disguise”) are a goofy repository for themes of the solstice season, notably death and rebirth. The plays are often farcical, with actors disguised in homemade costumes depicting everything from bears to walking corpses to haystacks. (That can’t be an easy costume to design!) A typical play might feature a luckless hero getting kicked in the head by a mule and dying, a quack doctor offering a snake oil cure, and an unlikely string of circumstances which would, by the end, “cure” the dead guy. Local variations exist throughout Europe, but even on this side of the pond we have an annual Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia.
Pretty in red and white: The Christmas color scheme may have something to do with a traditional holiday symbol that’s been downplayed in recent years: funny mushrooms. Various species of Amanita mushrooms have a long history as good luck symbols for Christmas and the new year. Most Finnish people–who should know– consider the mushroom the source of the “flying reindeer.” In winter, there’s apparently not much to eat up there in the snow, and reindeer are master foragers. They may not actually leave the ground after consuming psychedelic treats, but we can imagine they can’t exactly walk a straight line afterwards either.
Naughty or nice? In Austria, Belgium and other European countries, Santa has an evil twin : Krampus. He’s the one who takes care of warning and punishing those who have been bad, so St. Nicolas can keep his gloves clean. Krampus goes around peering into children’s bedrooms, trying to catch them at foul play. “You better watch out, you better not cry!”
Don’t have a fireplace? A modern tradition, going back just to 1966, is the WPIX Christmas Yule Log. Every Christmas morning, the New York station broadcasts a continuous loop of a seven-minute sequence, accompanied by Christmas music. Of a log. Burning. Yeah. . . If you just can’t wait, here’s a clip.
Need a use for that old horse’s skull you’ve got lying around? You could dress up like Mari Lwyd (gray mare) and make a little cash. This Welsh New Year’s tradition comes from a Celtic celebration dedicated to the goddess Rhiannon, but it seems to taken made a few detours on the way into the twenty-first century. Here’s what you do: put the horse skull on a stick, with bottle bottoms in the eye sockets. Carry it over your head, and wrap yourself in a white sheet or horse-hair blanket. Then you and a group of friends go from house to house, or more likely pub to pub, and challenge whoever’s inside to a rhyming contests which often feature a massive number of insults. If you win, you collect some money, or its equivalent in ale. Spring-hinge the horse jaw and you can also nip at people along the way and demand they pay up. Either way, be sure to carry along a bucket to collect the loot.
Kind of like an advent calendar, only stuff comes out the backside: Tió de nadal translates to log of Christmas. Families in Catalonia make a special hollow yule log, with legs and a face to make it look like a funny animal. Then they “feed” it in the days before Christmas, stuffing it with treats. By Christmas, the treats should be coming out of Tio’s other end. Children order him to poop harder, threatening to beat him with sticks if he doesn’t. Of course, that’s exactly what ends up happening, until everyone has collected their swag.