PA #001 Things You May Not Know with Jenny Coe

Download the podcast here: Christmas Traditions from Around the World

Holiday traditions are inevitable. Some are generations old and others start with one’s own children. My sister’s kids have brought two new yearly events into our lives: French Toast on Christmas Morning and Hide the Hammie. The first is rather self explanatory; the second, not so much.

When my nephew was about 3 years old, Cartoon Network showed the Japanese anime, Hamtaro, during the day and he loved the show. For his birthday in October, he received a package of two inch high plastic Hamtaro figurines which he played with and lined up all the time. Then came Christmas and he and his older sister decided to take one Hamtaro toy and hide it amongst all of my sister’s “perfect” decorating (The woman’s very OCD but I love her). They created the game where they took turns and one of them hid the hammie and it was the other one’s job to find it. Every couple of days, “hammie” would move. At the end of Christmas that year, we thought that the game would end and that Hamtaro would go back to his place in the toy line up. Next year came, and back came Hamtaro and the game began again.

The rest of the Hamtaro toys have long since gone but in the Christmas decorations still is that one lone little figurine who is brought out to play his game.

The following are some traditions from around the world that also need explaining.

Who are these guys with Santa Claus/St. Nick?

Krampus (Austria, Bavaria, Southern Tyrol and other parts of Europe)

Krampus goes out with St. Nicholas and boy, is he a BAMF (If you don’t know what that means, click here). Here’s a typical description of Krampus: a horned creature with a forked tongue that looks very much like a devil. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus in during the first week of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells while wearing a sack on his belt to steal up naughty children and take them away, presumably to be eaten.

Belsnickel  (Northern Germany )

Much like the Krampus, this guy will stick the coal or switches into naughty children’s stockings but he doesn’t eat the children apparently.

Zwarte Piet  aka Black Pete (The Netherlands)

A man dresses in black face and accompanies St. Nick giving sweets and presents to all good children in the Netherlands and Belgum. Zwarte Piet’s job is to entertain and amuse children who come to meet St. Nick.

Befana (Italy)

In popular folklore, Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5) in a similar way to Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus.

She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

Christian legend had it that Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men a few days before the birth of Jesus. They asked for directions to where the Son of God was, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the Wise Men and the baby Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy or fruit, while the bad children get coal, onions or garlic.

WTF Decorations

Caganer (Spain)

In Catalonia, as well as in the rest of Spain and in most of Italy and Southern France, traditional Christmas decorations sometimes consist of a large model of the city of Bethlehem, similar to the Nativity scenes of the English-speaking world but encompassing the entire city rather than just the typical manger scene.

A Catalonian tradition is the Caganer, a Christmas statue found in nativity scenes in Andorra and parts of Spain, Italy, and Portugal. The scenes depict the entire town of Bethlehem, and the Caganer is usually tucked away in a corner, far from Mary and Joseph. The Caganer needs privacy, because he is taking a crap.

The Pickle Ornament (U.S. But thought to be from Germany)

The story goes that when German families decorate the Christmas tree, the last ornament to be hung is the Christmas pickle -usually a blown glass ornament that may have been passed down through generations. It is tucked away in a hard-to-see spot. The first child who finds the pickle on Christmas morning gets a special gift and good luck all the next year. (I’m pretty sure my niece and nephew were NOT aware of the Christmas pickle when they invented Hide the Hammie.)

It is a quaint tradition that nobody wants to claim. And its story would not be the first tradition of Christmas born of a total fabrication. It is the little-known tradition of the Christmas pickle.

There are two other versions of the origins of the Christmas pickle. One is a family story of a Bavarian-born ancestor who fought in the American Civil War. A prisoner in poor health and starving, he begged a guard for just one pickle before he died. The guard took pity on him and found a pickle for him. The pickle by the grace of God gave him the mental and physical strength to live on.

The other, perpetuated in Berrien Springs, MI, is a medieval tale of two Spanish boys traveling home from boarding school for the holidays. When they stopped at an inn for the night, the innkeeper, a mean and evil man, stuffed the boys into a pickle barrel. That evening, St. Nicholas stopped at the same inn, became aware of the boys’ plight, tapped the pickle barrel with his staff, and the boys were magically freed.

Berrien Springs calls itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. They celebrate with an annual Christmas Pickle Festival held during the early part of December. A parade, led by the Grand Dillmeister who passes out fresh pickles along the parade route, is the featured event.

Although the legends place the origin in Germany, modern Germans don’t recognize or have even heard of the Christmas pickle. Some in West Germany blame generations of East Germans who may have had nothing more than pickles to decorate their Christmas trees with after World War II but families and historians in East Germany simply shrug at the mention of the Christmas pickle tradition.

Regardless of where it came from, the Christmas tradition survives. Ornament manufacturers continue to make the specialty decoration and enjoy perpetuating the myth of its legendary origins — false though they may be.

Christmas Food

KFC for Christmas (Japan)

In a region where less than 1/2 of 1% of the population is Christian, Christmas is hardly going to be the celebration that most of us think of. It’s not a day off the population nor is it given the extremes in shopping and overindulgence that seems to be permeating the U.S. culture of late.  However, in Japan, commercialism can be downright brilliant.

In 1974, Kentucky Fried Chicken ran an ad campaign in Japan stating that, in the U.S., poultry was the meal to be eaten for Christmas. They simply neglected to mention that it is actually turkey that’s the popular meat since turkey is hard to come by in that region of the world. They fitted the ads around the idea that chicken is what makes the Christmas dinner table and that information stuck.

Nowadays, if you want your Christmas chicken from KFC in Japan, you’d better order it well in advance because getting it on Christmas Eve or Day is likely to be a slim chance. Likewise, if you want to eat AT the restaurants on those days, you had best have made a reservation. Think about the last time you walked into a KFC and couldn’t find a place to sit… no, I can’t remember one either.


So what are some of your Christmas Traditions that make the holidays special in your family? Share in the comments (I read all of them) and have a Merry Christmas. –Jenny

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