Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time for family, presents, demons and witches. Wait, what?! Well, some European Christmas traditions are a little bit different from what you’re used to. Interesting pre-Christian elements have survived throughout the centuries and are still a part of Christmas celebrations today. Here are some surprise treats you can look forward to if you’re spending Christmas in Europe:
1. Austrian Santa’s evil BFF
If you think you might be on the naughty list this year, you might want to stay clear of the Austrian Alps. Here you will run the risk of bumping into Krampus, a demonic figure that serves as the counterpart of friendly St. Nicholas. Whereas old Nick is a Santa-like saint that hands out presents to good children, Krampus takes care of the bad children by abducting them in his bag. That’s right – while you spent your childhood dreaming of elves and flying reindeer, Austrian kids are nervously awaiting the arrival of a horned monster.
If you’re not easily frightened, check out one of the many Krampus runs on December 5th. All throughout Austria, you can see hundreds of people running around in scary Krampus costumes. Similar events take place in other Alpine countries, with slight variations in their outfits. And with Krampus’ popularity growing over the last few years, there’s no telling where else you might run into him…
2. Dutch tradition’s changing face
In the Netherlands, friendly St. Nicholas has a very different companion. If you happen to be in the country in mid-November, you’ll find the saint at one of his arrival parades, accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). This figure’s painted face has caused a lot of controversy over the last few years with the jolly servant being linked to slavery, which has resulted in heated arguments and political debates. Parade organizers have taken notice and introduced Green Pete, Purple Pete and even Stroopwafel Pete, whose face is painted like the famous Dutch cookie.
One thing that hasn’t changed however, is St. Nicholas’ outdated choice of transport. He arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain, then travels from city to city on a white horse called Amerigo. In this day and age, you’d think he’d at least take a canal boat and a trusty Dutch bicycle.
3. Crappy Christmas from Spain
Planning to visit Barcelona around Christmas time? Then don’t forget to bring your Christmas log! In Catalonia and several other regions in Spain, it’s tradition to dress up a piece of wood (Tió de Natal) and keep it in your house. Why? Well, if you feed it daily the log will eventually poop presents on Christmas Day! This is why the log is usually referred to as Tió Caga, meaning pooping log. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up…
Another interesting feature of Catalonian Christmas is the caganer figurine. This is basically a little pooping guy that can be found in nativity scenes. It’s unclear how the caganer ended up having a place in Bethlehem, but it’s said he brings good luck and joy. So when in Catalonia, keep an eye out for ‘Sir Poopsalot’ tucked away somewhere between the shepherds and the wise men.
4. The Greek goblin crisis
If you’re traveling to Greece this December, you need to watch your back for small goblins! The Kallikantzaroi are nasty little creatures that spend most of their time sawing away at the World Tree. If the tree falls down, the world will end, but luckily the Kallikantzaroi never seem to succeed. They come up to the earth’s surface every Christmas to terrorize humanity, only to find upon their return that the World Tree has fully healed itself. So keep this in mind the next time you’re being pestered by goblins – you’re also serving as a distraction that is saving the world!
5. We witch you a Merry Christmas
Anyone who’s ever missed out on a unique party will sympathize with the Italian witch La Befana. When three wise men came knocking on her door looking for a baby, she turned them away, being busy doing whatever witches do. A little while later she changed her mind, grabbed some candy to give the baby and tried to catch up with the three wise men. Searching far and wide, the witch was unable to find the baby. Ever persistent, she is still searching for him today (in Italy, apparently) and leaves candy in kids’ houses. She even sweeps the floors of those houses – which makes sense since she’s carrying a broomstick anyway.
Speaking of broomsticks, Norwegian Christmas traditions dictate you should hide yours on Christmas Eve. On this night, witches are said to come out looking for broomsticks they can steal. And the last thing you want is to see some old hag fly off on your brand-new Nimbus 2000…