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Wacky Christmas Traditions in Europe

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Although they share a continent, European countries and regions take pride in their own specific Christmas customs. To compile this list of unusual holiday celebrations, I asked travel writers from around the globe to share their favorites. From a gift pooping log in Spain to the golden pig of the Czech Republic, let’s explore 12 wacky Christmas traditions in Europe.

The pooping log, or tió de nadal, is a wacky Christmas tradition from Spain

The pooping log, or tió de nadal, is a wacky European Christmas tradition from Spain (Photo credit: Justine Ancheta, Latitude 41)

1. The Gift Pooping Log from Catalonia, Spain

Children all over the northeastern region of Spain in Catalonia cherish the tió de nadal, or caga tió. He’s a smiling log that poops presents every year on Christmas Eve. The scatological tradition goes like this: Starting on December 8, families bring out the pooping log and place him in the living room. He has a happy face that’s painted on him and has two front sticks as legs. He also wears a barretina (a red Catalan hat). Every evening after dinner, children leave clementine and orange peels, candy, nougats, and other foods near him. They also place a blanket on him, so he doesn’t catch a cold at night.

The tió eats the food overnight when no one is watching and magically gobbles it up by morning! On Christmas Eve, the log is ready to defecate presents. A parent covers him with a blanket, and the kids sing a traditional caga tió song. While they do this, they hit him with a stick to help him poop. Then, voila! They lift the blanket to find presents that he excreted, like sweets or small toys.

There are many stories of its origin, but one legend is that the pooping log started centuries ago in a rural area of Catalonia. The cold homes used logs to keep the chimneys running. As the log provided heat and light for the fireplace, the children took care of him. It’s unclear how a face showed up on him!
— Justine Ancheta, Latitude 41

The Icelandic Yule Cat)

The Icelandic Yule Cat (Illustration credit: Halldor Petursson)

2. Scary Trolls and the Yule Cat in Iceland

Considering that the first time he met Santa Claus, my then 2-year-old son wailed his head off, he would not do well in Iceland. That’s because Icelandic Christmas traditions involve monsters. First, you have Gryla a giant troll/ogre combination who lives on a mountain with her sons. She’s on her third husband, having killed the first two husbands because they were boring. She likes to capture naughty children in her bag and boil them alive into her favorite stew.

Gryla has 13 sons, the Yule Lads, who visit Icelandic children during the 13 days in the run up to Christmas. The Yule Lads leave well-behaved children candy and little toys in a shoe placed on the windowsill. The Yule Lads leave a rotten potato in the shoe if the child has been naughty.

The family pet is a giant black cat, Yule Cat, who is non-discriminatory in his tastes. He likes to eat both children and adults and doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice. He only gets to eat once per year, so perhaps his impartial appetite is due to hunger. The only way to avoid being a Yule Cat meal is to get a new piece of clothing at Christmas. (No more whines from the kiddies when that gift is a sweater instead of a toy!)
— Shobha George, The Expat Travel Mama

Traditional Bulgarian bread made for Christmas Eve

Traditional Bulgarian bread made for Christmas Eve (Photo credit: mazzachi, Depositphotos.com)

3. Christmas Pigs and Carolers in Bulgaria

Christmas traditions in Bulgaria are an intriguing combination of pagan rituals and Orthodox Christian customs. In this European country, Christmas Eve is actually more important than Christmas Day itself. The meal on Christmas Eve is always vegetarian and must consist of an uneven number of dishes – 7, 9 or 11. Christmas Eve is also the time when you crack a walnut open to predict how good or bad the New Year will treat you.

Originally, there were no Christmas presents on Christmas and there was no Santa Claus in Bulgaria. Instead, on Christmas Day pigs were slaughtered. In Orthodox Christianity, the 40 days before Christmas are a period of fasting, hence the vegetarian meal on Christmas Eve, and then on Christmas Day meat could be finally eaten. So, pig slaughtering became a ritual in itself and at some places it would last up to three days.

Finally, on Christmas Day there are the traditional carol singers (Koledari) – groups of men that go from house to house to sing and dance. They wish well-being, health and prosperity and chase the bad spirits away. In exchange, they are given ritual breads and ring-shaped buns.

Today, although Santa Claus also makes a detour to Bulgaria, most of these traditions are still alive and practiced, except perhaps for the pig-slaughtering one, which is fading away and can be found only in the villages.
— Daniela Koleva, IpanemaTravels.com

 
Sinterklaas and Black Peter are wacky and controversial traditions in Europe

Sinterklaas and Black Peter arriving by boat in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Buurserstraat38, Depositphotos.com)

4. Sinterklaas and the Black Peters in the Netherlands

The Christmas season begins in the Netherlands with the arrival of Sinterklaas in November every year. Sinterklaas and his companions (known as Black Peters) sail into one of the Dutch ports from Spain, where they live the rest of the year. Sinterklaas is an older gentleman in a bishop’s clothing who rides a white horse.

The Black Peters are supposed to be Moors from Spain and have traditionally donned blackface. Needless to say, the racist implications have caused a lot of controversy in the Netherlands in recent years. The Dutch have been resistant to changing their beloved tradition, though. They insist the Black Peters are dark because they got stuck in the chimney for a long time.

When Sinterklaas is in town, the children leave a shoe out at bedtime in the hopes of getting a small gift. The naughty children will get a lump of coal in their shoe. Sinterklaas fun culminates on December 5, when he drops off gifts for each child before he heads back to Spain.
— Shobha George, Just Go Places Blog

Christmas on Red Square in Moscow, Russia

Christmas on Red Square in Moscow, Russia (Photo credit: mikolajn, Depositphotos.com)

5. Christmas Fortune Tellers in Russia

Fortune telling is an interesting tradition that is done in Russia during the holidays. Russian Orthodox Epiphany is considered the best time of the year to predict the future. It takes place January 6 (Christmas Eve for Orthodox Christians) through January 19. 

It is most common for younger girls to get together and perform these predictions. They usually are trying to find out what is in store for them during the New Year and find the answers to questions, such as when they will get married or get back together with their boyfriends.

These fortunes can be predicted in a variety of ways – from interpreting newspaper ashes to using mirrors and candles and burning threads!  Most girls do this in their homes, now, but Russian banyas were where these predictions took place in the past.
— Lindsey Puls, Have Clothes, Will Travel

Celebration of St Lucy’s Day in Sweden

St. Lucy and her entourage singing in Malmo, Sweden (Photo credit: markovskiy, Depositphotos.com)

6. St. Lucy’s Day in Sweden

Every December 13, Sweden celebrates St. Lucy’s Day. This holiday is based on stories told by the early missionaries who brought Christianity to the country. St. Lucy was a Christian girl who was martyred in the 4th century for bringing food to Christians who were hiding from persecution in Roman catacombs. She wore candles on her head in order to keep her hands free to hold the food.

Every year Sweden picks a girl to be the national St. Lucy. Local towns and villages also pick their own St. Lucys. The competition is fierce. The Lucys dress in white gowns and wear crowns of candles on their head. Traditionally, the crowns are made of lingonberries and hold lit candles. Little boys join in the tradition by wearing white gowns and holding a star on a stick to be Star Boys.  

The Lucys visit hospitals and old people to hand out gingersnap biscuits and sweet raisin buns shaped like St. Lucia’s cats (lussekatter). If you would like to try your hand at making gingersnap biscuits or the raisin buns, then the official website for the country of Sweden has recipes for both.
— Shobha George, Just Go Places Blog

Krampus masked people in Graz, Austria at a Christmas festival

Krampus masked people in Graz, Austria (Photo credit: calinstan, Depositphotos.com)

7. Krampus the Christmas Devil in Austria and Germany

Growing up as a kid celebrating Christmas in North Georgia, a lump of coal in your stocking from Santa was just about the worst threat imaginable around the holidays. But in Alpine Austria and Germany, where the dark Grimm fairy tales were born, there’s Krampus. Possibly the world’s weirdest Christmas tradition, Krampus is an insane devil bound in chains, with matted fur, stag horns, and flaming coals for eyes.

On December 5, Krampusnacht — the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas — the half-goat, half-demon takes to the streets to punish naughty boys and girls for their misdeeds. Some versions suggest he’ll swat them with birch branches, while others involve a sack for taking them to Hell.

Though this creepy Christmas tradition is common in Central Europe, nobody’s certain where the Krampus concept originated. But some historians believe he’s a holdover from the Alpine region’s pagan past, which was demonized by the Catholic Church.

If you see Krampus during your European travels, then it’s tradition to offer him some schnapps. It might not make him go away, but hopefully you’ll be spared a swat from his branch!
— Bret Love and Mary Gabbett, Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide

Pepperkakebyen gingerbread village in Bergen, Norway

Pepperkakebyen gingerbread village in Bergen, Norway (Photo credit: VisitNorway.com)

8. The Biggest Christmas Gingerbread Village in Norway

One of the coziest and wackiest Christmas traditions in Europe is that of the Pepperkakebyen (gingerbread village) in Bergen, Norway. Visiting Bergen in winter may seem like an unlikely choice for many as the coastal city is known more for its rain than its snow. But once you pop inside this magical gingerbread land, you will think you’re in the snowy, far north in a land far away from the Norwegian city.

Pepperkakebyen started in 1991 when local schoolchildren started constructing gingerbread houses resembling Bergen attractions, boats, cars, and even some iconic international landmarks. It is the largest gingerbread city in the world these days and it pops up in the heart of Bergen from mid-November until December annually. The profits made from Pepperkakebyen are all donated to a local charity for children in need.
— Megan Starr, MeganStarr.com

Saint George kills the dragon in a mummers' play in Great Britain

Saint George kills the dragon in a mummers’ play in Great Britain (Photo credit: Michael Maggs – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

9. Mummers’ Holiday Plays in the United Kingdom

Mummers’ plays are dramatizations of folk tales held at Christmastime in many parts of the United Kingdom. This tradition started in the British Isles and spread to British colonies. These plays are performed, traditionally, by ordinary people rather than professional actors and are designed as a fun way to let off steam during the holidays. 

There are several versions of mummering but the most common involves combat between two characters, usually Saint (or King) George and an evil character. The evil one is killed but is then miraculously revived by a comic doctor character, bringing the play to an end. The character who is killed and is revived, differs between plays but is often a dragon or a character called Turkey Sniper.

Other characters also get involved. They all have quite wonderful names: Clever Legs, the Old ‘Oss, Bold Granny and Mazzant Binnit are just some. Plus, Father Christmas also almost always makes an appearance.
— Chris Young, EnglandExplore.com

 
A Christmas king's cake, or Bolo Rei, in Portugal

A Christmas king’s cake, or Bolo Rei, in Portugal (Photo credit: Julie Fox, JulieDawnFox.com)

10. King’s Cakes in Portugal

Portugal’s traditional Christmas cake, Bolo-rei, or king’s cake, traditionally contained a couple of surprises. The cake itself, a doughy circle, richly jeweled in brightly colored dried fruit, originated in the French courts of Louis XIV and became popular in Portugal in the 19th century.

In keeping with French traditions, a dried fava bean and a small toy would be baked into each Bolo-rei. Whoever got the slice with the bean would be the king or queen for the day and entitled to a wish, as well as the privilege of paying for next year’s cake. This custom became a much-loved part of Portuguese Christmas traditions, although over the years, the fava bean evolved into cats, good luck charms and plastic toys. That is, until the government banned the sale of cakes containing such non-food items. Homemade cakes, however, still contain the element of surprise.
— Julie Fox, Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal

Look for golden pigs made of chocolate in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at Christmastime

Look for golden pigs made of chocolate in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at Christmastime (Photo credit: valalolo, Depositphotos.com)

11. The Golden Pig of the Czech Republic and Slovakia

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the main time to celebrate Christmas is on the evening of December 24. That’s when the whole family has a festive dinner together, after which presents are unwrapped.

To keep eager children on a mission to eat their Christmas dinner, a fasting tradition developed. Essentially, everybody is supposed not to eat during the day on December 24th so as to have an appetite for Christmas dinner. This applies to meals only, Christmas-themed pastry (such as the sweet braided bun called vánočka) or Christmas cookies are allowed.

If the children manage to hold off eating, then they are promised to see a golden pig. It is said the golden pig tradition developed already in the Middle Ages, when the fasting would apply to meat meals only. When I was a child growing up in the Czech Republic, I spent a great deal of time looking out the window, searching for the elusive golden pig. I even thought I saw it a few times.

Throughout the years, local confectioners caught up and you can now easily buy small pigs made of chocolate wrapped in a golden tinfoil. Parents who still adhere to the tradition then place the golden pig on a windowsill or anywhere where it appears the pig came in from outdoors to reward the good child.

— Veronika Primm, Travel Geekery

Calissons, one of the 13 Christmas desserts of Provence typical in Aix-en-Provence

Calissons, one of the 13 Christmas desserts of Provence typical in Aix-en-Provence (Photo credit: Nadine Maffre, Le Long Weekend)

12. The Thirteen Christmas Desserts of Provence, France

Thirteen desserts may seem like a decadent and flamboyant feast, but to the people of Provence, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time. First mentioned in print around a hundred years ago, it’s a Christmas custom that’s loved by all.

Each Christmas Eve, after attending Mass, three tablecloths (to represent the Holy Trinity) are laid out bearing 13 desserts. Everyone is expected to try a little of each dessert. But in true French style, the offerings are small and delicate.

The 13 desserts aren’t strictly set, but typically include dried or candied fruits, fresh fruits such as clementines or apples, biscuits (cookies), nougat, and caramelized nuts. There’s also normally a Bûche de Noël (Yule log cake).

Every town in Provence has its own specialty to add to the mix. In Marseille, it’s Navettes (cylindrical cookies flavored with orange blossom). In Aix-en-Provence, it’s Calisson (candies made with finely crushed almonds and candied fruits. Meanwhile in the Alps, you’ll find sweet Bugnes (deep fried fritters).

Tradition dictates the desserts must stay out for three days. (The three-theme is strong with this European Christmas tradition!). Then they’ll finally be packed away…if there’s anything left on the 27th December.

These days, not everyone takes to the tradition so strictly, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone in Provence who hasn’t nibbled on at least a little nougat or creamy Bûche de Noël during this festive period!
— Nadine Maffre, Le Long Weekend

A buche de Noel, or Yule log cake
A Bûche de Noël, or Yule log cake (Photo credit: Mam_elisa, Depositphotos.com)

Are These Christmas Traditions in Europe Wacky?

These Christmas traditions in Europe may sound unusual to North American readers, but they aren’t so dissimilar from our own holiday traditions. Instead of a shoe, children put out a stocking to receive gifts at Christmas. Whereas Icelanders have Gryla and the Yule Cat to keep kids on their best behavior, Elf on the Shelf tattles on naughty youngsters to good ol’ St. Nick. And Santa Claus sure does sound a lot like Sinterklaas, doesn’t it? Maybe these Christmas traditions in Europe aren’t so wacky after all!

Nuremberg Christmas Market in Germany, a long-standing tradition in Europe

Toys for sale at the Nuremberg Christmas Market (Photo credit: ev_buh@yahoo.com, Depositphotos.com)

Learn About More Holiday Traditions

Christmas markets have long been a tradition in Europe and beyond. Discover the best Christmas markets around the world.

Kwanzaa celebrates harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa. Take a look at the origin and traditions of Kwanzaa.

If you liked learning about these European traditions, then you’ll love reading about Christmas traditions all over the world in The Atlas of Christmas. Bring international flavors of Christmas home with Christmas Around the World: Recipes | Customs.

Teach kids about how other cultures celebrate holidays with Celebrations Around the World or the Christmas Traditions Around the World Coloring Book.

 

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12 Wacky Christmas Traditions in Europe

What do you think of these wacky Christmas traditions in Europe? What unusual holiday celebrations does your family enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. robin masshole mommy says

    Oddly enough, I heard a few of these in my third-graders classroom this week when I have been in there volunteering. They are studying about Christmas traditions around the world.

  2. Stacie @ Divine Lifestyle says

    Oh cool! Sinterklauss is the coolest version of Santa I’ve ever heard of. Thanks for this interesting read. I LOVE European culture.

    • Shobha George, The Expat Travel Mama says

      I love that Sinterklauss hangs out in Spain in the off-season. A little sangria and sunshine – my kind of guy!

  3. Catherine Sargent says

    I can see how the Yule Cat tradition would be scary. We have a tradition that we hide a pickle ornament in the Christmas tree and the person that finds it gets a special gift.

  4. As both a travel and history lover, I really enjoy learning about other countries. That Yule Cat is quite unique and totally creeps me out.

    • Shobha George, The Expat Travel Mama says

      Funny they chose a cat and not a dog. There aren’t that many dogs that can do creepy well (maybe one of those hairless ones that looks more like a cat?!)

  5. Iceland’s traditions are downright scary! I wouldn’t want to cross that Yule Cat, for sure.

  6. I’m so glad I don’t have to scare my kids. I don’t think I would take part.

    • Shobha George, The Expat Travel Mama says

      I scare my children that if they aren’t good, Santa won’t bring them presents. Just variations of scary i think!

  7. Jocelyn Cañasa Brown says

    Wow. Some of those are really weird! To each their own, I guess. lol.

  8. My no has been telling me about the Yule lads and the yule cat. There are a lot of unique traditions.

    • Iceland is unique in that a lot of their customs are based on Viking tradition. They had Vikings show up and then were isolated for hundreds of years while the rest of Europe changed some of their customs. I don’t get the impression the Vikings were very touchy feely 🙂

  9. Annemarie LeBlanc says

    I think these Christmas traditions are unique and have deeply rooted origins. I would love to experience being there to witness them myself. I have read about Sinterklass and Black Peter. St. Lucy’s Day is something I have read about just now. Thanks for new trivia I’ve learned today.

    • I love trivia too! I find it interesting that St. Lucy is technically Italian but the Swedes make a bigger deal of her than the Italians! fascinating how traditions migrated.

  10. Toni | Boulder Locavore says

    These are really interesting! I never heard some of these traditions before. 😀

  11. Scaring kids? Nope. I’ve actually never heard of any weird traditions not even in Europe. This is the first I’m hearing of any of it!

  12. Sarah Bailey says

    It is strange the traditions each place has – I’m in England and though I have heard of these, they still all seem very different to me.

  13. Seattle Travel Blogger says

    This is a very enlightening and entertaining read.
    It is something how much variation there is around the world.

  14. Our Family World says

    Iceland and the other countries around it do indeed have some fantasy stories and myths about creatures. This is the first time I’ve heard of the Yule Cat and while it does sound scary, it really helps promote new clothing for kids and that’s a big help for parents who would want to tidy up the closet.

  15. Kita Bryant says

    That is crazy about the black peters. You’re so right that the slave implications and race implications would cause a ruckus!

  16. Sheena Tatum says

    St Lucy sounds like the beauty pageants we hold here in America. Fierce competition for sure!

  17. Louise Bishop says

    This is seriously some really neat information. I’m honestly googling more in depth stories about each one. Very interesting!

  18. Mellissa Williams says

    This is so interesting. I never knew that everything was so different when it came to celebrating the same holiday.

  19. coolchillmom says

    I absolutely love you bringing these traditions to us. Our weird tradition is eating lots of spice for new year’s to ward off all and any negativity 🙂

  20. OMG, Europe has some of the best Christmas traditions ever! They range from horrifying to hilarious to magical. This was such an amazing read. I mean, a pooping log?

  21. Cristina Petrini says

    Many places for many customs and I often love to discover them and then steal them and make them mine!

  22. Kuntala Bhattacharya says

    This is so interesting. I love to read about the traditions of different countries. I never knew about the different Xmas traditions. Excellent article.

  23. These are some really interesting and bit crazy Christmas traditions. I love reading about how other countries celebrate the holidays. It’s always so fun!

  24. These Christmas traditions all seem so fun! As a horror fan, Krampus seems especially awesome.

  25. I think it’s great that Sinterklauss is hanging out in Spain outside in the season. Some sangria and sunshine, my guy!

  26. Elizabeth O says

    Your post had me laughing out loud because traditions always seem so odd to others yet are cherished by those who celebrate them. Happy Holidays!

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