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Wacky Christmas Traditions in Europe You Have Never Heard Of

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What do lit candles atop a girl’s head, a cat who eats children, and coal left in shoes have in common? Why, they’re Christmas traditions in Europe, of course! Let’s check out unusual Christmas traditions in Europe hailing from Iceland, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Christmas traditions in Iceland, The Netherlands and Sweden

Christmas traditions in Europe – Iceland’s scary Christmas

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!)

The Icelandic Yule Cat)

The Icelandic Yule Cat only gets to feed once a year (Photo credit: The Lineup)

Christmas traditions in Europe ~ Sinterklaas 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.

Sinterklaas and his assistant in the Netherlands

Sinterklaas and his assistant, Black Pete, arriving from Spain by ship (Photo credit: Floris Looijesteijn)

Christmas traditions in Europe – 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 are dressed 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 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, the official website for the country of Sweden has recipes for both.

Celebration of St Lucy’s Day in Sweden

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

Wacky Christmas traditions in Europe and the U.S.

These Christmas traditions in Europe may sound unusual to American readers, but they aren’t so dissimilar from our own holiday traditions. Instead of a shoe, American children put out a stocking to receive gifts at Christmas. Whereas the 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. The candles adorning the Lucys’ heads in Sweden look quite similar to the candles often lit in advent calendars in homes and churches throughout the U.S. 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.

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

About Shobha George, The Expat Travel Mama

Shobha George lives in London, England with her husband, two children (boy/girl twins) and dog. Although she grew up in New York, she has spent most of her adult life as an expat in Asia and Europe, which has been a great help in feeding her travel addiction. She and her family enjoy nice hotels, good food and other creature comforts. She is the author of Just Go Places blog. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at @justgoplaces.

  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 🙂

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