An artist's depiction of a family holding hands and dancing around their well-lit and decorated Christmas tree.

The Stories Behind Different Christmas Traditions Around the World

Christmas is right around the corner. In less than two weeks, people all over the world will have decorated trees, prepared a feast and their gifts wrapped and ready. Following Christmas traditions are what make the holiday season more memorable, other than spending it with your loved ones.

At the same Yuletide time, people will be in their homes and face restrictions as the omicron variant makes its infamous mark. It might not be the same Christmas everyone enjoys, but it will be far different from what was experienced in 2020.

Although Christmas will be far from the norm, its traditions are kept alive. These aren’t just any traditions, but ones famously known for their uniqueness and being unusual. People around the world follow their traditions to keep the Christmas spirit alive, all while trying to prevent evil ones from entering their homes.

La Befana of Italy

An image of La Befana on her boom, with a lit lantern in one hand and her gifts behind her on her broom, leaving her home to search for baby Jesus.
image source:

On January 5th, the eve of Epiphany, a witch visits the Italian children with gifts and fills their stockings with either candy or coal, depending on who’s naughty or nice.

The Story of La Befana

According to Italian folklore, the Three Wise Men stopped at Befana early on their journey They asked her for directions, but she couldn’t help them. Instead, she kindly hosted them, offering them food and shelter for the night in her cosy cottage.

The next morning, the Three Wise Men invited her to accompany them to Bethlehem. She declined their offer because she wanted to finish the many chores in her home. After the Three Wise Men carried on, she had second thoughts.

She quickly filled her basket with gifts for baby Jesus and set off alone. Befana followed the same star but couldn’t find the manger before the Three Wise Men on January 6th, the Epiphany.

While on her journey, she left candy or fruit for good children. For naughty children, she left coal, onions or garlic in their stockings. She continued to look for baby Jesus and leave gifts for the children. The reason behind this is that the goodness and innocence of Jesus can be found in every child.

Another story says that Befana, an ordinary woman, suffered the loss of a child. After hearing the news of Jesus’s birth, she set out to find him. Her grief made her believe he was her son.

When she met baby Jesus, she presented gifts to him. In return for his joy, Jesus gifted her as the mother of every child in Italy.

Modern Day La Befana

Throughout Italy, people celebrate la Befana.

Following the festivals and markets, many dress up as le Befana and give out candy to passing children. Additionally, because every child has been naughty at some time during the year, each child receives a small lump of ‘coal’, a rock candy made black with black caramel colouring.

In the Piazza Novanna in Rome, Christmas and Epiphany markets sell candies and mini-coal candies. These days, children are told that la Befana will show herself in a window at midnight. This brings a crowd to ‘see’ her every year, at midnight in early January. Many families wait in the piazza and the adults pretend to see la Befana in a high window.

La Caganer of Spain

A photograph of a traditional La Caganer, his pants pulled down and in a crouched position, he defactes.
image source:

La Caganer is one of the most traditional and unique Christmas nativity figures in Catalonia, Spain.

Catalan for ‘the pooper’, the figure is of a man wearing a red Catalan barretina and a Catalan scarf. With his pants pulled down and in a crouched position, he defecates.

There is no clear meaning of this action.

The Representation of La Caganer

One theory states la Caganer represents fertility, the fertilization of the earth that grows the food we eat and good fortune.

According to legend, as part of their Christmas tradition, people placed the statuette in the nativity scene. It meant a good harvest for the following year. In a way, it gives back to the earth what was taken from it. At the same time, it fertilizes the land surrounding the stable in the nativity scene.

The second theory is that the statuettes represent the mischief and evil that is in all beings. Instead of denying it, la Caganer accepts what all beings have in common. Moreover, it’s seen as a contrast to the purity represented by the rest of the nativity scene, giving it balance.

With the traditional versions are more international versions, such as figures of Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Boris Johnson.


Although a traditional figure, it faces scrutiny. Certain authorities question whether the statuettes are suitable for public display. In certain instances, it’s a matter of morals.

In a Spanish newspaper, regarding the Osama Bin Laden figure, the complaint read that they cannot promote a sinister person. For the statuette of Monserrate’s Virgin, the Catalan church and a Catholic organization deemed it disrespectful and offensive to the Catholic religion.

Nevertheless, it’s still a traditional item sold and kept in Catalan homes and nativity scenes.

Germany’s Christmas Pickles

A photograph of a green glass pickle ornament handing from a decorated Christmas tree.
image source:

Part of Germany’s Christmas traditions is hanging a pickle-shaped glass ornament on a Christmas tree. It’s hidden in the tree to make it difficult to find. The first child to find it on Christmas morning gets a special treat or an extra present.

In 1880, Woolworths started selling glass ornaments from Germany. Some came in various fruit and vegetable shapes, including pickles.

The tradition, however, faces several predicaments.

No German has ever heard of such a tradition.

In addition, in Germany, St. Nicholas doesn’t show on Christmas Eve, but on the eve of December 6th. Moreover, German children open their presents on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.

The ‘Origin’ of the Christmas Pickle

There are two stories surrounding the myth, which many find hard to believe.

The first, a starved Bavarian-born American Civil War prisoner asked a guard for one last pickle before he died. The guard felt pity for the prisoner and brought the pickle. That one pickle gave him the mental and physical strength to live on.

The second, a medieval tale, tells of two Spanish boys walking home from boarding school for the holidays. They stopped at an inn for the night, where the evil innkeeper murdered them and placed their bodies in pickle barrels. St. Nicolas stopped at the inn that evening and found the bounds in the barrel. He miraculously brought them back to life.

The likely story is that a German-American ornament salesman had too many glass pickles. He used the myth of the German Christmas traditions to sell more.

Hidden Brooms in Norway

A photograph of a flying witch with a large line drawn through it is carved on a wood and placed on a tree in Norway.
image source:

According to Norwegian folklore, Christmas Eve occurs when evil spirits and witches arrive to cause mischief. Norwegians believed the witches and spirits stole their brooms for riding at night to cause trouble.

Before they go to sleep, following their Christmas tradition, families hide their brooms to prevent them from being stolen for a midnight joyride. Some even burn spruce logs in the fireplace to stop witches and spirits from coming down the chimney.

Krampus, the Christmas Demon

A colourful representation of black-fur Krampus carrying a child on his back in a red barrel, holding a bunch of branches in his hand as he chases naughty children in the snow.
image source:

St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, is a figure of generosity and kindness that rewards the well-behaved.

In regions across Germany and Austria, he has a menacing counterpart: Krampus.

Derived from the German word krampen, meaning ‘claw’, Krampus is believed to be the son of Hel, the Norse Goddess of Death.

Common depictions of Krampus show he is a hairy creature with black or brown fur. Giant horns curl up from his head to display his half-goat heritage. Along with his cloven hooves, he has fangs and a long, pointed tongue.

Depending on the stories, his appearance varies. Some say he has bloodshot eyes or a mangled, deranged face.

The Purpose of Krampus

According to rumours, Krampus is part of the pagan rituals for the winter solstice.

As Christianity spread, he became associated with Christmas, but the Catholic church forbade any celebrations to do with Krampus. They made many attempts to ban Krampus because of his close resemblance to the devil.

On December 5th, St. Nicholas arrives in the evening outside the children’s windows and rewards well-behaved children with presents.

Krampus, on the other hand, beats the badly behaved children with branches and sticks. Throughout the Christmas season, children fear being beaten by Krampus or facing his worse alternative. He stuffs the naughty children into his sack and takes them to his lair, where he tortures or eats them.

Modern Day Krampus

Krampuslauf (Krampus Run) is where people dress in ghastly Krampus costumes and parade through the streets, often under the influence of alcohol. They walk through the streets, scaring spectators and even chasing them.

US films and television specials explore the dark side of Krampus. Austria attempts to commercialize Krampus by selling chocolates, figurines and collectable horns. This resulted in complaints that Krampus is being to commercialized because of its newfound popularity.

Latvian Mummers

A photograph of Lativian mummers, dressed warmly, with their varioous masks on their faces and carrying their props, standing in the snow.
image source:

A mummer is a masked actor. It comes from the ancient Greek word momus, the personification of satire and mockery. It’s also from the old English word mommer, which relates to miming, masking and frolicking.

Mummers trace back to ancient Egypt, with Scandinavian immigrants starting the tradition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

In Latvia, they’re known as ķekatas, budeļi, kūjenieki, preiļi, kuruemi, ĉigāni, or kalanieki.

The most intense mumming activities occur around Christmas when mummers wear costumes and masks. The most common masks are bears, horses, wolves, Death, fortune tellers and living corpses.

Led by a ‘father’, they travel from home to home or village to village. Along with music and traditional songs, the mummers bring a blessing that encourages fertility and frightens away evil spirits from homes.

Moreover, they stay disguised and hide their voices to avoid being recognized.

The Ukrainian Christmas Spiders

A photograph of a Christmas tree in the Ukraine, decorated with artificial spider webs and spiders.
image source:

In Ukraine, spiders on Christmas trees are a symbol of good luck.

The Widow, Her Children and The Spiders

The story is about a widow in a small, cold hut with her children.

One day, a pinecone fell from a tree outside the widow’s home and took root in the ground. The children were excited about having a tree for Christmas and took care of the seedling, and even planned on how they would decorate it. When it was ready, tall, big and strong, they took it inside their home.

However, the family faced poverty and the widow knew they couldn’t afford to buy ornaments for the tree. They left the branches bare and went to bed.

After hearing the sobs of the children, the household’s spiders spun their silky webs into intricate patterns on the tree.

On Christmas morning, the children cried, “Mother, you have to come see the Christmas tree! It’s so beautiful.” The widow woke up and saw the spiders’ webs on the branches.

At sunrise, the sun’s rays crept up the tree. The threads of the webs began to glow and turned silver and gold, which gave the tree a magical sparkle.

From that day, the widow never wanted anything. Rather than feeling poor, she remained grateful for the gifts she already had.

To remember the miracle, as part of the Christmas traditions, Ukrainians decorate their trees with artificial spider webs to bring good luck and fortune for the coming year.

The Yule Goat

A photograph of the Gaule Goat,at night, lit up on display.
image source:

Also known as the julebock in Swedish, the Yule Goat is St. Nicholas’s companion and has the power to control the devil. In some cases, it was Krampus.

The Yule Goat dates to ancient pagan festivals and has two origin stories.

The Chariot of Thor

The Norse god of lightening, Thor, had two goats that pulled his chariot: Tanngnjór (tooth grinder) and Tanngrisnir (gap tooth). They provided food every evening when slaughtered and rose again the following morning.

Juleoffer is an ancient Swedish practice. A person would dress in goatskin and carry an image of a goat. The person would be chased and symbolically slaughtered and return to life in the morning. Due to the rise of Christianity, the practice faded and the julebock was declared a demon.

In the 1600s, the story of the julebock said that it roamed the country on Christmas nights, demanding offerings and scaring Christians as an invisible spirit.

In later years, the Yule Goat became seen as a good-natured being. It gives gifts during Christmas and is accompanied by the juletomte (Swedish version of Santa Claus).

Harvest Traditions

Based on the Indo-European harvest traditions, the last bundle of grain contained the Spirit of the Harvest. Farmers saved it for Yule celebrations.

Early European customs had harvest gods that resembled goats. The bundles were referred to as goats because of their own resemblance.

Modern-Day Yule Goat

Julebukking or julebokken is when young men dress as Christmas characters, including a rowdy, sometimes scary, Yule Goat. Part of the Christmas tradition includes rewarding children with candy or seasonal treats. It’s still practised in some parts of Scandinavia.

The most famed Yule Goat is the Gäule Goat.

Since 1966, a giant straw julebock has been created each year in the city of Gaule. However, it’s not the large goat that makes it famous. Its fame lies with it being the target of arson each year, with a total of 39 targets since 1966.

People urge the city to stop building the goat or at least use a less flammable material rather than straw, but the people of Gäule are proud of their goat and will continue to build it.

The Icelandic Yule Lads

A colorful depiction of the 13 Yule Lads standing in and bursting through a wooden window sill.
image source:

Before Christmas day, Icelandic children aren’t visited by one Santa Claus, but by 13.

Although mischief, the 13merry Yule Lads visit children on the 13 nights leading to Christmas. On those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. Good children will receive candy in the show. Naughty children will have rotting potatoes.

In the beginning, according to Icelandic folklore, the original purpose of the Yule Lads was to evoke fear in the hearts of children. They were monstrous troll creatures, the sons of two Icelandic mythical creatures, that ate naughty children.

Their mother, Grýla, boiled naughty children alive and ate them. She is one of the oldest Icelandic mythical creatures that dates to the 13th century. Their father was Grýla’s third husband, Leppalúði.

Parents would frighten their misbehaved children by reminding them of the Yule Lads.

However, in 1746, a public decree forbade parents from frightening and threatening their children with the Yule Lads. As the years passed, the Yule Lads stopped being used as a threat.

By the 1900s, the Yule Lads were transformed into modern-day Santa Clauses.

The 13 Yule Lads

The Yule Lads have distinct personalities. Their names are debatable and interpreted in many ways.

  1. Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) tried to suckle yews in the farmer’s sheep sheds.
  2. Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) stole foam from buckets of cow’s milk.
  3. Stúfur, (Stubby) was short and stole food from frying pans.
  4. Þvörusleikir (Spoon Licker) licked spoons.
  5. Pottaskefill (Pot Scraper) stole unwashed pots and licked them clean.
  6. Askasleikir (Bowl Licker) stole food from under the bed, kept by Icelanders for a midnight snack.
  7. Hurðaskellir (Door Slammer) stomped around the slammed doors, keeping everyone awake.
  8. Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler) ate all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr).
  9. Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Swiper) loved stolen sausages.
  10. Gluggagægir (Window Peeper) crept outside windows and sometimes stole what he saw.
  11. Gáttaþefur (Door Sniffer) had a large nose and an uncontrollable appetite for stolen baked goods.
  12. Ketkrókur (Meet Hook) snatched meals left out, especially smoked lamb.
  13. Kertasníkir (Candle Begger) stole candles, which were a sought-after item in Iceland.

Cultural Significance of Christmas

An artist's depiction of a family holding hands and dancing around their well-lit and decorated Christmas tree.
image source:

After the first Christmas in the year 336, Christmas has never only been celebrated by Christians. It’s a time when friends and family come together to enjoy a remarkable feast, and remember all they are grateful for.

Additionally, in different countries, their Christmas traditions make their Christmas unique. It defines a part of their country’s history, whether the stories are true or mythical.

When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.


Leave a Reply