Quirky Ways to Celebrate Christmas

If you’ve ever considered it odd that U.S. Christmas traditions revolve around indoor trees (real and plastic) and a plump, bearded man sliding down chimneys… you’re not wrong.

In fact, our conception of Santa Claus can largely be attributed to a single 1828 poem, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which enshrined the nation’s image of Santa–with his “little round belly” and a beard “as white as the snow–and propagated the idea of him coming through chimneys to deliver gifts in stockings, now common knowledge to children across the country. It’s just one of the ways our Christmas traditions can be traced to quirks of history.

But odd and seemingly arbitrary Christmas traditions are not only the purview of the United States. Around the world, in countries that are majority Christian and countries that are majority not, unique practices emerge as the holiday approaches.

Here’s a look at some of the notable and sometimes bizarre Christmas time traditions around the world.

Japan

The vast majority of Japan is not Christian, but one Christmas tradition persists: a trip to KFC. Since a “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign was launched in Japan in 1974, the American chain has become a popular Christmas Eve hotspot. The campaign worked so well that sales that night typically outpace those of the rest of the year. Some people even order their bucket of fried chicken ahead, to beat the Christmas crowds.

Sweden

In the Swedish town of Gävle, it is traditional to construct a 30-foot tall giant straw “Yule Goat” — a Christmas symbol in Sweden for centuries. And it’s tradition for some meddling kids (actually, unidentified criminal arsonists) to try to burn it down. According to the Gävle tourist board, the goat has been burned down 25 times since its construction became an annual tradition in 1966. So far this year, the Gävle goat is safely standing, as you can see on this webcam. You can also follow him on Twitter.

India

Christians comprise roughly 2 percent of the Indian population, or 24 million people. But Christmas trees in the warm climate are in short supply, so in lieu of the evergreen conifer many Indian families will adorn banana or mango trees with ornaments. In Christian communities, which are mostly in southern India, people put oil-lamps of clay on their flat roof-tops to celebrate the season.

Ukraine

Americans would recognize the Christmas trees decorated in Ukraine, as they’re similar to the traditional, Western fir tree, but Ukrainians will sometimes decorate them with an unlikely ornament: spider webs. The tradition stems from a Ukrainian folk tale, about a widow whose family was so poor they had no money to decorate their tree. Instead, a spider span a web around it on Christmas Eve — and when the first light of day hit it on Christmas morning, it turned into a beautiful web of gold and silver.

Iceland

Beware the Yule Cat! This traditional Christmas fiend is said to terrorize the Icelandic countryside, particularly targeting those who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. But the frightening festive feline is just one of Iceland’s “Christmas fiends”, who include Grýla, a three-headed ogress with goat-horns. The creature’s sons, the “Yule Lads”, hand out Christmas gifts to children who have been good (and rotten vegetables to those who have been bad).

Italy

Only in Italy do the witches bring gifts to children. That’s La Befana, a broom-flying, kindly witch who effectively takes over from Santa–in Italy, “Babbo Natale”—about two weeks after Christmas on Epiphany to deliver gifts to the good, and ash to the bad. Though the witch has her roots in the pre-Christian pagan tradition, she features in some tellings of the Christmas story in Italy — as an old woman who refuses to give the Wise Men directions to Bethlehem because she is too busy cleaning, and is forced to ride a broomstick for eternity as a result. The town of Le Marche, in northwestern Italy, celebrates her coming every January.

Czech Republic

Save the ham. In the Czech Republic, carp is the mainstay of a Christmas dinner. The tradition of eating carp on Christian holidays dates back as far as the 11th century, when Bohemian monasteries would construct fishponds for the express use of farming the fish. Until recently, Czech families would buy a live carp in the weeks before Christmas and keep it in a bathtub, before slaughtering it on Christmas Eve ready for the following day’s meal. Many Czechs still take part in the festive superstition of saving a dried (and cleaned) scale from the Christmas fish in their wallets for luck over the coming year.

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Top presidential dinner

Take a White House state dinner and multiply it by 50. The result is the most elaborate and unusual dinner of President Barack Obama’s administration, a one-of-a-kind affair put on Tuesday night for a one-of-a-kind gathering of several dozen leaders from countries across Africa.

The leaders are attending a three-day conference organized by the White House and aimed at boosting U.S. ties to the continent. Obama wasted little time highlighting his own personal connection to Africa during a brief toast. Guests were shuttled down to a massive tent erected on the South Lawn because the White House, as big as it is, does not have any rooms large enough that can hold the more-than-400 invited guests.

“I stand before you as the president of the United States, a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of a man from Africa,” Obama said drawing applause. “The blood of Africa runs through our family, so for us, the bonds between our countries, our continents are deeply personal.”

He warmly recalled family visits to Kenya before he became president, as well as stops at historic sites in Ghana, Senegal and South Africa with his family while in office. And he offered a toast to “the new Africa, the Africa that is rising and so full of promise.”

Among the African leaders who arrived at the White House one at a time over the course of 90 minutes were President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, the world’s newest country, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. Kiir wore a cowboy hat and waved dramatically to the media.

Egypt’s ambassador and Libya’s foreign affairs minister also attended. Next to last to arrive was Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has pleaded innocent to murder and other charges for his alleged role in organizing violence that left more than 1,000 people dead after Kenya’s 2007 elections. The case is before an international criminal court, and Obama pointedly skipped visiting Kenya when he toured Africa with his family last summer.

Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, who last month visited Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, attended along with numerous other Obama administration officials, members of the delegations accompanying the African leaders, U.S. lawmakers and business leaders.

There was political, Hollywood and athletic star power in the crowd, too. Former President Jimmy Carter, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, a sponsor of a U.S.-Africa business forum where Obama spoke earlier Tuesday, mingled with guests before dinner. Also expected were actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of the Academy Award-winning drama “12 Years a Slave,” and Robert De Niro, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-born American winner of this year’s Boston Marathon.

After greeting Obama and first lady Michelle Obama inside the White House, guests boarded chartered trolley cars for a ride to the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama wore a cream-colored dress by Prabal Gurung, one of her favorite designers, with cut-outs in both the front and the back and her hair swept up into a bun.

The menu featured a largely American-style dinner with hints of Africa sprinkled throughout each of the four courses. Guests dined on chilled spiced tomato soup and socca crisps, which are made of chick peas; chopped farm-stand vegetable salad using produce from the first lady’s garden; and grilled dry-aged Wagyu beef served with chermoula, a marinade used in North African cooking, sweet potatoes and coconut milk.

Dessert was cappuccino fudge cake dressed with papaya scented with vanilla from Madagascar. American wines were also on the menu. Award-winning singer Lionel Richie provided the after-dinner entertainment.

“Tonight, we are going to have a party,” Richie said as he took the stage and quoted from the lyrics to “All Night Long,” one of his top hits. He then played the piano and eased the audience into what he said would be a short party by opening with “Easy,” another one of his hits.

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