I have always loved to travel abroad during the holidays. I generally don’t like to plan much when I travel. I just choose where I will stay and from there I like to see where the day takes me. I find this gives me more opportunity to soak in the local culture and enjoy my time instead of rushing from site to site. My absolute favorite part about traveling is the people and observing their culture, so that is what I focus my experience on. One of my most favorite trips was over Christmas when we went to Sorrento, Italy. We happened upon the cutest little “pirate” bar and often went in the evening for live music and a drink. We decided to go back on Christmas day and the owner surprised us with cooking us an entire meal even though they normally only serve light fare. It is such a special memory!
As the holidays approach, it makes me think of how fortunate I’ve been in past years to experience other cultural traditions during my travels and I wanted to share a few cool holiday traditions with you! I highly encourage everyone to plan trips around the holidays to take in the experiences! You never know what you might see!
1 – First up, is Catalan Spain. This is the region that Barcelona is in. Shayna and I happened to be here one December and got to see this in person. There are two “bathroom” centric traditions that are quite humorous. First, the Christmas log which is a log with legs and a face and a little red hat. The tradition is from old mythology and is introduced at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The hollow log is made to look like it is pooping out gifts for children to find on Christmas morning. It’s actually cute – and I keep mine under my tree. The second one is el Caganer which is the most important holiday figure. The male figure is squatting with his pant down and the translation is actually “the defecator.” The figurine is hidden among nativity scenes and is believed to bless people with a prosperous year. We had a good laugh seeing el Caganer amongst the manger scenes!
2 - In the United Kingdom, the British tradition is Christmas pudding. Over time, the pudding has evolved from a savory-meat based stew to a dried fruit pudding soaked in brandy. Having a grandmother from England, this sounds about right. Hidden in the pudding is a six pence and whoever finds the coin in their serving is said to enjoy wealth and good luck in the year to come!
3 - If you haven’t been to Germany during the holiday season, you have still probably heard about the holiday markets. It seems every town has at least one Christmas market and bigger towns and cities have several. The Christmas markets often feature ice skating rinks, huge trees, carousels, lots of lights, and vendors selling sausages, spiced nuts, sweets, hot gluhwein, candy, and all types of gifts. It is such a joyous atmosphere that you have to experience! Although they have been re-created around the world, there just doesn’t seem to be anywhere like Germany Christmas markets!
4 - In Austria, as children prepare for St. Nicholas to visit if they have been good, the bad children instead have to face Krampus. Krampus is half man, half goat and comes every year to chase naughty children and is meant to scare children into being good. It is said that he visits the bad children's homes and leaves them sticks or sometimes even beats them with sticks. Sometimes adults even dress up to scare children and some visitors have reported being caught off guard by Krampus roaming the streets and sending them running in horror. Austria definitely invented the real deal elf-on-the-shelf!
5 - In Russia, Father Frost brings children gifts on New Year’s Eve. He wears a long blue coat and is accompanied by his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden. His sleigh is pulled by three white horses instead of Santa’s reindeer.
6 – In Oaxaca, Mexico the holidays are celebrated with radishes. The Night of the Radishes is all about carving radishes with elaborate scenes. They grow special radishes just for this that are oversized and deep purple. Carvers eagerly await the winners to be announced for various award categories!
7 - Much like the seven dwarfs with their own distinct personality, meet the thirteen yule lads, who are Iceland’s mischievous Santa clauses. There are yule lads that lick spoons, steal meat, even one who makes a raucous in the house to wake everyone. They take turns visiting kids on the thirteen nights before Christmas. The children place a shoe on their windowsill and good children will receive candy. Bad children are not so lucky and will get rotting potatoes.
As you can see, there is something different happening everywhere. I bet you have some fun traditions from your family that you consider “normal” that your friends have never heard of. That is the cool thing about holiday traditions, we pass them down for years and years and it brings happy and fun memories to all – I guess except the bad children!