World's Strangest Holiday Traditions

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Nina Africano

Winter is hard upon us, and with it comes a season full of holiday traditions. While our own customs may not seem strange to us -- what's so weird about feasting on a giant bird while watching football games? Or parades of enormous balloons shaped like cartoon characters? -- others might beg to differ. We've scanned the globe to find ten unusual celebrations, both here and abroad. From spring cleaning festivals to ward off the devil to celebrations where giant effigies of celebrities and politicians are burned, here are some of the weird and wonderful holiday celebrations held around the world.

Santa Run -- Newtown, Wales, UK (Nov. 28, 2010)

While we think of Santa Claus as a jolly, rotund sort, folks in Newtown, Wales have been giving Santa a fit, new image as thousands of men, women, and children gather every year for the annual Newtown Santa Run. The event started in 2001 with 500 runners as a fundraiser for Dial-a-Ride, a local charity, and has since raised thousands of pounds for worthy causes in the UK and around the world. The number of hoofing Santas has also grown into the thousands, even setting a Guinness World Record in 2004 for a gathering of 3,445 Santas, a record long since obliterated by a red-suited crowd some 12,965 strong in Derry City, Northern Ireland on September 9, 2007.

Feast of St. Nicholas -- Czech Republic (Dec. 6, 2010 -- celebrated eve of Dec 5)

On the evening of December 5, children in the Czech Republic celebrate the Feast of Mikuláš (Saint Nicholas Day -- Dec. 6) with festivities that offer the fun of Halloween while remembering St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children in the Catholic Church. Known for his generosity as well as for his long, white beard and bright red robes, St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century, and celebrants today wear a sort of bishop's miter and carry a staff and a book in which names of children who have been naughty or nice are written.

St. Nicholas is followed by an Angel who rewards good boys and girls with toys and treats as well as a Devil who menaces misbehavers with a sack of coal or potatoes -- or even being carried off to Hell. In Prague, the drama plays out in Old Town Square, while in small villages, the characters visit the homes of children.

Needless to say, children promise to behave better and even prepare poems, prayers songs, or drawings for St. Nicholas. Of course, our Santa Claus derives from this tradition, and is likely a corruption of the German words "San Nikolaus."

Another feast day observed in the Czech Republic, "Barborky," is the Feast of St. Barbora (Dec. 4). Young women hoping to get married cut a branch from a cherry tree and keep it in a vase. If the cherry blossoms open by Christmas Eve, the girl's hopes will be fulfilled, and she will be married in the year to come.

World's Strangest Holiday Traditions

Surizar, flickr

Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil) -- Guatemala (Dec. 7)

One tradition that certainly puts our spring cleaning to shame is Quema del Diablo, or the Burning of the Devil, which takes place every December in Guatemala. Guatemalans have long believed that the Devil lurks in the dark and dusty corners of the house and in garbage, so every year before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), people sweep him out of their houses and chase him off by burning their household refuse in bonfires topped by effigies of the Devil.

Marimba bands and fireworks add to the festivities. Some of the biggest celebrations are in Antigua and Guatemala City.

In Ciudad Vieja, a Devil three stories high is set alight in the city square at the stroke of six. Quema del Diablo is just one of the 192 unusual happenings described in the Lonely Planet guide, "A Year of Festivals."

Christmas Day -- Belgium (Dec. 6 and 25)

In a country with two distinct languages and cultures, Christmas in Belgium is also a tale of two Santas. In the Dutch-speaking tradition, St. Niklaas may visit children twice, on December 6 and again on December 25 -- for kids who have gotten a taste of American-style Christmas celebrations through TV and movies.

In the French tradition, Père Noël (Father Christmas) visits children accompanied by Père Fouettard (French for Whipping Father), who may carry a stick, a whip, or a bunch of sticks or switches. Père Noël offers chocolates and treats to the good children, while Père Fouettard doles out sticks, lumps of coal, or spankings to naughty little boys and girls.

Janeiras -- Portugal (Dec. 25 - Jan. 6)

In the Algarve and throughout Portugal, there is a joyous tradition of New Year's caroling called Janeiras. Groups of friends or neighbors go from house to house singing, sometimes with instruments. The rewards for the Janeiras might be chestnuts, apples, nuts -- or even a small glass of brandy. The tradition of the Janeiras is believed to date all the way back to Roman times, to honor and appease the two-headed Roman god Janus, who guarded the entryway into heaven, and for whom the first month of the year is named.

World's Strangest Holiday Traditions

DeusXFlorida, flickr

Junkanoo -- Bahamas and elsewhere (Dec. 26)


Many Americans who have never traveled to the Bahamas know about the Junkanoo street parade from the James Bond movie Thunderball. Of course, that costume extravaganza was staged just for the film, as the traditional date for Junkanoo is Boxing Day on December 26. But the music, the costumes, the dancing, the energy are all true to Junkanoo, which derives from the West African masquerade tradition. The biggest parade is in Nassau, but there are celebrations throughout the Bahamas as well as in Jamaica, Bermuda, Belize, Brazil, Turks and Caicos and even in Miami and Key West, though at different times of the year.

The origin of the word Junkanoo is open for debate; some say it refers to a slave trader by the name of John Canoe, but author and historian Irene Smalls links it to the Johnkankus celebrations which were common in the American South up until 1865 and named in honor of the 17th century African chief John Conny.

Johnkankus celebrations probably died out due to the association with slavery (though whites had certainly participated), but it was probably not coincidental that Maulana Karenga chose this date for the start of Kwanzaa in 1966. From a Swahili phrase for "fruits of the harvest," Kwanzaa began as alternative to Christmas, but now many people celebrate both.

World's Strangest Holiday Traditions

Nina Africano

Hogmanay -- Edinburgh, Scotland (Dec. 30, 2010 - Jan. 2, 2011)

Named for a wood and animal hide torch which is lit to smoke out evil spirits, Hogmanay is a celebration with pagan roots, a great display of bonfires and parading around by torchlight. In some towns throughout the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides, the old customs endure, in which bands of young boys don sheepskins and roam the village reciting Gaelic rhymes.

But today, by far the biggest Hogmanay happens in Edinburgh, where more than 250,000 people take part in four days and nights of festivities. There are more than 20 organized events including the Torchlight Procession, the Night Afore celebrations, the Seven Hills fireworks, the Royal Bank Street Party (the world's largest New Year's street party) and the New Year's Day Loony Dook, in which costumed revelers plunge into the icy waters of the River Forth. Needless to say, some events involve a goodish amount of whiskey.

New Year's Eve -- Ecuador (Dec. 31, 2010)

In China and other countries in the Far East, people burn paper copies of what they wish for in the coming year (money, cell phones, etc.) both on the traditional Lunar New Year, and on the solar calendar New Year. (This coming year Feb. 3, 2011 ushers in the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac.)

In Ecuador, people also burn giant effigies, but with an entirely different motivation -- to say goodbye and good riddance. Combustible scarecrows are made from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, sticks, and even firecrackers, then topped with papier mâché heads made to look like troublesome celebrities and politicians. At midnight, these stand-ins are beaten and then set on fire for all the trouble they have caused in the previous year. Hmm -- maybe there's a reason you don't see Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan jetting down to Ecuador for New Year's Eve.

World's Strangest Holiday Traditions

amelungc, flickr

New Year's Eve – U.S. (Dec. 31, 2010)

Here in the U.S., the best-known New Year's Eve countdown is surely the Ball Drop in New York City's Times Square. Thousands of people cram the city streets every year despite the discomforts involved (crowds, cold, noise, etc.), while millions more watch the event on television.

But some smaller cities have taken the countdown to the New Year and made it their own, and Pennsylvanians are among those taken pride of place rather literally: Dillsburg has the Pickle Drop, Beavertown has the Beaver Drop, and Lebanon has the Bologna Drop.

Though fishermen rarely like to let one get away, in Eastport, Maine, the New Year is rung in with the Sardine Drop, and in Port Clinton, Ohio (self-named the "Walleye Capital of the World"), a 20-foot, 600-pound fiberglass Walleye drops to signal the New Year.

Epiphany -- Italy and elsewhere (Jan. 6)

In Spain, Latin America, and many other countries, Christmas Day is a relatively quiet celebration when families get together to eat and go to church; children must wait until Epiphany or Three Kings Day (January 6) for presents.

In Italy, the distributor of presents is said to be a kindly old witch known as La Befana. During the night, La Befana rides through the night, sliding down chimneys to fill the stockings of good little boys and girls with toys and candy and leaving lumps of coal for the bad ones.

According to folklore, the Three Wise Men stopped at the shack of La Befana to ask directions and told her of the birth of baby Jesus. They asked her to come along but she refused. Later that night, La Befana saw the star in the night sky and tried to follow the Three Kings, but she never found the manger. Ever since then, she has flown around on the eleventh night of Christmas leaving presents for little children in hopes that the Christ child will receive them.

In Russia, there is a similar myth, but it is Babushka (Russian for Grandmother) who distributes the gifts.

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