10 Unusual Holiday Traditions from Around the World

As the holiday season approaches, families everywhere gear up for their yearly rituals. And while you might think some of your family’s practices are idiosyncratic, trust that enough unique traditions exist out there to make your aunt Ellen’s Christmas ramen look as festive as a snow-swept street. To honor our commitments to tradition, as the holidays are meant to do, we at the OTT have compiled some of the more left-field celebrations from around the world.

  1. The Mummering of Newfoundland
    Brought to Newfoundland by British settlers, “mummering” currently enjoys a resurgence in popularity. The practice had faded due to its tendency to incite violence. But in the last 30 years, rural populations have brought it back in good spirits. To “mummer,” one dons an elaborate costume and joins a small group in knocking on neighbors’ doors. Upon invitation into a home, the “mummers” prompt a merry celebration. If a homeowner correctly guesses the true identity of a mummer, their mask comes off before they leave for the next house. The tradition is practiced during the Twelve Days of Christmas, but some mummers might make you think you’ve been transported back to spooky October.

  2. The Yule Cat of Iceland
    Folklore is central to the holidays – whether it’s canonized by carols or stories traded over the dinner table. In Iceland, folklore dictates the importance of the Yule Cat, a giant, vicious predator that emerges to eat anyone who hasn’t received new clothes before Christmas Eve. While the Yule Cat sounds outrageous, its popularity interestingly originates in the labor history of Iceland. Farmers yearned to incentivize wool workers to process all autumn wool before winter hit. Workers who completed their share received new items of clothing. Thus, the Yule Cat, who could weed out slow workers, was circulated.

  3. Chinese Food on Christmas in NYC
    New York City hosts the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, but Jews still comprise only 13% of the official population. So, although the city never sleeps, one might be hard-pressed to find many businesses open on Christmas Day. Thus, the convergence of two demographics – Chinese non-Christians working in the restaurant industry and Jews looking for somewhere to eat. This uniquely urban linkage began in New York’s old Lower East Side where Chinese and Jewish immigrants once lived in close proximity. Today, however, Jews carry the torch simply by needing food on Christmas Day. Plus, who could resist such a delicious ritual.

  4. The El Gordo of Spain
    The El Gordo, officially known as Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, is a national lottery held in Spain on Christmas Day. The El Gordo is remarkable as the second-longest continuously running lottery in the world and biggest lottery worldwide as measured by total prize payout. Even during the Spanish Civil War, the government managed to organize the El Gordo, with opposition parties throwing an El Gordo of their own. We sanctify the holidays as a time of charity and graciousness, but it’s fun to throw a little gambling in the mix, particularly when the payoff is so alluring.

  5. SantaCon in the U.S.
    There’s nothing novel or unusual about Santa Claus, likely the most ubiquitous figure during the month of December. But what about dressing up as Santa for a day long pub crawl in the city of your choice? And if you were joined by hundreds, often thousands, of other Santas? Meet SantaCon, the rowdy tradition that’s struck urban centers across the country. On this day, Santa look-a-likes flood the streets to celebrate the holidays, but mostly to drink. The other traditions on this list are regarded with a nostalgic fondness – but SantaCon, not so much due to the noise and mess it brings.

  6. KFC Dinner in Japan
    As one might expect, Christmas is not widely celebrated in Japan. But while the island nation has largely passed on the Western holiday, it’s offered a warmer welcome to the season’s connotative consumerism. Initially debuted in 1974, the KFC Christmas Dinner was meant to cater to homesick Americans who wound up in Japan for the holiday season. Since then, the demand has boomed, and the chain now requests that customers place their Christmas order at least two months in advance. Through sheer marketing genius, KFC has convinced the Japanese public that their chicken-and-a-side meals are a holiday fixture in the States, creating a new tradition across the Pacific in the process.

  7. The Gävle Goat of Sweden
    The Gävle goat stands proud in the center of the town that provides its namesake – Gävle, Sweden. Each year, local community groups come together to build a massive goat from straw to honor the traditional Swedish Yule Goat. This tradition might seem mild and good-spirited, but it has birthed a parallel, more pernicious occurrence. The Gävle goat suffers from a chronic vandalism problem, having been burned to the ground by arsonists 38 out of the 52 times it has been erected since 1966. This year’s goat went up on December 2nd, and we’ll all be holding our breath hoping it makes it past Christmas Day.

  8. The Giant Lantern Festival of the Philippines
    Every year, the people of San Fernando in the Philippines come together to host the event that has earned them the title of “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” This festival lasts through the latter half of December and originated as a means for neighborhoods throughout the province to display their communal light works. As technology advanced over time, allowing for larger lanterns and light displays in the decorations, the festival became an in-demand location to visit and see. Now, lanterns are made from steel frames that can sometimes pack over 5000 lightbulbs to make for beautiful, seasonal displays of craftsmanship.

  9. Santa Descends in France
    Santa climbs down chimneys all over the world, but once a year he makes a special stop in Douaia township located in the north of France, to rappel down the city’s belfry tower. Since 1966, Santa has made this yearly descent, likely getting more exercise than he’s used to in the sleigh. The local tradition is meant in part to honor the belfries of Douai, considered some of the most impressive in the country. Sadly, in recent years, the celebration has had to relocate to Douai’s Hotel Du Dauphin after a young man tragically fell from the belfry during a rehearsal last winter.

  10. Priscilla the Pig in Atlanta
    Priscilla the Pig has been adored by the Atlanta population for 65 years now, originally debuted at the historic Rich’s Department Store and now housed by the Macy’s in Lenox Square. Whereas Priscilla initially toured Rich’s toy department, she now lives in a tent on the top deck of the Macy’s parking garage where she showcases a wondrous installation for children and parents alike. And not only does Priscilla occupy a special place in Atlanta’s winter heart, but the desegregation of Rich’s, and the monorail ride specifically, in 1961 was seen as one of the largest advancements by the Civil Rights Movement at the time.