All the Strange Ways Europeans Celebrate Christmas
VICE's European editors write about the craziest ways their countries celebrate the dark days of December.
Photo by Răzvan Băltărețu
Coca Cola may have invented Santa in his current big-bellied, red-nosed, and pretty harmless form, but Coca Cola certainly did not invent the way we celebrate Christmas around the world. In many areas of Europe, the dark days of December and January are marked by weird and sometimes pretty sinister rituals and traditions. Many of them are rooted in paganism, but were given a bit of Christian flavor at some point in history. We asked our European editors about the Christmas traditions most unique to their country.
Way before Santa came on the Christmas scene, julbocken—the Christmas Goat—delivered gifts around Sweden. The julbocken can still be found around the country during Christmas time—the most famous one being the 13 meter-high Gävle Goat, which has been erected on the first weekend of Advent every year since 1966. The idea behind the Gävle Goat is that we burn it during a public event on New Year's Eve, but usually the goat is damaged by arsonists way before that. If you look at its history, you'll see that there's a 77 percent chance that the goat is destroyed before New Year's Eve. It's not always arsonists—in 1976 the goat was ran over by a raggarbil, and in 2010 someone tried and failed to kidnap it using a helicopter. At the time of publication, the goat has been destroyed a total of 37 times—mostly by fire.
Because this year marked the Gävle goat's 50th birthday, the local council reportedly spent 2.3 million Swedish kronor [$250,000] on the occasion. Security guards were hired and hi-tech cameras were installed to protect the goat. To no avail—a mere four hours after the inauguration on November 27, the Gävle Goat was set on fire by arsonists. The attackers still haven't been found, but you can see it going up in flames here:
- John-David Ritz, VICE Sweden
The most recent December tradition in the Netherlands is the annual climax of the year-long debate on Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Black Pete is the helper of Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas) and he prances around handing out candy to children. A grown-up doing that in itself isn't necessarily worrying during the holidays, but Black Pete is played by people who black-up their faces and wear afros, earrings, and red lips. His features are firmly rooted in our colonial history, and the last couple of years protests against Black Pete have gotten louder and more prominent. Last year, the UN urged our country to end the tradition of Black Pete
Of course by now the debate has spiraled into something even more toxic and offensive than just the question of whether or not a racist children's character should be banned. This year during the national Sinterklaas parade, supporters of the extreme right wing party NVU were allowed to protest the proposed changes in the appearance of Black Pete. Activists whose aim is to ban or change Black Pete were not allowed to make themselves heard during the parade. On the day itself, a video surfaced showing one anti-Black Pete activist violently being pushed into a bus and punched in the face by a policeman. And to make matters even more absurd, a special police force went undercover that day by blacking-up—reportedly for security measures. The unit took a picture of themselves that day and shared it on their official Twitter account. It has since been taken down, but online publication Joop.nl saved it and shared it instead.
– Ewout Lowie, VICE Netherlands
On December 6, German children not only get a visit from Saint Nicholas, but also from his scary companion and counterpart Knecht Ruprecht. While children who behaved well that year get small gifts from him, the bad apples among them are in for a rather nasty surprise. For them, Knecht Ruprecht pulls out his wooden rod and threatens them with a good smacking so they'll learn to behave better next year.
In the southernmost parts of Germany and Austria there is a similar, even more terrifying figure called Krampus. He looks like a demon goat and only appears in packs, but his job description is the same as Knecht Ruprecht's—to punish naughty children with a rod. On the eve of December 6, people in these areas dress up as Krampus to roam the streets together and scare passers-by. Needless to say, everything that happens on these nights is mainly fueled by alcohol.
– Florian Jentsch, VICE Germany
What makes a British Christmas a distinctly British Christmas? Our local councils pull in favors with minor celebrities from reality TV shows or aging pop acts, getting them to turn on the Christmas lights as we all stand around. We pull crackers at dinner time that have plastic toys and terrible dad jokes inside them. Carol singers go door-to-door for a donation—and if your extended family are as grumpy as mine, they'll draw the curtains until the singers have fucked off.
One especially magical element extending across that spectral period between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning is "leaving out the milk and mince pies." Mince pies aren't, as the name would suggest, a stodgy flesh pastry, but a sweet desert filled with dried fruits and spices. British families leave them as a refreshment for Santa Claus somewhere obvious—a fireplace, the living room table—before the children go to bed. Parents eat them or throw them away overnight, and when the kids come down in the morning, they'll know Santa stopped by that night. And they can scream about that. It makes sense—mince pies are rather fattening, especially if you'd eat a lot of them. So it's no wonder then, that while he has so much physically straining work in December, Santa still manages to be quite rotund.
– Hannah Ewens, VICE UK
On December 20, Romanians living in rural areas celebrate the coming of Christmas and the New Year by stabbing and burning a pig. The holiday is called Ignat, and it's supposed to be loosely based on the story of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who was thrown to the lions for not giving up Christ. But that link is likely just a way to give an ancient pagan ritual a Christian angle.
During Ignat, you display your wealth to your neighbors by inviting them over to feast on the largest pig you can find. If you are the host of Ignat, your neighbors help you hold the swine down while you swiftly cut its throat in your yard. As you can imagine, Romanian villages on this day are filled with the screams of dying animals. If you can't picture that, here's a dubstep song with samples of shrieking animals during an Ignat ceremony.
After the slaughter, you use a blow torch or some sort of homemade flame thrower to torch the pig's carcass. The next step is to bring out the booze called tzuika (a traditional plum brandy) and get drunk while munching on burnt pieces of pig skin. The more responsible members of the household—the old babushkas—subsequently use every piece of the pig and store it to last you through the winter. The EU might think that we outlawed Ignat slaughter after it sternly asked us to cut it out, but we didn't.
– Mihai Popescu, VICE Romania
In Catalonia, we have our own unique brand of bullshit we trick children with—the Tió de Nadal. "Tió de Nadal" means Christmas log, and it refers to an actual log with a smiley face, two little wooden legs, and a red hat. Tió is partly covered with a blanket and has a cork for a nose. The idea is that we feed him during the days of December, right until the 25th.
On Christmas day, parents hide presents under his blanket and encourage their children to hit little Tió relentlessly with a stick or branches, while singing a song. The song is supposed to persuade Tió to shit out gifts and candy in return for all the food we've given him during the month. Lyrics to those songs vary from family to family, but the most popular one goes something like "Defecate, Tió, defecate almonds and nougat. Don't shit herrings, they're too salty. Shit nougats, those are better. If you don't want to shit, we'll hit you with a cane." After the song, the kids get to remove the blanket and see what presents the log has shat out. As long as the presents are there, it's not likely they'll ask any questions about the validity of the whole story.
– Pol Rodellar, VICE Spain
The Polish people are a particularly Christian nation, and as a form of fasting we don't eat meat on Christmas Eve. We do eat fish, and according to tradition this fish—a carp, the centerpiece of the family feast—is supposed to be bought alive and killed right before dinner. That means that during Advent, supermarkets have giant tanks brimming with carp. On the street, you'll find peddlers selling carp from plastic barrels.
Because right before Christmas, shops and markets in Poland are as busy as anywhere else in the Western world, many people buy the fish days in advance. That means that every young person in Poland has some kind of memory of their grandparents' bathtub being occupied by the dinner-to-be. And yes, that also meant not having to shower for two days—an early Christmas present for any 9-year-old.
– Maciek Piasecki, VICE Poland
In Austria, we grow up with a lot of weird traditions, especially around the holidays. At the end of the year, we like to throw a shoe over our shoulders to find out if we're going to get married the following year (if it points to the door, it's a yes). We like to burn incense on Christmas Eve, and of course we also have Krampus—Santa's demon goat helper—who roams around scaring the living hell out of our children. Those children do get their revenge every year, on December 27.
The morning of the 27th, children in rural areas in Austria go around their neighborhood to beat every adult in sight with a branch. They recite a poem during the beating and their victims give them some money. It's done to commemorate the Massacre of the Innocents, the biblical account of Herod's mass infanticide. The name of the act itself is less biblical—it's called "wichsen," which translates to either "beating up" or "jerking off."
– Markus Lust, VICE Austria
As Italians, the Christmas tradition we cherish most is fighting with our loved ones. On Christmas day, we have 13-course lunches that take hours and hours to get through, during which the family gets together and fights over everything—from who made the best roast beef last year to what the best way out of the banking crisis is.
After Christmas, we're visited by Befana—a witchy old lady who on the eve of January 6 flies in on her broom to terrify children. She brings candy and toys for the ones who've been good, and coal to the ones who've been naughty. Befana leaves her gifts in stockings hung by children the day before, and it's said that she sweeps the floor of the houses she visits, to clean up the bad from the previous year. So having Befana come by is a win-win, really.
– Elena Viale, VICE Italy
Nothing says Christmas celebration in Serbia like going outside to shoot your Kalashnikov with your friends, recording it and uploading it to YouTube. And we're serious about Christmas in Serbia—the Orthodox Christians among us still celebrate it two weeks later, on the 7th of January. That's because in the 16th century, the Orthodox church refused to surrender to the Pope, who introduced the Gregorian Calendar we know today. These so called Old Calendarists follow the Julian calendar, which means that their Christmas eve falls on what's January 6 for the rest us.
One tradition based on a pagan custom that originated with the early Slavs, is that on Christmas Eve, Serbian men go outside, shoot their guns, and scour the woods looking for the perfect oak tree. When they find it, they take the branches or a log home to burn in the fireplace. The oak tree was sacred for the early Slavic tries—but what the guns have to do with it, nobody knows. Because most modern homes aren't near any oak trees and/or don't have a fireplace to burn a log in, the streets of Serbian towns are full of vendors selling dried oak branches right before Christmas. Taxi drivers happily take them off vendors' hands to put the branches on the hood of their cars. Mostly in the hope that God will turn a blind eye to them charging their passengers twice as much for holidays.
– Stefan Veselinovic, VICE Serbia
At Christmas, us Danes go all-out in terms of neo-pagan, intoxicated quirkiness by dancing around our Christmas tree, which is adorned with actual candles. What better way to celebrate the end of the year by dancing and jumping around a serious fire hazard?
Days before Christmas, we go outdoors to get a tree, move that tree indoors, and trick it out with anything ranging from popcorn on a string to elaborate works of origami. And after the space between the floor and the tree is crammed with gifts, we light ten to twenty actual candles and place them on its branches. We take a step back, revel in the wholesome Danishness of it all, join hands and hygge it up a notch by singing our favorite carols and dancing around the tree. The reality is that you're likely drunk, you have a family member's sweaty palm in each hand, and you're wearing a Rudolph sweater your grandma made—so it's more an awkward, fast-paced circle-sway around the tree than actual dancing.
- Alfred Maddox, VICE Denmark
France might be the birthplace of many odd traditions—after all, we're a country where people throw wooden spoons at each other every year to commemorate the escape of some medieval Lord—but nothing much out of the ordinary happens here during Christmas.
But there is one thing us French people take more seriously than throwing stuff at people to commemorate historic events, and that's cuisine. The holidays are yet another excuse for us to indulge in binge cooking and binge eating. Our Christmas meal basically never ends, and it's at least as important as the unwrapping of the gifts. They mostly include oysters, stuffed poultry, and foie gras. On that last dish, the French are as divided as anyone—there are the people who won't eat it because duck and geese are cruelly force-fed to make it, there are the people who don't care, and the people who hate themselves for loving it too much to boycott it. But what is Christmas without a bit of self-hatred, really?
– Julie Le Baron, VICE France