Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — For some, the idea of a big, bearded man sliding down their chimney might seem like cause for alarm. Christmas traditions vary widely around the world, and from carolling horse skulls to cheeky figurines to buckets of fried chicken, here are five Christmas customs you may not know.
HORSE SKULLS IN WALES
Don’t be alarmed if you meet a carolling horse skull at your door in Wales. From Christmas through early January, the Mari Lwyd tradition sees a decorated horse skull and cloak placed on a stick and paraded by a person hidden inside. Accompanied by other folk characters, the group will visit homes and sing Welsh songs in exchange for food and drink. First described in 1800, the custom is thought to have much older pagan roots. While Mari Lwyd may look terrifying, getting a visit is actually considered good luck.
FRIED CHICKEN IN JAPAN
In Japan, nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a steaming plate of chicken. While Christmas itself isn’t widely celebrated in the country, many in Japan mark the holiday season by going out for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tradition dates back to a wildly successful 1974 marketing campaign for a holiday-themed meal that has now transformed into lineups, packed restaurants and special Christmas-themed “party barrels” that usually have to be ordered weeks in advance. Just add a red hat and jacket, and Colonel Sanders also makes an easy stand-in for Santa Claus.
NUMBER TWO IN SPAIN
In Spain’s Catalonia region, your nativity scene wouldn’t be complete without something a little cheeky. Known as El Caganer, or the defecator, the holiday figurine traditionally depicts a farmer with a bare behind taking a number two. While its origins are uncertain, the custom likely developed in the 17th or 18th century and is thought to be linked to fertilization, good health and prosperity. El Caganer can be found elsewhere in Spain and Europe, but Barcelona is the best place to pick one up as a souvenir, where you can also buy squatting celebrities, athletes and politicians, like former U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Catalonia also has a smiley and similarly crude Christmas log that children whack with sticks for presents.
A WITCH IN ITALY
While she might look like a witch, well-behaved children in Italy should be happy to get a visit from La Befana. Often depicted as a kind and cartoonishly ugly old woman with a broomstick, she visits children across Italy on the night of Jan. 5 to deliver treats and gifts to the good, and lumps of coal, onions or garlic to the bad. Covered in soot, she can enter houses through a chimney like Santa Claus, but then sweeps up before departing. Many families leave her wine and a snack. The tradition is believed to date back to medieval Rome and ushers in the beginning of Epiphany on Jan. 6, which is a national holiday in the country.
FASHION CAT IN ICELAND
Iceland’s Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn, stalks the snowy countryside to devour people who haven’t received new clothes in time for Christmas Eve, which would be a reward for finishing work or chores. The huge and terrifying creature also encourages clothing donations, and is part of a cast of folklore characters that either scare children or give them presents each holiday season. Another is a Krampus-like giantess who devours bad kids, and her 13 children who get up to mischief but also leave small gifts in the shoes of well-behaved children. The first written accounts of the Yule Cat date from the 19th century, although it likely dates back much further.
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