Friday 20 September 2019

Fried chicken, 13 Santas and rollerskates: how do other countries celebrate Christmas?

While seasonal swims or post-shopping pints may sum up the festive season here, demonic goats, trolls and skating to Mass set bells jingling elsewhere, writes Julia Molony

Grabbing a drink with friends on Christmas Eve. Stock photo
Grabbing a drink with friends on Christmas Eve. Stock photo

Julia Molony

Some Christmas traditions belong to Ireland alone. The post-shopping pint on Christmas Eve, jostling armfuls of presents through the crowds, the din of hundreds of joyful reunions rising to the rafters and the notes of 'FairyTale of New York' hanging in the air.

Or the Christmas morning swim; when those brave enough stagger from the chilly Atlantic or Irish sea, the thrill of having survived the ordeal keeping thermal shock at bay. Or the ceremonial lighting of a Christmas candle in the window, as dusk falls on December 24. These are the rituals and rites that bind us.

But what about elsewhere in the world? This Christmas Eve, families from Brisbane to Brent to Bundoran will decorate trees and string up stockings. But most cultures add their own distinctive twist to festive celebrations. Some of them kookier than others… for a truly international Christmas this year, why not try rollerskating to Mass, like they do in Venezuela, dressing up as a demonic goat like a Tyrollean might. Or celebrate the Japanese way, by tucking into fried chicken.

Kentucky Fried Christmas in Japan

Christmas is bumper season for the American fast food chain KFC in Japan. Over the holiday season the fast food chain will cater to the approximately 3.6 million Japanese families, who have come to regard the Christmas ritual of tucking into the Japan-only Special Christmas Dinner as a treasured tradition.

Only 1pc of the population in Japan is Christian, so Christmas as a holiday is a notion that has only taken hold fairly recently.

Krampus, who visits naughty children
Krampus, who visits naughty children

The vogue for marking the occasion with crispy drumsticks and fries is the result of a genius marketing campaign by one Takeshi Okawara, manager of the country's first ever KFC. According to a BBC report, Okawara first came up with the idea of selling a party bucket at Christmas time after he overhead some western foreigners in his restaurant talking about how they missed turkey at Christmas time. He decided fried chicken made a worthy substitute, created a special seasonal meal and the idea took off. Today, families wishing to take home a KFC Special Christmas Dinner, which includes cake and wine, have to order weeks in advance.

An Icelandic celebration of books and trolls

There isn't just one Santa in Iceland, there are 13 of them. And though they look rather like Father Christmas as we know him, their name translates more accurately as the "Yule lads".

Originating from 17th century folklore, they were originally described in myth as child-eating trolls, who descended from the mountains on Christmas Eve. But over the centuries, their reputation has been rehabilitated in keeping with modern sensibilities.. In the 13 days that run up to Christmas, children in Iceland leave an empty shoe in the windowsill each night and wake in the morning to find a treat left by each one of the Yule lads in succession.

In Iceland, Christmas Eve also means curling up with a book in front of the fire. It is a country of bibliophiles (more books are published there per capita than anywhere else in the world) and books are the top choice as gifts at Christmas time. So much so that early December marks the start of Jólabókaflóðið which means, "Christmas book flood" and refers to the rush of new literature that hits the shelves at this time of year.

Since gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, many families spend their night sharing a meal and then curling up with their new books to read together. Lighting up the world in the Philippines

Christmas is taken extremely seriously in the Philippines, where over 90pc of the population is Catholic. While we complain that the festivities seem to start earlier and earlier each year, Filipinos get the party started; in September with light shows, festivals and feasting.

Crowds flock to the nine pre-dawn Masses held from December 16, culminating in Midnight Mass on December 24. At 4am on the week before Christmas the streets are packed with people singing carols, while lanterns light their way.

Indeed the festive lanterns of San Fernando City, 40 miles north of Manila, are so famous the town has been dubbed the Christmas Capital of the Philippines.

A demonic goat on the loose in Germany and Austria

In the weeks running up to Christmas, Irish children will be on best behaviour in order to avoid the dreadful fate of finding their stockings loaded with lumps of coal. But in parts of central Europe including southern Germany and Austria there's more than coal for children to worry about.

For according to local folktales, while those who are good can expect a visit from St Nicholas bearing presents and sweets, those who are naughty face a visit from the Krampus, a demonic creature who is half-man-half-goat, and who, according to lore, captures disobedient children in his sack and carries them back to the mountains.

For over 500 years young men in Alpine regions have honoured the figure of the Krampus by taking to the streets for a Krampuslauf: they dress up in hairy costumes and horned masks and then around the streets frightening and delighting children in equal measure.

Christmas on wheels in Caracas

Christmas is a pretty big deal in Venezuela where over 70pc of the population is Catholic. But as the crowds hurry to Mass on Christmas morning, many of them speed along not on foot or by car, but on roller-skates.

The jury is out as to where the quirky custom came from, though some reports suggest that it's inspired by sledding or ice skating as a seasonal mode of transport in northern climes. Whatever the rationale, the custom has been embraced by Caracas natives and officials alike. The streets are closed to traffic until 8am during the week before Christmas so that families can skates down to 5am Mass in peace.

Irish Independent

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