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5 Odd and Wonderful International Christmas Traditions — From KFC to Roller Skating

There are so many ways to celebrate!


Decorating trees, baking cookies, wearing ugly sweaters — we all know the American hallmarks of the holiday season. If you observe Christmas, it’s likely you even have some cozy family traditions of your own. But there are a great many ways to celebrate: Christmas traditions vary around the globe, and many of them are both strange (to us!) and wonderful. Keep reading to learn about five of the international Christmas customs we consider most intriguing. Who knows — maybe you’ll end up trying some of these with your loved ones this year.

1. For a Japanese Christmas: Chow Down on KFC

While only around one percent of Japan’s population identifies as Christian, Japan still has its own quirky Christmas tradition — and as it turns out, the US fried chicken chain KFC plays a surprising role. Many Japanese families celebrate Christmas by eating buckets of deliciously crispy KFC — in fact, Christmas Eve is typically KFC Japan’s busiest day of the year. So how did this American fast food restaurant come to have such seasonal significance abroad? In the ’70s, Japan was becoming increasingly Americanized, with more and more fast food chains opening up; and because Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in Japan like it is here, KFC saw an opportunity. In 1974, they launched an ad campaign — specifically created for the Japanese market — promoting “Kentucky for Christmas.” These ads continued for years and “positioned KFC as an elegant, authentic way to celebrate in true American style, even if that wasn’t quite true to reality,” according to a article about the tradition. This custom is obviously an easy one for us to adopt: Simply go to your local KFC this Christmas, pick up a big bucket of fried chicken, biscuits, and mashed potatoes, and enjoy.

2. For a Danish Christmas: Party All Day With Julefrokost

Julefrokost, which translates directly to “Christmas lunch,” is an all-day Danish celebration that’s the embodiment of hygge. (“Hygge” is a Scandinavian word that can be defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” This concept has become increasingly popular during long winters in the US in recent years). Julefrokost usually takes place on Christmas Eve in Denmark, though it can also be celebrated on other days of the holiday season. Prepare to eat a lot, because this elaborate lunch typically includes Flæskesteg (roast pork served with its crackling rinds), Rodkal (red cabbage), Leverpostej (liver pate), Smorrebrod (rye bread topped with things like pickled herring or eggs), and many more filling, homey dishes. The meal is eaten buffet-style and supplemented with countless shots of Aquavit (a Scandinavian spirit), and during the Julefrokost festivities, guests also play Pakkeleg, a game similar to White Elephant. In this version, guests bring small gifts — it’s recommended that you bring a random, unwanted item from your own home — and take turns choosing (and stealing!) them from each other. But watch out: We’re betting all that Aquavit really increases the competition.

3. For a Venezuelan Christmas: Put on Roller Skates

When you think of roller skating, you likely don’t think of Christmas — but in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, there’s a delightful tradition of roller skating to mass. According to The Washington Post, “It’s not clear how this tradition started, but some say it’s a warm-weather alternative to sledding or ice skating.” Makes sense; if you can’t slide down a snow-covered hill, you can at least slide down the street! Venezuela has a largely Christian population, and roller skating to church allows residents to have a little fun and get a work out in. While this Venezuelan tradition’s exact origins are unknown, it’s believed to have started in the ’50s. Roller skating is an easy and affordable sport that both children and adults can participate in; in fact, it had its own resurgence in the US in recent years — so if you own a pair of skates already, try putting them on this Christmas. It won’t just add some Venezuelan flavor to your festivities — it will also be great exercise.

4. For a German Christmas: Get Scared of Krampus

In the US, we celebrate spooky creatures on Halloween rather than Christmas… but things are very different in Germany and Austria. In these countries, Krampus, a folkloric figure whose legend is shared every Christmas season, strikes fear into the hearts of children (and probably some adults, too). Krampus purportedly has horns, fangs, and a long tongue, standing in direct opposition to Santa’s jolly kindness. A National Geographic article describes him as “a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast” who brings so-called bad kids to the underworld — like in the classic American Christmas tune “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” it sounds like the Krampus “knows if you’ve been bad or good”… so, you better watch out. This evil twist on Santa Claus goes back centuries, and according to lore, he shows up every year on Krampusnacht (Krampus Night), which is December 5. The National Geographic article also notes that “Krampus’ frightening presence was suppressed for many years — the Catholic Church forbade the raucous celebrations, and fascists in World War II Europe found Krampus despicable because it was considered a creation of the Social Democrats” — however, Krampus has become popular outside of his home country among those looking to subvert the traditional notions of Christmas cheer. 

5. For a Chinese Christmas: Give an Apple

A relatively new tradition in China involves giving a “peace apple” (an apple packaged in a festive box) on Christmas Eve. A Los Angeles Times article notes that this custom “seems to stem from the fact that the Chinese word for apple, pingguo, sounds similar to the word for Christmas Eve, pinganye.” Christmas is not widely celebrated in China, and is treated more casually than a major holiday like Chinese New Year. These apples are ordinary, yet festive — they cost more than your typical fruit, and are sometimes imprinted with celebratory messages. The packaging and presentation of the apples makes this everyday fruit seem more special, and it’s a charmingly low-stakes way to celebrate the holiday. You probably already know that an apple a day keeps the doctor away — but it turns out an apple can also get you into someone’s good graces. According to the LA Times, “young men in particular find them an appealing gift for girlfriends,” and some decorate their boxes with hearts and lips, rather than Santas and Christmas trees — so if you’re looking to woo a special someone, try gifting them a thoughtful apple this year.

These are just a handful of the international Christmas customs that exist. If you want to spice it up this year, why not give one a try? Whether you decide to grab a delicious bucket of KFC or invoke the spooky spirit of Krampus, we hope your Christmas is merry and bright.

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