As Bamboozled’s brilliant troupe of roving magicians, comedians, actors and musicians prepare their Christmas performances, a few of us got to wondering about the origins of holiday festivals.
Of course, we all hold dear the merry and bright childhood memories from our own corners of the world. But how do community Christmas festivals vary from region to region? Where some Santas are decked out in fur and velvet, whilst others catch steamy rays in thongs and board shorts? How do Christian and secular festivals differ? And how do people use these celebrations to pass on stories, beliefs, customs and traditions?
If your curiosity has been piqued like ours, and you’re ready to switch on the holiday spirit, then join us in this journey through Christmas traditions, celebrations and festivals from around the globe. Festivals are rooted in the customs of the regions where they’re held, so let’s start by looking at some of those charming—and sometimes strange—traditions.
The Fascinating Traditions Behind Christmas Festivals
Festivals—particularly those that have become customs at Christmastime—connect people to their histories, heritage and communities. They use whimsy and legend to encourage the sharing of stories. They enchant children and remind adults about the wonder of being a child at Christmas.
And maybe most importantly, they demonstrate the most interesting traditions unique to even the tiniest of communities.
In Sweden, the 13-metre-tall Gävle Goat is constructed from 3.6 tonnes of straw. It was originally a pagan symbol from the 11th century, but in 1966, the idea of the Yule Goat was adopted by Christians. This is just one example of Christmas not always being a Christian celebration. In Demark, it was once used as a goodbye to sunnier days because it occurred directly before the winter solstice. Now, nisser (short, mythical creatures with long, white beards) are used as decorations, and to protect residents. On Christmas eve, Danes move their Christmas tree to the centre of the room and sing carols whilst dancing around it. (Photograph of Gävle Goat from visitgavle.se)
Singing carols is a staple in most Christmas celebrations, for sure, but not all Christmas traditions are rooted in joy. Some of them are downright frightening. Christmas is a 13-day celebration in Iceland. Each night, children place their shoes by a window and Yule Lads will either fill the shoes with candy or rotted potatoes. All of this is done whilst trying to avoid the Yule Cat, a hungry beast that roams the countryside and eats those who haven’t worked hard. (Image description: Icelandic Yule Lads from arcticnaturehotel.com)
Julebord begins on December 3rd in Norway. Legend has it that witches and other spirits take to the sky on their brooms on Christmas eve, determined to get into mischief and wreak havoc. Families hide their brooms to keep them from being stolen and start fires in their fireplaces to keep witches from coming down their chimneys.
Italian children are visited by Santa, but that’s not all. An old witch named Belfana comes bearing gifts on the eve of January 7th. Legend says that she did not bring a gift to the baby Jesus, so now must atone by delivering presents to children. Like Santa, she also enters through the chimney. (Image from talianchildrensmarket.com)
And we can’t forget about Krampus, Santa’s scariest helper, who comes to Austria to deliver undesirable “gifts” to children who have been naughty. He also roams the streets all through the month of December, scaring children and adults. He’s a terrifying, devil-type beast, and children do their best to avoid him. (Image from publicdomainreview.org)
And we can’t forget the traditions that are just plain odd. In Finland, everyone spends time in the household sauna—in the nude, of course. They then head to town for Christmas eve festivities while the spirits of their dead ancestors take up residence in the sauna.
Beginning on December 8th in Spain, children feed Tió de Nadal small treats and keep him warm under a blanket until Christmas eve. He’s a little hollowed-out log with stick legs, red mouth and nose, and a tiny hat. On Christmas eve, the children beat him with sticks and sing silly songs. He then “poops” out gifts and the children throw him in the fire. In another tradition, nativity sets often include a character known as the Caganer…a man squatting with his pants around his ankles, making a “deposit.”
And finally, we can’t overlook Japan. Christmas is not celebrated nationwide there; however, since 1974, families have been enjoying a bucket of chicken from KFC on Christmas day.
(Photograph description: KFC-mas, Pinterest)
Christmas Festivals, Born of Legend and Tradition
Some of the most unique and varied Christmas traditions from around the world date back to more than 2,000 years ago. How have they survived that measure of time? Families share legends, books retell stories, art depicts customs…and Christmas festivals carry on those traditions.
It would make sense to begin where it all started, in Bethlehem. Palestine is the site of Jesus’ birth, and visitors at Christmastime will enjoy a parade that winds through town to Manger Square, a tour of Nativity Church and singing choirs.
The celebration continues in Puerto Rico, where A San Juan Christmas is home to illuminated carollers, Christmas masses, pork roasted on spits in the centre of town…all running through January 6th.
For more illumination, you’ll want to experience the Giant Lantern Festival, or Ligligan Parul Sampernandu, which is held every year in the Philippines. It showcases countless revolving lanterns arranged to depict the Star of Bethlehem. Villages compete with one another to display the largest, most intricate lantern creations. The colours are intense and bright, with some displays measuring up to 6 metres in diameter.
Santa enters the scene, in a big way, for Finland’s Santa Claus Village. It’s lit up in festive lights as festivalgoers enjoy food and drink in subzero temperatures. The Northern Lights are visible during the festival, and children can visit the North Pole’s post office, happen upon reindeer and visit with the Big Guy himself. (Photograph from Pinterest)
And speaking of BIG, Hyde Park in London is home to the Winter Wonderland, which happens to be Europe’s largest Christmas festival. It runs from November through January, and attendees will find Santa, ice skating, food, shopping, decorations, circus acts and amusement rides. (Photograph from visitlondon.com)
Want something a bit more tropical? Fort Lauderdale, Florida is home to the annual Winterfest Boat Parade where spectators line the Intracoastal Highway to see elaborately decorated yachts cruise by. Santa takes to the water and delivers story time, in the midst of holiday shopping and fun.
And to bring it all home, North Pole, Alaska, hosts the Christmas In Ice festival. 2.2 million pounds of ice are carved into festive works of art, lights are hung, ice slides are constructed, concessions and entertainment are scheduled. The fun is topped off with an indoor ice park.
This is just a sampling of Christmas festivals that share, teach and perpetuate the unique traditions that help define cultures and regions around the world.
Whilst Christmas is a Christian religious feast, it is also celebrated by many non-Christians and as a community holiday. It has become a way to raise spirits and carry on our unique national identities.
Bamboozled Productions is helping to keep the spirit of Christmas alive with our hilarious roving characters, stage performances and live music. We would be honoured to instil Christmas cheer into your next event or festival…so your traditions can live on, for generations to come.