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Roller Skates? Whale Skin? KFC? Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

Written by Going Places

This blog post was updated on December 7, 2022.

Christmas Day traditions might seem pretty cut and dried. You surround yourself with family and friends with good food and holiday cheer. There might be gifts under the tree, carols by the fire, and family heirloom to deck those halls and bring back memories of celebrations long ago. Uncle Bob might have a bit too much eggnog, but he does that every year. But that’s one of the great things about Christmas: it’s predictable and comforting in it familiarity.

However, across the globe, Christmas can look very different, depending on where you are. You might find yourself going over the river and through the woods on roller skates. Or leaving Sant a nice big bowl of rice pudding. Or gathering ’round the dinner table for a traditional repast of…Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Here are some of the most unusual Christmas Day traditions around the world:

Grab Your Skates. We’re Headed to Church — Venezuela

The ride to Christmas Day mass is usually pretty standard for most people. You drive or walk to church services. However, in Caracas, Venezuela, some head to mass by unconventional means. Many of the city’s roads close on Christmas so that people can roller skate to mass for the holiday. No one is entirely clear why, although the skating may have started as a warm-weather alternative to sledding. But somehow, out of the melting pot of peoples that Venezuelans represent, the skating-to-mass tradition got started and the Venezuelans are a very traditional people. So they skate.

Fall Asleep to Visions of…Big Hairy Goblins? — Greece

On Christmas Eve in Greece, children don’t go to bed with visions of sugar plums. They dream of hairy goblins. The Kallikantzaroi are impish creatures — usually goblins, elves, or gnomes — that lurk in the ground but come to the surface on the twelve days of Christmas to engage in mischief. Each island and region of Greece has its own type of the goblin. They only come out at night, since they fear the sun.

To prevent the Kallikantzaroi from coming down the chimney, Greek families keep a fire burning from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany of January 6th. Some stories suggest that these creatures eventually became the elves that help Saint Nicholas at the North Pole.

Original or Extra Crispy? — Japan

Nothing says Christmas quite like Kentucky Fried Chicken. Right? Well, it does if you live in Japan, where families feast on buckets of Original Recipe or Extra Crispy to celebrate on Christmas Day. The tradition stems from a marketing campaign in 1974 in which KFC promoted its wares as an ideal Christmas meal. And believe it or not, it worked, and it stuck. Now KFC on Christmas is an annual tradition, and many in Japan make sure to order their fried chicken in advance to make sure they have “Kurisumasu niwa kentakkii.” In other words, “Kentucky for Christmas.”

Gather ‘Round the…Pohutukawa? — New Zealand

The New Zealand Christmas tree isn’t your average evergreen. The country actually recognizes its own indigenous tree as the symbol of the season. Most in New Zealand associate Christmas time with the pohutukawa, a flowering tree found along the coastline throughout the North and South Islands. The pohutukawa’s bright crimson flowers are what New Zealanders think of when the think of Christmas.

Locals use the branches instead of evergreen sprigs to decorate their homes and their churches. The tree features prominently in the country’s seasonal poetry and Christmas songs and can often be found on local Christmas cards. The native Moari consider the pohutuhawa sacred, as the newly dead are thought to use the plant as a stepping stone to the afterlife.

Another Slice of Whale Skin, Anyone? — Greenland

You might have ham, or turkey, or maybe even some kind of roast as your Christmas Day meal. But in Greenland, whale skin is often on the menu. Many of the Inuit people in Greenland celebrate the holiday with mattak, which is whale skin with a strip of blubber on the reverse side. The taste is said to be not unlike coconut.

In addition, Inuit families might feast on kiviak, which is the meat of an auk, a type of Arctic bird. Keep in mind that there isn’t much vegetation in Greenland, and many natives survive by hunting. Depending on the catch, Christmas Day might also feature caribou stew or sushi made from ptarmigan.

Be Sure Santa Gets His….Rice Pudding? — Denmark

In the U.S., many children put out milk and cookies for Santa. In England, it’s mince pies and a glass of sherry for Father Christmas. In Denmark you put out porridge or rice pudding for the prankster Christmas elf, Nisse. Nisse is depicted as a short gnome-like creature with a pointy red hat.

During the year, Nisse is responsible for taking care of the farm or family. But at Christmas time, it’s said that Nisse can be a bit mischievous. If you don’t leave Nisse a treat, the legend goes, he might engage in mischief like tying the cows’ tails together, or turning objects upside down. So Danish children are very careful to make sure that Nisse gets his porridge, preferably with a pat of butter on top.

Do you have a favorite unusual holiday tradition handed down from generation to generation? Tell us about it in the comments below! 

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