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Strange Holiday Traditions Around the World

Devil boys, blubber and a Santa with eyes in the back of his head—why do Christmas traditions in other countries seem so weird (and occasionally, oddly sinister)?

Growing up, my family was not big on holiday traditions. It might be my mother’s fault, since she was from Brazil, and despite being a very Catholic country, Christmas there is so relaxed as to be just another Saturday or Sunday.

I spent one Christmas in Brazil when I was in my 20s. My aunt and uncle bought a Charlie Brown tree that was mostly for my benefit, but whose meager branches only served to sadden me. My young cousin Pedro got an “homen aranha” (Spider-Man) costume and spent the morning trying to climb the veranda walls, falling down then shrieking. After breakfast, we went to the beach. Nothing says "weird Christmas" like a painful sunburn.

I don’t like cutting down trees in December then throwing them away in January, so the Masons never did have the “visit the tree farm” tradition. Instead, we visited aisle 16 at Caldor years ago and bought a fluffy artificial masterpiece that lasted for many years. We would pick a night and decorate together as a family. The boys and I would make Christmas ornaments and cookies. We participated in our neighborhood Luminary tradition, and after Christmas Eve service, we would drive around looking at lights and hoping to see Santa and his reindeer in the sky.

In Holland, St. Nicholas arrives in November with his helper, Black Peter. Black Peter, a Caucasian in blackface, is taking a lot of heat these days from the politically correct media—and not because he lives year-round with another man (St. Nick), but because of the outdated minstrel-like makeup he dons. According to Dutch children, Sinterklaas lives in Spain (with Black Peter), where he likes to eat tapas and run with the bulls while taking copious, long-distance notes on what the Dutch children are up to back home. Black Peter, meanwhile, is stocking up on gifts and, apparently, makeup.

In Japan, where only 1 percent of the population celebrates Christmas, shopkeepers nonetheless decorate their stores for the holiday. A Buddhist monk called Hotei-osho acts like Santa Claus, except he has eyes in the back of his head. This inspires fear in most little ones, so despite the gifts he brings, most children are relieved if Santa and a red-nosed reindeer show up instead of the guy with sunglasses on the front and back of his head.

Hungary celebrates its main holiday tradition on Christmas Eve, which is called Szent-este, or Holy Evening. It is a family gathering around the tree to sing carols and open presents. Several weeks before, children are greeting by a visit from Mikulas and a “devil” boy dressed in black and carrying a switch made of dry twigs, ready to smack any naughty children. I’m guessing this is their version of our coal in the stocking, but it seems just a bit sinister to me. I suggest if you see either Black Peter or the “devil” boy at your door this holiday season, pretend you’re not home.

Another interesting member of the holiday family is found in Denmark. It is on Christmas Eve that a mischievous elf named Nisse clamors out of old farmhouse lofts to play tricks on innocent children. Sounds like child abuse to me. Nisse wears an interesting outfit consisting of gray woolen clothes, a red bonnet, red stockings and white clogs. Apparently, Nisse never got the “no white shoes after Labor Day” memo, or perhaps the Danish Fashion Police has been disbanded. In any event, Nisse could do with a makeover and soon. Bonnets are SO last century.

In Greece, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and another guy in need of some fashion assistance. Tradition says his clothes are sopping wet with seawater, his beard is drenched with brine and his face is sweaty. Yum. The reason St. Nick is such a white-hot mess is that he’s always working overtime to save sinking ships in the turgid Aegean.

What is it with the mischievous goblins that appear in foreign lands during Christmas? How lucky we are in the U.S.! We got all the productive, happy elves in curly shoes. Greece has a tradition called kallikantzeri, where prankster goblins appear from the earth during the 12 days of Christmas. They're not crafting toys or building dollhouses; they're playing tricks on the Greek. Still, the Greeks are good-natured enough to greet each other with an Hronia polla, and they have lots of great feta cheese, so how bad can it be?

What’s going on in Greenland over the holidays, you might be asking yourself? Well, if you like gnawing on whale blubber, snowshoe on up to Greenland where it’s really not green at all. It’s white and icy and people live in huts. They celebrate by drinking lots of coffee, eating lots of cake and giving each other gifts of tusks or a sealskin mitt. 

After everyone is wired from tankards of caffeine, they're introduced to Mattak. No, Mattak is not a Greenlandian detective with his own cable access crime show. Mattak is whale skin with a nice slice of blubber tucked inside. They say it tastes like coconut but chews like the bottom of a boot. If you’re jonesing for some more culinary treats from Greenland, don’t pass up the Kiviak. This nectar of the gods consists of raw auk, which has been buried whole in sealskin for several months until it reaches a delightful stage of decomposition.

We haven’t seen an auk in Moorestown for quite a few years, so I had to do a little research. The auk is a bird with short wings and webbed feet, not unlike a penguin, and is really too cute to be wrapped in sealskin and buried. I’m petitioning Greenland to ditch the auk burial and instead dress them in some holiday garb before eating them. It just seems more festive that way.

Mo’towners with deep pockets might want to adopt an auk and bring it to town. That way, we could all rejoice in the return of the Little Auk-me this holiday season!

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