From logs that poop presents and KFC for lunch: The weird and wonderful Christmas traditions from around the world

Some handmade Tio de Nadal, on sale in a Christmas market in Catalonia, Spain. Picture: Shutterstock
Some handmade Tio de Nadal, on sale in a Christmas market in Catalonia, Spain. Picture: Shutterstock

It all started with a conversation with a friend. Having grown up in the Spanish region of Catalonia, she never received presents from Santa. She received her presents from a log.

She introduced the tradition to me as the "pooping log", but his official name is Tio de Nadal.

Just like Santa Claus he has a big, bright, happy face and a red hat. He also has two little legs and a blanket to keep him warm.

In exchange for "feeding" the log with fruit and vegetables, he will "defecate" small chocolates in the lead up to Christmas. Then on Christmas Eve, after weeks of eating, Tio really shines.

While excited children go to find some long sticks to beat Tio with, the parents hide presents under his blanket. When the children return, they hit the log while singing: "Tio, Tio, poop nougat, the ones that are so good, if you don't have more poop money, if you don't have enough poop an egg".

Once the ritual is complete, the blanket is lifted to reveal the presents Tio has just "passed".

My friend maintains the most heartbreaking day of her childhood was the day she was told she was too old to hit a log with a stick.

But if that's what they do in Catalonia, what does the rest of the world do to celebrate Christmas?

'Tis the (whole) season

Christmas is but one day. The festive season, however, can go on for weeks.

In Sri Lanka, for example, they start off the season four weeks before the big day with spiritual preparation, including painting and cleaning of homes, decorating, baking Christmas cake and other sweets, and making new clothes.

In many other countries, December 6 marks the beginning of the season, including the Czech Republic, which acknowledges the date with St Nicholas Day.

St Nicholas Day in Prague sees people dress as St Nicholas and a Devil. Picture: Shutterstock

St Nicholas Day in Prague sees people dress as St Nicholas and a Devil. Picture: Shutterstock

However, on paper the eve of St Nicholas Day in the Czech Republic could be mistaken for a Halloween hybrid. On December 5 in the European country people dress up as one of three characters - St Nicholas, the Angel and the Devil - and walk around the streets asking children if they have been naughty or nice. If they've been good, they get rewarded with sweets.

Elsewhere around the world, December 8 is the first day of advent. In Argentina this means commemorating the Virgin Mary by putting up the Christmas tree and other decorations. In Ireland, it's traditionally the day those in rural areas head to cities to do their Christmas shopping.

The Irish also mark St Stephens Day on December 26, when Wren Boys collect funds to "bury the wren", as the bird is said to have betrayed Irish soldiers fighting Norsemen by beating their wings on their shields.

The Celtic tradition has the Wren Boys dress in costume and carry a holly bough which traditionally had a live wren in it.

"Nowadays, a fake bird is carried and no harm is done to any living bird," Irish ambassador Breandan O Caollai says.

On January 6, Nollaig na mBan or Women's Christmas rounds off Ireland's festive season by letting women have a day off from doing any work. This came about because traditionally, the women in the family were the ones who made all of the Christmas preparations.

"Modern-day Ireland is more balanced, and the Christmas work is shared equally by men and women so much of the symbolism is gone from the day, though its positive sentiment is still acknowledged," Mr O Caollai says.

Meanwhile, Finnish ambassador Lars Backstorm remembers when the festive season began with Little Christmas on the first Saturday in December. The day would see children bring small Christmas trees from the forest and decorate it.

"That tradition is now long gone. What remains from those days is the Advent Calendar to count down the days to Christmas," he says.

The country also marks Lucia celebrations on December 13, which sees a procession of children in white, full-length gowns with the leader - a young girl representing Saint Lucia - wearing candles in her hair. The day is also celebrated in other Scandinavian countries, including Sweden.

In the lead-up to Christmas, many countries also host Christmas markets. The Tallinn Christmas Market in Estonia, for example, looks like a gingerbread land - especially when it has snowed - and is full of handcrafted gifts, decorations and food.

On the other side of the world in Cusco, in the Peruvian Andes, the Santurantikuy Christmas Fair is known for its nativity scene figurines which are often dressed in typical Andean garments.

Traditional Peruvian nativity figurines. Picture: Shutterstock

Traditional Peruvian nativity figurines. Picture: Shutterstock

And then there's Serbia

While Serbia officially accepts the Gregorian calendar, when it comes to Christian holidays they celebrate according to the Julian calendar.

This means for Serbs who are Christian Orthodox, Christmas comes 13 days later on January 7, and New Year comes on January 13. And they're not alone. Countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Egypt, Bulgaria, Belarus, Ethiopia and Moldova all celebrate Christmas in January.

For a Serbs, Christmas Day also marks the end of a 40-day-long nativity fast, during which Serbs abstain from eating meat and dairy products. As one would expect, Christmas lunch is a feast of appetisers, different salads, soup, stuffed cabbage rolls, roasted meat and cakes.

Traditional Serbian bread, cesnica, which has a coin baked into it. Picture: Shutterstock

Traditional Serbian bread, cesnica, which has a coin baked into it. Picture: Shutterstock

They also have a bread known as cesnica - which comes from the Serbian word for share - and it takes centre stage. Different regions use different recipes, but they all have one thing in common, and that's a coin that is hidden inside.

Festive feasts

Obviously Serbia is not the only country to have a traditional meal at Christmas. However, the definition of "traditional" is fluid.

In India - home to about 25 million Christians (about 2 per cent of its population) - the festive cooking starts early with sweets including fruitcakes and rose cookies, and kidiyo, deep-fried curly dough balls.

Christmas in Japan has a little less preparation. The traditional meal for the Japanese is fried chicken, namely KFC.

KFC in Japan at Christmas time. Picture: Shutterstock

KFC in Japan at Christmas time. Picture: Shutterstock

It is estimated that 3.6 million people have KFC on Christmas Day in Japan, as reported by the BBC, and the fast food chain even has a dedicated website for its Christmas menu.

According to the Japanese Embassy it is said to have been inspired by the Western Christmas tradition of a turkey dinner and as a result of a holiday marketing campaign in the 1970s.

Over in Zambia, a typical Christmas meal is chicken and rice - with rice not considered to be a staple food in the African country. This would usually go with vegetables and some delicacies that come about due to the country's wet season, such as mushrooms and wild vegetables.

December 24 is also the day when Polish families begin their Christmas treats. It's Polish tradition to fast all day and then eat in the evening. This begins with sharing Christmas wafers, made out of a think slice of white bread, as soon as the first star comes out - which, considering sunset is about 3.30pm at that time of year, may not be as late as you think.

It is followed by a 12-course dinner - representing the 12 months or the 12 apostles - and can include a soup such as sour rye soup or beetroot soup, as well as pierogi, cabbage with mushrooms or peas, carp, herring, poppy seed cake and gingerbread cookies.

Deck the halls 

It's unsurprising that New Zealand has a lot in common with Australia when it comes to the festive season. We both enjoy a pavlova come December 25 and this year, we're both are looking forward to the cricket, in which we will take on our neighbours from across the ditch for the first time in a Boxing Day Test since 1987. However, our Christmas trees are very different.

"We have our own Christmas tree - the beautiful pohutukawa - which has a bright red flower," New Zealand high commissioner Dame Annette King says.

"It looks a little bit like one of your gums ... not the leaves but the flower, and it is the traditional New Zealand Christmas tree."

New Zealanders having a picnic beside Pohutukawa tree. Picture: Shutterstock

New Zealanders having a picnic beside Pohutukawa tree. Picture: Shutterstock

Meanwhile in India, banana or mango trees (or whatever they can find locally to decorate) are often used. Mango leaves are also used to decorate homes and in southern India, Christians often put small oil-burning clay lamps on the flat roofs of their homes to symbolise that Jesus is the light of the world.

Candles are often used in similar ways in other parts of the world. In Ireland they have a red candle in their window to welcome those travelling home for Christmas, or for those who don't have a home at all.

In Hungary, a wreath of pine branches and ribbons topped with four candles is put out four Sundays before Christmas Day. A fresh candle is lit every Sunday until Christmas, with each candle representing faith, hope, joy and love.

Christmas decorations are serious business in Germany, and trees are a must in many homes - preferably a real one as plastic imitations are frowned upon.

"How and when it is decorated is in many a family subject to strict house rules," German ambassador Thomas Fitchen says.

"Deciding on trimmings can sometimes prove a bone of contention. Real candles or electric fairy lights? Tinsel or not? Simple straw stars or loads of glossy ornaments and glitter?"

People watch a ceremonial burning of dried oak branches in Belgrade, Serbia. Picture: Shutterstock

People watch a ceremonial burning of dried oak branches in Belgrade, Serbia. Picture: Shutterstock

Serbia, however, has two trees for the festive season. Before dawn January 6 - their Christmas Eve - sees them bring a young oak tree known as a badnjak into the house, with people believing that Jesus enters the home with the oak branches. Since the beginning of the 20th century, churches have organised public burnings for people to add their badnjak branches as a symbol of resurrection.

Serbs have also adopted the Christmas tree from other traditions as well, which they put up and decorated on December 31.

Santa's coming to (some) towns

We've already established that growing up in Catalonia means believing in a log that will "pass" your presents, but Tio is not the only one handing out presents during the festive season.

Santa (also known as Papa or Father Noel) didn't visit the country until the 90s, but January 6 has always seen the Three Wise Men come by and drop off presents to children.

The Three Wise Men also make an appearance in Peru, who proceed through the streets on horses and give gifts to children.

In the Czech Republic, it's Little Jesus who comes by on Christmas Eve. A bell will ring to signal that he has dropped presents under the tree for children to open.

Santa does visit Hungary - who call him Mikulas - however he has already visited for this festive season as he comes on December 6 to fill children's shows with chocolates and lollies.

Polish children also receive presents on December 6 for St Nicolas Day, as well as on Christmas Eve. In some Polish regions, the gift-giver is Santa, while in others it's an angel, the Christ Child or Grandfather Frost, who has many superficial similarities to Santa but is a Pagan god with a granddaughter made of snow.

Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter. Picture: Shutterstock

Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter. Picture: Shutterstock

In southern Germany, it's Christ Child or Christkind who delivers gifts on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile in the north of the country, German children look out for Father Christmas to knock on their doors.

It's actually this Father Christmas who inspires the cheerful, sleigh-riding Santa Claus that Australians and many other countries believe in.

German-American Thomas Nast worked as a cartoonist in New York, where he developed his most famous character Santa Claus at the magazine Harper's Weekly.

"In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had personally asked the publisher of this highly popular magazine to design a 'special Christmas picture' for the front page," Dr Fitschen says.

"Nast discussed ideas with his sister, who was a teacher in New York. Together they remembered their childhood in Germany.

"The result was Santa Claus, who still brings Christmas joy to people in the United States and many other countries today."

This story From smiling logs to fried chicken, this is Christmas around the world first appeared on The Canberra Times.