Iceland: Jólakötturinn the Yule cat
Mythical characters enforcing good behavior have long been a part of Christmas folklore, but they are rarely as severe or fashion-savvy as Jólakötturinn. Known as the Yule Cat, Jólakötturinn is a large feline that stalks the country on Christmas night, eating any child who didn't receive new clothes as a gift.
Estonia: Sauna visit
In Estonia, Christmas is a blend of traditional, modern, secular, and religious customs. Among the most important is a visit to the sauna before religious services. There, kids often receive new clothes that they can wear after the sauna to show off at church.
Ukraine: Spider and the Christmas tree
In America, spider and web decorations are generally reserved for Halloween. In Ukraine however, they're a symbol of good Christmas fortune. Families adorn Christmas trees with spiderwebs to commemorate a folktale about a family who couldn't afford ornaments and decorations for their tree. As the tale goes, they woke on Christmas to find spiders had spun beautiful webs around the tree, which sparkled in the sunlight.
Greenland: Kiviak feast
If you're ever in Greenland at Christmastime, consider trying a local delicacy called Kiviak, a traditional holiday fare that's made by fermenting the raw meat of the arctic auk into a sealskin, which is then buried until it reaches a state of decomposition and fermentation.
Netherlands: Zwarte Piet
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), is, according to the tale, is one of Santa's helpers. The costumes that celebrate the prominent mythical character require Dutch actors to don what's known in the United States and other parts of the world as blackface. Antiracism activists have protested the characters, and some schools, localities, and organizations are eliminating the character—or at least the makeup—from their festivities, while others continue the tradition unabated.
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Toronto: Cavalcade of lights
In Toronto, revelers launch the Christmas season with a full-fledged party called the Cavalcade of Lights. Lighting of the city's Christmas tree is traditionally the backdrop for a bash that includes music, refreshments, ice-skating, and, of course, enough lights to be seen for miles.
Venezuela: Skating to Mass
There's nothing unusual about Catholics heading to Mass on Christmas Eve—unless you're celebrating in Venezuela. Many dress in Santa attire or don wacky hats, then glide to church on roller skates as fireworks light up the sky.
Norway: Hiding of the brooms
In Norway, legend has it that witches arrive on Christmas Eve. Norwegians traditionally hide their brooms on this night to deny the witches their preferred mode of transportation.
Japan: Kentucky Fried Christmas
One of the world's more curious Christmas traditions involves fried chicken—KFC, specifically. The fast-food joint is a favorite in Japan, and nearly 4 million Japanese people eat it on Christmas, which isn't a prominent holiday in Japan. In 1970, the country's first KFC franchisee filled the void by offering Christmas chicken "barrels" on Dec. 25, complete with a marketing blitz that caught on quickly and continues to dominate to this day.
Sweden: Gavle Goat
Swedish Christmas got a major upgrade in 1966 when someone decided to create a massive straw homage to the traditional holiday animal. The Gavle Goat has been a holiday staple ever since. Standing more than 40 feet high and weighing more than 3 tons, it's become a tradition for locals to try to burn it, run it down with cars, or otherwise sabotage the giant barnyard animal, which is inaugurated on the first Sunday of Advent every year.
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