CHICAGO — It’s hard to think of anything wackier than honoring the birth of Jesus — a man who preached peace, love and charity — by maxing out your credit cards, gorging on turkey, fighting with in-laws and drinking yourself into a stupor. But that’s largely what we Americans do.
In large parts of the world Christmas is not a major holiday because most people aren’t Christian. In countries like Russia and China, the new year is a much bigger deal. But that hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from embracing the commercialism of Christmas.
In Thailand, for instance, where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, Santa has become a best seller in December, “Little Drummer Boy” plays on a Muzak loop at shopping malls and synthetic Christmas trees come not just in green, but bright orange, pink and yellow.
Around the world, people put their own twist on the Christmas holiday. And on New Years Eve, everyone has their own way of scaring away bad spirits and ushering in good luck. Cubans throw a bucket of water into the street to wash away bad luck, the Chinese refrain from sweeping or dusting to avoid brushing away good fortune and Colombians walk around the block with suitcases to ensure travel in the new year.
In honor of the season, we’ve compiled a list of the wackier Christmas and New Year traditions from around the world for you to marvel at while you sit around munching from a supersized box of candy canes from Costco or the perfect combination of Chex cereal with Worcestershire sauce.
1. Krampus (Austria): It’s a common theme in the Western world to view Christmas as a judgment day for children: Have they been naughty or nice? Many European countries have a good-cop, bad-cop Santa system. While St. Nicholas makes the rounds handing out presents to the good children, his evil twin disciplines the bad ones. No one takes it quite to the level of Austria, where Krampus, a mutant goat-like creature, roams the streets threatening naughty children with rusty chains and birch sticks.
The creature is rooted in legend and re-enacted in many parts of the country on Dec. 5, when men dress up like Krampus and terrorize the neighborhood with bells, chains, whips and baskets (to carry away bad children). Krampus even made a frightening appearance on The Colbert Report earlier this month!
2. Black Peter (Belgium/Netherlands): In Belgium and the Netherlands, Santa’s helper wears blackface, an Afro wig, gold jewelry and bright red lipstick. On St. Nicholas Day, he walks the streets throwing candy to crowds as children chant his name. Know as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”), he was traditionally a more menacing figure who threatened to stuff naughty children into his bag and cart them off to Spain. The blackface, a reference to Black Peter’s Moorish roots, has become the subject of controversy recently, as the tradition is increasingly viewed as racist.