Three international Christmas traditions that may seem strange to foreigners

Christmas is a time of traditions – each family, village, region and country has their own and many people have surprisingly strong options on how things should be done. Whether it’s about where and with whom to spend the holidays, about the decorations or the food – once established it seems almost sacrilegious to break with certain Christmas traditions. To outsiders this behaviour can be amusing or even absurd but what kind of traditions are we even talking about? Here’s three international Christmas traditions that might seem a little odd to people from other countries.

  1. Sweden – Gävle Goat

By Baltica at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Gävle Goat or Gävlebocken (Swedish) is a giant straw goat that is erected by local community groups in the beginning of Advent in the Castle square of the Swedish town Gävle. It is large version of the traditional Swedish Yule Goat, a popular Christmas ornament in many Nordic countries. The tradition started in 1966 and has been repeated annually since.

What makes it so interesting is a second, unintended “tradition” that comes with it – namely burning down the giant straw goat. It has been a reoccurring target for vandalism through arson since the very first year. During the past 51 years the goat has only successfully survived twelve times and not always completely unscathed. A number of different security measures are taken every year such as building fences around it, volunteers protecting the figure or soaking in flame-retardant. In 1996 camera surveillance was introduced and by now you can check out how the Gävle Goat fares this year on the official webcam:

  1. Austria – Krampus


Krampus is technically not a Christmas tradition but a tradition on St. Nicolas Day – if you’re unfamiliar with that check out a blogpost on it here! While St. Nicolas may give coals to naughty children his companion in Austria is significantly scarier – Krampus is a horned anthromorphic figure that is half goat and half-demon. Local traditions vary but usually Krampus is the one who punishes naughty children by putting them into a bag and either hitting them, taking them away, drowning or even eating them. Somehow the Swedish Christmas goat seems a lot nicer, doesn’t it? Check out how Austrian actor Christoph Waltz explains the tradition to an American audience here:

  1. Iceland – Jólabókaflóð


Enough with the goats – the Jólabókaflóð or Christmas Book Flood is an Icelandic tradition that goes back to the Second World War. Since many goods apart from paper were rationed during the war giving books as Christmas presents became even more popular. Iceland is generally known to be a nation of bookaholics and a 2013 study found that more than half the country’s population read eight or more books a year. Since 1944 the Icelandic book trade publishes a catalogue in November that is sent to every household in the country. On December 24th everyone opens their presents and spends the rest of the day reading and drinking hot chocolate – which sounds like an ideal winter day to me. Read more about the Christmas Book Flood here:

Please note that these are only some traditions that may vary or only exist in parts of the countries mentioned. This article is only a short overview so if you have any additions feel free to comment below. Happy Christmas!

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