Legend has it that Theodore Roosevelt, 28th President of the United States and tree-hugging opponent of deforestation, banned Christmas trees in the White House in 1902. Legend also has it that Archie Roosevelt, presidential son and notorious lover of tannenbaum, smuggled one into the first residence anyway and rigged it up in a large closet. It’s stories like this that give birth to odd holiday traditions.
Believe it or not, many cherished rituals throughout the globe have equally unusual roots… for instance:
Italian families think Santa is cool and groovy and all, but he doesn’t hold a candle to La Befana – a witch who rides a broom on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany tucking gifts and candy in the socks of good children. The bad kids get sticks, but everyone’s room gets a good sweeping before she leaves. (Hence the broom. It’s multi-purpose.) It’s tradition to leave a glass of wine and some nibbles for Befana…salami, cheese, maybe some bread. Flying all over the world looking for the newborn king can give a witch an appetite!
In the Ukraine, not dusting could make you a champion tree decorator. You see, they hold the belief there that tinsel was invented by a kindly spider who, in seeing a poor widow bereft of any way to bedeck a tree in cheer for her children, spun a web so beautiful within the branches that the morning light shone silver through it. To this day, finding the “spiderweb” or “spider” (hopefully ornamental) will score you an extra present.
Germany is not to be outdone in the extra present category. To get lucky in Deutschland, however, you must be the one to find the hidden pickle in the tree. You heard that right, “pickle.” We aren’t quite clear as to why it’s a pickle and not sauerkraut, but who’s splitting hairs Christmas morning when there’s extra loot to be had??
In Wales, the Mari Lwyd – or Grey Mare – travels the streets with five or six companions, challenging random neighbors and jolly looking publicans to impromptu “rhyme-offs.” The hope is that the Mari Lwyd will WIN, thus both gaining entry into the home or pub for her entourage for refreshment, AND bestowing good luck to the establishment that welcomes them. Win-win. (Or is that wyn-wyn?)
The folks in Finland spend the holiday with their ancestors – even the ones who have long ago shuffled off their mortal coil. It’s tradition to visit the cemetery on Christmas Eve, and reportedly over 75% of the country’s population does just that, bringing candles by the score to light the chilly evening. Police even provide crowd control. (For the living…one assumes.)
The Austrians REALLY know how put a little scare in the season. They start early in the month to ensure good behavior from children for the Christmas festivities, by threatening them with being snatched up by an evil, demonic goat-man named Krampus if they misbehave! On the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 5, young men dress up as the ghoulish, horned devil and walk the streets dragging chains, just to be sure they get the message across. Lumps of coal? That’s for sissies.
Your invitation to that Ugly Sweater Party or Uncle Herb’s blinking tie might not seem so strange this year. Embrace the odd and unusual. Believe it or not – ‘tis the season!
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