Image: Mummers, Latvia
James G. Mundie
Mummers are dancing musicians who parade from door to door during the yuletide season, often dressed up as bears, gypsies or zombies.
updated 12/21/2010 10:06:11 AM ET 2010-12-21T15:06:11

Forget Santa. Overseas, you might be celebrating the holidays with St. Nick’s evil counterpart — Krampus.

This devil-like figure is just one way that yuletide unfolds in other countries — far different from a neatly wrapped package of decorated trees, twinkling lights, and happy songs. In fact, strange, sinister, and often baffling customs are the norm in some countries, where pre-Christian and postmodern traditions create a whole different kind of Christmas experience.

Slideshow: World's strangest holiday traditions

More than a dozen European countries offer an evil counterpart to St. Nick, a supernatural figure charged with punishing bad children in all sorts of ways, from leaving lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings to whacking them with a birch switch. Krampus is the most prevalent, especially in Alpine and Middle European nations, where many parents don hideous Krampus masks to scare their kids into being good.

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But Krampus is far from the only evil spirit. You’ll find wicked yuletide witches in Italy and an equally sinister figure in Holland and Belgium. It’s enough to make you think the Europeans have somehow confused Christmas and Halloween.

Weird Christmas author Joey Green says these evil alter egos are holdovers from ancient times, blended with customs introduced during the Middle Ages. Green explains that when the Normans invaded England in 1066, they introduced a red-robed mock king — the Lord of Misrule — to ensure that Christmas celebrations were conducted in the ribald pagan style. “Perhaps that explains the proliferation of other rebellious Christmas spirits,” says Green.

Rebellion isn’t always at the heart of Christmas celebrations. Japan has its own traditions — shaped in part by none other than Kentucky Fried Chicken. In the early 1970s, KFC kicked off an advertising campaign touting fried fowl as America’s favorite holiday meal. Special yuletide packaging and Santa hats on the statues of Colonel Sanders outside restaurants reinforced the message. Today, a bucket of Kentucky fried has become the Christmas dinner of choice for millions of Japanese.

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Weirdness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Green says that some of the world’s strangest holiday traditions are right here in the U.S., like the fact that most of the popular Christmas songs were written by Jews, including the most popular Christmas song ever — “(I’m Dreaming of a) White Christmas,” by Irving Berlin.

Green’s all-time strangest Christmas custom takes place not overseas, but at the Rumpke Sanitary Landfill near Cincinnati, Ohio. Every year, workers here string 30,000 Christmas lights across the garbage mound, which stretches over 234 acres and rises 279 feet high. The display includes 25-foot-tall candy canes.

It goes to show that Christmas, like its indispensable gifts, comes in all shapes and sizes.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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