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It's Christmas Eve, and instead of curling up on my parent's sofa as snow falls outside, with a tree lighting up their enormous living room window, I'm taking a solo road trip to Sedona, AZ to play in the mountains and pat a horses' nose.
Weird year, weird holiday season.
My family decided to socially distance this Christmas because we don't want to inadvertently kill each other. Isn't that nice?
Normally, my family would be congregating and eating; laughing and avoiding politics or religion. We would be cooking a ham and mashing potatoes and rolling lefse into sugary, buttery logs. Lefe, by the way, is a traditional soft Norwegian flatbread, usually made with potatoes and cooked on a large, flat griddle. We cover the bread with butter and sugar and ignore the impending heart attack. I just took a sharp left turn into the world of lefse; read more about it here.
Another one of our weird holiday traditions is the pickle in the Christmas tree. The gist of this tradition is that someone hides a pickle ornament deep in the tree. Because both the pickle and tree are dark green, the pickle is difficult to find, and the first lucky SOB to spot the pickle gets either an extra gift, a year of good luck/blessings, or a pat on the back. Well done, son.
My point is that the holidays are strange this year, but they are not ever entirely sane or normal. With that, here are some of the weirder holiday traditions from friends and family near and far. Enjoy!
This tradition dates back to English royalty. Back in the day (what day? no one knows) fruitcake was a common wedding dish. If you ate a piece and saved a bit to put beneath your pillow, you were supposed to dream of the person you would one day marry. Given that marriage was once so integral to social graces and happiness, this tradition isn't too surprising. Christmas revelers in the 17th century would also throw food at a wall and see if whatever stuck spelled the name of a soon-to-be lover. Romantic, right?
The Russian Orthodox tradition of Selaviq, also known as starring, is celebrated in Alaska leading up to Russian Christmas on January 7. People parade from home to home carrying a large wooden star, which represents the star of Bethlehem (Bible thumpers, this one's for you). At each house, the size of the group increases as residents join the party. At the end, there are food, gifts, and Jesus music.
The Yule Log is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. It was originally a Nordic tradition (Yule is the name of an old winter solstice festival in Scandinavia). The log was originally an entire tree, which would burn through the 12 days of Christmas. The Yule Log on TV is a relatively new tradition for those who have no fireplace to burn their own log. WPIX in New York has broadcast 24 hours of a burning fireplace on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since 1966. The original film was shot at Gracie Mansion in New York, but a carpet fire during the first filming made the mayor wary of a re-shoot a few years later, so the loop you now see was filmed in California. And in the state of perpetual wildfires, a fake one is a nice change of pace.
Every year since 2010, the city of Laguna Niguel, CA puts on a "Surfing Santa competition" to benefit Surfers Healing, the original surf camp for children with autism. Surfers enter this Christmastime contest wearing every variation of Santa getup: white beards, jolly hats, full suits, etc. Unfortunately, this year's competition was postponed until spring 2021 (that makes sense) because everyone knows COVID lives in the ocean.
According to Ukrainian folklore, there once was a poor, destitute family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night as the family was tucked in bed dreaming of sugar plums and a sustainable way to escape poverty, a Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and webs in honor of this tale.
While most of us look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding our cheerful dispositions and unnoticed kind deeds with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa;” a devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” (December 5th), adults dress up as Krampus, and do all the adult things that put them on the naughty list. Creepy and delightful at the same goddamned time.
In doing a bit of research, I found that Spaniards have some strange traditions, one of which is wearing red knickers (underwear, in case you're new to the whole reading thing) for New Year's. On New Year's Eve, the small town of La Font de la Figuera has taken the tradition one step further: a New Year’s Eve run with the runners wearing just red underwear. The underlying reason they do this? good luck, of course.
In Catalonia, Spain, people celebrate with pooping logs (it's not quite what you think). The logs look kind of like a piñata and a few days into December, parents gift their kiddies a friendly looking hollow log for them to "care for." How one "cares for" a log has not been eloquently addressed (yet). Every night, the family is supposed to “feed” the log and cover it with a blanket. On Christmas, they sing log songs and beat the log with sticks, ordering it to "eliminate." A good log will eliminate nuts, dates, candies, etc. The very last thing it eliminates is a pungent food like onion or herring.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, but Japanese people do have their own unique version of Christmas Eve dinner. Thanks to a wildly successful marketing campaign in the 1970's, Japan has come to associate Christmas Eve with Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC allegedly got the idea from an expat customer who bought chicken for a holiday party because turkey isn’t widely available in Japan. The company then marketed its chicken as a traditional meal for the holiday and somehow, some way, KFC became a cherished family tradition.
The Elf on the Shelf is cute, schticky, slightly annoying, and fairly new. The elf is the brainchild of stay-at-home mom Carol Aebersold and her grown twin daughters, Chanda Bell and Christa Pitts.
In 2004, Aebersold and Bell wrote the poem that would later become the product’s storybook. Jennifer Garner was photographed carrying an Elf on the Shelf box in New York, the Today show ran a segment, and sales went through the roof. Predictably, the Elf is not without lovers or haters. Parents, journalists and psychologists have condemned its “commercialization” of Christmas, “normalization of surveillance” and “creepiness," although Krampus is far creepier in my oh-so-humble opinion. People all over the world celebrate the Elf, from Mexico to the U.K. to Zimbabwe. You've probably seen an elf or two floating around social media, so you be the judge: holiday cheer or certified creep?
In closing, the holidays have always been weird, and this year, they're just a wee bit weirder. There is no reason to feel sad or lonely though, because Santa is watching you sleep, his elves are hidden throughout your home, and someone left a fruitcake under your pillow.