Wherever there’s Christmas, there are Christmas traditions.

When I was a kid, we’d invite all the relatives from my mom’s side of the family to come over for a party in our damp, chilly basement. We kids would wait expectantly for Santa to come to pass out the gifts. Compared to the quality of today’s ubiquitous video-taking phones, my Dad’s home movies are terribly grainy, but they still evoke happy memories of those childhood parties.

Christmas 1963

Christmas with Santa, 1963. from left: My brother Bob, me (the cute one at age 9), and brother Ron.

Aside from the fact that my mother made us save all the wrapping paper each year, I don’t remember any strange family customs. But I did discover five particularly peculiar traditions from other countries:

Norway: Hide the broom!

Norway has an odd Christmas Eve tradition of hiding brooms in the safest place in the house. A centuries-old tradition, stemming from the belief that witches and other evil spirits come out the night before Christmas looking for brooms on which to fly!

However, when I googled around to corroborate this story, I learned that no Norwegian will vouch for this. Apparently, Norwegians have a long tradition of fabricating stories to make foreigners (especially journalists) look stupid when they are gullible enough to actually believe it!

No witches allowed!

Sweden: The Gävle Goat

A long, long time ago, in the Nordic countries, Thor, god of thunder, rode in a chariot drawn by two goats. Eventually, Christianity overthrew Thor, the but goats prevailed. Goats, erected by peasants with available straw – played the role of Santa, giving gifts to obedient children. The Church declared goats to be henchmen of Satan and urged everyone to burn them.

Thus a tradition began. Giant straw goats more than 50 ft tall, requiring up to 4 tons of straw, are constructed in many towns by the municipal authorities. But the citizenry plots to destroy the goat without getting caught.

The most famous goat of all is in the town of Gävle, which made the Guinness book of records in the 1980s.

The world famous Gavle goat: before and after.

All means are employed to protect the Gavle goat: surveillance cameras, round-the-clock security guards, fireproof straw, and a 24-hour live webcam (as of this writing, on December 21, 2017, at 3:54 AM, the goat is still standing!).

Iceland: The Yule Lads

Iceland has not just one Santa Claus, but rather 13 troll-like characters called the Yule Lads. They live in the mountains and take turns sneaking into town for the 13 days before Christmas to create mischief. “Door Slammer,” “Bowl Licker,” and “Door Sniffer” do just as their name suggests. Besides making mischief, they leave small presents in the shoes of children who leave them on windowsills. Naughty children get rotten potatoes.

After Christmas, the Yule Lads head back to the mountains one at a time until they’ve all gone.

Iceland

Four of the Icelandic Yule Lads.

Catalonia: A pooping log…

The tradition of Caga Tio (“Pooping Log”) involves a foot-long hollow log which stands on two short front legs. The flat end of the log is painted with a smiling face and 3D nose, with a little red sock for a hat. His rear end is kept warm with a blanket. He sits on the dining room table from Dec 8 and is fed each day by children with nuts, sweets, and fruit. On Christmas Eve, groups of school children or families beat the log with sticks while singing traditional songs, forcing the log to excrete its treats – generally candies, nuts, and dried figs.

Happy-faced poop logs – before the beating!

When there is nothing left to poop, it gives a salt herring. Then they throw it into the fire.

And finally – also in Catalonia … the Caganer!

You’re probably familiar with the traditional figurines in any nativity display: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds, angels and the wise men bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In some parts of the world, there’s a traditional figurine you’d be a little less familiar with: a peasant with his pants around his ankles, exposing his butt, presenting a different type of offering.That’s a caganer. That word means “the shitter” in Catalan, the language of Catalonia in Spain.

Over the years, many famous people have been depicted as caganers.

Catalonia caganer

When it comes to contemporary caganers, nobody is sacred. Not Poop Francis – not even Hello Kitty!

Not just everybody gets a caganer made – one has to achieve a certain notoriety. Many celebrities see it as an “honor” to have their own caganers made. (I’m guessing our current president isn’t one of them!)

Including a caganer in a nativity scene is one way Christians can remind themselves of the full humanity of Jesus. Though such figures might appear sacrilegious, they add a human side to the mystery of Christmas. Without this human side, there might not be a Christmas story at all!