Quirky Christmas traditions: these (DIY) customs really exist

A giant, illuminated billy goat made from straw is standing on a town square.
The ‘Yule goat’ is a Christmas tradition from Sweden... and can end up being somewhat on the large side.

Funny ducks, spiders and witches sounds a lot more like Carnival or Halloween, don’t you think? Yet, in reality, they make up part of the Christmas customs in different countries all over the globe. This traditional celebration is held almost everywhere around the world, but the customs and traditions differ greatly. The way it is celebrated, what decorations are hung up and the way the festive day itself is laid out differs widely from country to country. With that in mind, we thought it’d be fun to take you on a little trip and show you a few of the quirkier Christmas customs.


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Sweden: large goats and funny ducks

A giant, illuminated billy goat made from straw is standing on a town square.
Situated on a wooden table is a small advent wreath made of a candle and numerous walnuts.

Let’s start in Sweden. Temperatures in winter there can drop to as low as -40 degrees Celsius in extreme cases. It’s no wonder then that on Christmas day, families prefer to gather around the TV in a cosy living room. But they don’t watch ‘Home Alone’ or the hit Swedish series ‘Emil of Lönneberga’. On 24 December, viewers tune in to the Donald Duck Christmas special on TV at exactly 3 pm. This tradition, in which Disney’s world famous duck grips Swedish families for a whole hour with his clumsiness, dates back to 1959.

However, Donald Duck isn’t the only one with an important role at Christmas time in Sweden. The people there also celebrate the Yule goat. The origins of this billy goat can be found in old Nordic tales, in which it is said to have pulled the chariot of the god Thor. Nowadays, the goat comes in the form of a small straw figure and is hung on many Swedish Christmas trees. In the city of Gävle, for example, they go a step further each year by erecting a 13-metre-tall Yule goat (figure 1), which even earned it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for its size. The highlight of this tradition takes place on Christmas Eve when the giant straw figure is set on fire.

If you’d prefer to celebrate with a small candle flame rather than a blazing billy goat, you can easily make your own miniature advent wreath (figure 2). We’ll show you how to make one in just two simple steps here.

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Finland: sweat fest

A view through a door reveals a wooden sauna with benches and a bucket.
People in Finland prefer to spend Christmas Day at the sauna.

Let’s jump right into the neighbouring country. Finland also has a peculiar Christmas tradition. Instead of putting on their Sunday best, the locals prefer to wear their birthday suits. On Christmas Eve, once a good amount of rice pudding has been consumed, family and friends head to the typical Finnish sauna and sweat it out.
Does this sound like your kind of tradition? Then you probably need to cool down after the sauna using a small basin or in an authentic wooden outdoor shower. Our step-by-step guide will show you how to build your own outdoor shower. However, if you choose to also use it during the cold winter, you have to make sure that the pipes do not freeze.

After having sweat and cooled off, the Finns wait together for Father Christmas to come. However, for him to make his appearance, there is no need for grandpa or an uncle to put on a costume. That’s because you can commission a company to arrange for an authentic visit from ‘Father Christmas’, and all the proceeds are donated to a good cause, such as local associations or charities.

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Poland: the invisible guest

A long wooden dining table is set with plates and red napkins.
A lamp made out of an old wooden beam is hanging in a dining room.

Let’s continue on south towards Poland now. Here, Christmas Day is centred around Christmas dinner. The food is appropriately rich with tradition because Christmas is the most important and anticipated holiday of the year for most Poles. Sometimes up to 12 different dishes are served, all without meat. The plates are filled with vegetarian, regional dishes and, above all, lots of fish such as carp. One plate, however, usually remains empty. In Poland, they always plan for one extra person on Christmas Eve. That way, they’re always prepared for a drop-in guest.

However, before being able to dig in, there is an exercise in patience. The festivities in this Eastern European country only begin when the night sky reveals the stars. That means there should be an appropriately nice lamp hanging above the set table. For example, a dining room lamp made out of an old wooden beam (figure 2). You can build one yourself in just a few steps.

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Ukraine: spooky decorations

A golden decorative spider is hanging from the needles of a fir tree.
A homemade Christmas star made out of string lies on a wooden table.

Ukraine shares a border with Poland where there is also a very bizarre (or more like spooky) Christmas custom. There, the tree is not only decorated with Christmas baubles or stars, but also with spiders and webs. Don’t worry though, we’re not talking about real or stuffed animals. The artificial spider decorations are often made using shiny and almost elegant materials (figure 1).
But how did they end up with decorations that are used in other countries for Halloween – if at all. Like so often is the case, this Ukrainian tradition stems from a tale. Once upon a time there was a poor widow who could not afford Christmas decorations. Instead, she let a spider decorate it with its web.

Whether this tale merits the Christmas tradition that exists to this date is for everyone to decide for themselves. In any case, if you prefer simple, traditional Christmas tree decorations, we will show you here how to make your own little star (figure 2) out of wood and string.

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Hungary: a stool that protects you from witches

A wooden stool is visible on a stone floor.
The Hungarian St. Lucy chair is assembled step-by-step over 11 days.

Our Christmas traditions trip has steered us to Hungary for an extra stop. Of the ten million residents, some follow a custom that stems from the Middle Ages. In those times, it was decided that Christmas celebrations were to begin on 13 December – the St. Lucy’s day. Women were not supposed to work on this day, so that hens could peacefully lay their eggs in the henhouse. On this day, women instead began building the St. Lucy stool. However, there is one important rule: Each day, only one part may be added to this sitting stool until the Christmas service on 24 December. During the Christmas mass, each woman stands on their stool and looks for witches. If somebody spots one, that person takes the stool and immediately returns home and burns the stool, thus protecting the person from witches for a year. If the stool breaks, then the woman is a witch.
If it wasn’t apparent already that we’re talking about a tradition from the Middle Ages, surely it is now. Amazingly enough, this custom lives on today.

Instead of the St. Lucy stool, however, you can spend these reflective and mostly calm Christmas days building yourself a more modern (and probably more stable) version out of concrete. You can find out how in our guide here. More likely than not, you won’t be able to hunt witches with it.

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France: watch out when taking a bite

A porcelain figurine can be seen between the layers of a piece of cake.
You have to be careful in France on Three Kings Day not to bite into a porcelain figurine.

Let’s take a little detour through France. There, Christmas is celebrated in typical European fashion. However, in many families, the festivities are often extended here until Three Kings Day, which takes place on the first Sunday of the new year. It takes place on the first Sunday of the new year. Of course, they don’t just celebrate the holiday, they eat. One thing that can’t be missing from the table is the traditional ‘galette des rois’, a cake made with puff pastry and marzipan. What makes this cake special is the small hidden porcelain figurine (or alternatively a bean). Whoever bites into the ‘fève’ gets to put on the crown and is appointed the new king. The new king is now tasked with providing a ‘galette’ for the following day. Because a figurine is baked into the new one, this little game can go on for quite some time.

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Africa: classic exoticism

Three Christmas baubles are hanging from a palm tree.
A small pineapple plant is growing in front of a wooden wall.

Now, let’s take a trip south – to Africa. Christmas is also celebrated there. Of course, things are done differently than in the majority of European countries.  The hot temperatures alone are enough of a reason for this. In the African coastal regions, residents celebrate the holidays on the beach and enjoy the sun, like in South Africa.
However, they definitely don’t skimp on the Christmas spirit: even in Cape Town, the windows of many homes are adorned with glittery material, lots of white wool and gold foil – a very particular contrast.
In Ghana, houses are also decorated and trees placed in marketplaces. Obviously, Christmas trees don’t grow there; instead, mango, guava and cashew trees provide that African Christmas flair.

If you’re more in a holiday mode than in the Christmas holiday mode and your desire for exotic fruits and plants is growing, you don’t have to wait until your next trip. We’re happy to explain to you how you can grow your own pineapples, avocados or olives – no matter where you live.

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Other things happening on Christmas

A person is seen skating down the road in white roller skates.
A wooden construction stands in front of a wall that is festively decorated.

Of course, our trip through the various Christmas traditions could take us to many more countries since quirky customs surrounding the holidays can be found almost anywhere.
For example, in Caracas in Venezuela, where the streets are closed off to cars on Christmas Eve, so that people can rollerblade to church. This has been a regional tradition for years now. However, the origin of it is unknown.

In the Philippines, you can also put on your rollerblades on Christmas, maybe not to go to church but as part of an outfit. Traditionally, families in this South-East Asian island nation come together on this holiday for a costume party or one with a theme. They sing karaoke instead of the traditional church songs.

In countries where Christmas takes place during summer, things generally happen a bit differently than in countries in the northern hemisphere. The same is true in Australia. When it comes to Christmas trees, in particular, alternatives are necessary. The majority of Aussies opt for plastic trees. However, this method, which is not particularly environmentally friendly, is not the only solution. Instead, you can easily build or saw a cool version of a Christmas tree out of a large wooden board (figure 2). Did that pique your interest? Then learn how you can build your own unique tree here.

If you aren’t already building or putting something together and would like to know a little more about interesting Christmas traditions, you can expand your horizons here.

No matter how you celebrate the holidays this year, we wish you a happy Christmas!