Unwrapping Curious Christmas Traditions

When it comes to unique and unforgettable holiday traditions, we Louisianians know how to shine. Our festive customs could easily compete for the spotlight – or in this case, the Christmas gifts – with those from around the globe.

After all, we’ve got bonfires on the levee, turducken and “The Cajun Night Before Christmas.” Who could want more?
Well, apparently a lot of folks in a lot of countries. They’re almost as good as we are about coming up with their own festive spin on the season. So … let’s pretend we’re in Santa’s sleigh and fly hither and yon, peering down upon what we might see during this special time of year.
Let’s start with the tradition that intrigued me the most – “The Caganer,” from the Catalonia region of Spain. I’m warning you: Get ready.
This figure, whose name translates roughly as “The Crapper” or “The Pooper,” is usually found tucked away in the corner of the manger scene, depicted in the act of defecation. The Caganer customarily wears the traditional red cap and white peasant shirt of that region and has been part of Catalonia Christmas celebrations for over 200 years.
Some people interpret the symbol as a representation of fertility, while others view it as a reminder of humility for those in power – or a warning that Jesus could return at any moment, so we’d better be ready. If you, ahem, would like to discuss this around the Christmas dinner table, please allow me to provide the phonetic spelling: KAH-gah-neh. You’re welcome.
Other traditions throughout the world may not be quite as graphic, but some are certainly off-putting – and far surpass our own Santa Claus’ lumps of coal. Consider: In alpine regions of Austria and Germany, the horned, demonic figure of Krampus accompanies Saint Nick. He’s said to punish children who misbehave, contrasting with Santa’s benevolent nature.
As an aside, the “us” on the end of “Krampus” reminds me of the Festivus celebration that appeared in a 1997 “Seinfeld” episode. I had always thought this “holiday” was totally fabricated just for that TV series. But it turns out that the father of a “Seinfeld” writer invented the concept as far back as 1966.
After the series catapulted the Festivus idea into popular culture, it has become an actual secular holiday celebrated on Dec. 23 as an alternative to the pressures and commercialism of the season.
Not quite as frightening as Krampus, but still creepy – Norwegians hide their brooms to avoid their being stolen by evil witches. It’s an ancient custom dating back to when people believed in witches and spirits. Folks accepted that on Christmas Eve, witches would be looking for brooms to ride on, hence the need to hide them.
In Italy, though, there’s a gentler tradition that Glinda the Good Witch from “The Wizard of Oz” would be proud of. There, the kind old witch La Befana delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve. Legend says she refused to join the Wise Men on their journey to see baby Jesus and is now trying to compensate, traveling the world on her broomstick, leaving gifts for the wee ones.
And we thought witches were only for Halloween, right?
Going back to Germany, we find that our forebears from that country may have inspired the U.S. tradition of hiding a green or pickle-shaped ornament in the Christmas tree. This custom, which has various interpretations, rewards the first child to find the pickle on Christmas morning with an extra gift or the promise of good luck for the coming year.
Meanwhile, there’s someone I would really like to ask about all this. You got it: Elf on the Shelf.

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