Curious festive traditions from around the world. The season of death, darkness and peculiar saints

Moving abroad means meeting people from all over the world, all with different backgrounds and customs. You chat to them about life, family traditions and “what are you doing for Christmas?” and soon discover that people have all been brought up with different things. It is very educational to say the least, and wonderful to learn about what everyone celebrates from October to December. Here are some of the known and lesser known traditions you can find around the world this season. Some rather scary ones too.

Halloween. No, it is not an American invention

An American lady here in my hometown of Valencia posted in a Facebook expat group how she was keen to “organise the typical American experience of trick or treating” in Valencia and invited us all to take part. I don’t think she saw what was coming next, namely a whole host of Scots and Irish expats telling her that she “didn’t have to show them, thank you very much, as halloween is a holiday of Gaelic origin – not American.” I guess that was her told – ouch.

Halloween, or the ancient Samhain, is considered the time of year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Samhain (pronounced sah-van or sow-in) is the traditional Gaelic festival marking the change of seasons and the approach of winter. Dead and departed relatives played a central role in the tradition, as the connection between the living and dead was believed stronger at Samhain, and there was a chance to communicate. The idea that souls return home on a certain day of the year is repeated across many cultures around the world, including the Day of the Dead in Mexico around the same date. During Samhain or Halloween eventually, mumming and guising (going door-to-door in disguise and performing in exchange for food), or pranks, were a way of confounding evil spirits. Pranks at Samhain date as far back as 1736 in Scotland and Ireland, and this led to Samhain being dubbed “Mischief Night”. The original lanterns in Ireland and Scotland were carved from turnips, not pumpkins.

As a Dutchie who didn’t grow up with Halloween, I went around my local Spanish neighbourhood with an Irish friend this year, as well as a group of Spanish parents and a Swedish mum, who also felt a bit out of place. It was a laugh, and kind of odd trick or treating in a T-shirt in still 24 degrees at night. For the Spanish this halloween thing really is a novelty. Hilarious and entertaining to see everyone learning from each other and adapting to new customs.

All Saints Day in Spain

The day after Halloween the Spanish celebrate All Saints’ day, or Día de todos los Santos, where they remember their dearly departed and bring flowers to the graves of their deceased loved ones. Of course nothing goes without eating in Spain and there are a few traditional sweets that the Spanish eat on All Saints’ Day. The most common are the so-called huesos de santo (literally, “saint’s bones”), which are made of marzipan and sweetened egg yolk. Another treat you’ll find are buñuelos de viento, puffy fried balls of dough filled with pastry cream, whipped cream, or chocolate. Yum!

Yum, how about a bite in the old Saint’s bones?

Day of the Dead, more than just a costume

Day of the Dead, taking place in Mexico the first few days of November, is currently a bit of a fashionable theme for people choosing their halloween costumes, but is actually an ancient celebration that is way more than a bit of makeup and a lot of flower displays. Some of the earliest origins of the tradition can be traced as far back to 2,000-3000 year-old rituals honouring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Celebrating the lives of deceased family members and friends, people believe that during this part of the year, loved ones can return from the Chicunamictlán – the land of the dead – because the border between the real and spiritual world melts away.

When Spanish colonisers came to the region, they carried the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, celebrated on the first two days of November. Day of the Dead was moved to correspond closer to these days. In 2008, UNESCO added the country’s “indigenous festivity dedicated to the dead” to its list of so-called Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Day of the Dead in Mexico, with their colourful parades and iconic face masks

St Martin and the paper lanterns

In the Netherlands, at least the north where I grew up, as well as parts of Germany, we celebrate Saint Martins Day on the 11th of November. The day is named after St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who became a monk after being baptised as an adult. He was eventually made a saint by the Catholic Church for being a kind man who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm – although as a child I never knew this part of the story. All I remember is that we went around the streets after dark with paper lanterns knocking on people’s doors, sang songs about St Martin and received sweets and oranges in return. It often rains that time of year, so you can imagine the sight: soggy lanterns and frozen children.

Saint Martin, going around the houses and singing songs in return for sweets

Saint Nicholas or ‘Sinterklaas’ in the Netherlands

Staying in the Netherlands, we are also the first to kick off the festive season with our Saint Nicholas on the evening of 5th of December, or 6th of December in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern France. This saint is a legendary figure based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas (270–343), a Greek bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey and the patron saint of children. Saint Nicolas, who is believed to also be the predecessor of good old Santa Claus, introduced to the United States of America by Dutch immigrants, who, just like myself, couldn’t shake off some of their old customs. Some people refuse to believe this, but Santa Claus actually received his jolly, cuddly image from Coca Cola, who felt the old bishop needed a non-religious makeover.

The Dutch with their peculiar tradition of St Nicholas and his black helpers…coming on a boat from Spain and bringing presents to the children in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands however, we have kept the St Nicholas tradition alive and well. It is also the cause of wide eyes and disbelief among the international community when I try and explain what in my mind has always been a very innocent tradition. St Nicholas is depicted as an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. For some reason the old man with the beard no longer comes from Turkey, but he now arrives every year on a boat from Spain. Until recently our St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, was assisted by a large number of Zwarte Pieten (“Black Petes”), curious helpers dressed in Moorish attire and in blackface, who would take naughty kids back to Spain in a sack. Wowzers. As a child I know for certain we thought nothing of it: they were just the Saint’s helpers, not a racist imitation of people with a black or brown skin colour. Their black colour was because they climbed through the chimney, obviously. And somehow they ended up wearing gold earrings and curly black wigs with it. Cue: gasping audience. You will be glad to hear that Zwarte Piet has left the scene and was in recent years replaced by Rainbow Pete

Did Black Pete made you cringe? Meet Krampus, his evil Austrian brother

A beast-like demon creature that roams city streets frightening kids and punishing the bad ones – nope, this isn’t Halloween, but St. Nicholas’ evil accomplice, Krampus. Just like in the Netherlands, in Austrian tradition, St. Nicholas rewards good little boys and girls, while Krampus is said to capture the naughtiest children and whisk them away in his sack. In the first week of December, young men dress up as the Krampus (especially on the eve of St. Nicholas Day) frightening the living daylight out of kids with clattering chains and bells. Holy shoot. Give me back rainbow Pete any time.

Hide your broom in Norway

Perhaps one of the most unique Christmas Eve traditions can be found in Norway, where people hide their brooms. Yes, that’s right. Nevermind the manic last minute gift wrapping or preparing the Turkey for Christmas dinner. Get that broom safely in the cupboard. It’s a tradition that dates back centuries to when people believed that witches and evil spirits came out on Christmas Eve looking for brooms to ride on. To this day, many people still hide their brooms in the safest place in the house to stop them from being stolen.

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