It’s the most wonderful time of the year. For a couple of weeks every year the world takes on a magic glow, people seem merrier and even winter somehow feels cozy.
The time for friends and family, good food and gifts is just around the corner and, whether you’re celebrating a religious festival, like Hanukkah or Christmas, or a more secular occasion, you’re sure to have your own selection of traditions and rituals that make the holiday season so special.
These 10 festive traditions from around the world are certainly wonderful — sometimes wonderfully weird — and are guaranteed to put you in a festive frame of mind.
Day of the Little Candles, Colombia
Little Candles’ Day (Día de las Velitas) marks the start of the Christmas season across Colombia. In honor of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, people place candles and paper lanterns in their windows, balconies and front yards.
The tradition of candles has grown and now entire towns and cities across the country are lit up with elaborate displays. Some of the best are found in Quimbaya, where neighborhoods compete to see who can create the most impressive arrangements.
Kentucky Fried Christmas Dinner, Japan
Christmas has never been a big deal in Japan. Aside from a few small, secular traditions such as gift-giving and light displays, Christmas remains largely a novelty in the country.
However, a new, quirky “tradition” has emerged in recent years – a Christmas Day feast of the Colonel’s very own Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The 2014 festive menu will soon be advertised on the KFC Japan website and, even if you don’t understand Japanese, the pictures sure will look delicious with everything from a Christmas-themed standard bucket to a premium roast-bird feast.
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. In Austrian tradition, St. Nicholas rewards nice 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 children with clattering chains and bells.
Yule Lads, Iceland
In the 13 days leading up to Christmas, 13 tricksy troll-like characters come out to play in Iceland.
The Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar in Icelandic) visit the children across the country over the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. For each night of Yuletide, children place their best shoes by the window and a different Yule Lad visits leaving gifts for nice girls and boys and rotting potatoes for the naughty ones.
While their parents, Grýla and Leppalúði, are two of the most frightening creatures in Icelandic folklore, the Lads themselves are more mischievous than scary. You’ll find them in the north of Iceland wearing either traditional Icelandic costume or a more conventional Santa Claus outfit.
The Yule Lads’ names hint at the type of trouble they like to cause: Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), Giljagaur (Gully Gawk), Stúfur (Stubby), Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker), Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper), Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker), Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper), Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper), Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer).
During the holiday season, you can visit the Lads in the Hallarflöt area of the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Then, two weeks before Christmas, the lads come down from their mountain home to take their Annual Bath at Myvatn Nature Baths.
Saint Nicholas’ Day, Germany
Not to be confused with Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas), Nikolaus travels by donkey in the middle of the night on December 6 (Nikolaus Tag) and leaves little treats like coins, chocolate, oranges and toys in the shoes of good children all over Germany.
St. Nicholas also visits children in schools or at home and in exchange for sweets or a small present each child must recite a poem, sing a song or draw a picture.
But it isn’t always fun and games. St. Nick often brings along Knecht Ruprecht. A devil-like character dressed in dark clothes covered with bells and a dirty beard, Knecht Ruprecht carries a stick or a small whip in hand to punish any children who misbehave.
Gavle Goat, Sweden
Since 1966, a 43-foot-tall Swedish Yule Goat has been built in the center of Gavle’s Castle Square for the Christmas Advent, but this festive tradition has unwittingly led to another “tradition” of sorts – people trying to burn it down.
In its 48-year history, the Goat has been successfully burned down 26 times – the most recent destruction was in 2012.
If you want to see how the Goat fares this year when it goes up on December 1, you can follow its progress on the Visit Gavle website through a live video stream.
Lighting of National Hanukkah Menorah, Washington, D.C.
Hanukkah is celebrated with much fanfare across the United States with one of the most elaborate events taking place on a national stage.
Since 1979, a giant 30-foot Menorah has been raised on the White House grounds for the eight days and nights of Hanukkah.
The ceremony is marked with speeches, music, activities for kids and, of course, the lighting of the Menorah.
Fête des Lumières, France
What began in the 17th century as local homes placing candles in their windows has grown into a spectacular event that attracts more than 4 million tourists each year.
The festival is marked by professional displays including brilliant light shows on the Basilica of Fourvière and the Place des Terreaux.
Cavalcade of Lights, Toronto
In wintry, wonderful Toronto the annual Cavalcade of Lights marks the official start to the holiday season. Now in its 48th year, the first Cavalcade took place in 1967 to show off Toronto’s newly constructed City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square.
The Square and Christmas tree are illuminated by more than 300,000 energy-efficient LED lights that shine from dusk until 11 p.m. until the New Year.
Main image by Aurélien Catinon