Europe's other Christmas traditions
by John Lee
Sweden’s towering Yule goats are up, Germany’s glass pickles are concealed in their trees and England’s Morris dancers are dusting off their pig’s bladders for Boxing Day. But these are just the better-known European Christmas traditions. Read on for a figgy pudding-full of more mysterious regional customs.
Since 1279, the Cornish village of Bothel has marked every December 23 by ‘invading’ the neighboring hamlet of Wasson. Unmarried Bothelian males drink countless flagons of Old Grunt (a viscous ale made from mature turnips) before applying sticky fern fronds to their naked bodies and running across the nighttime fields towards Wasson. The first to arrive is crowned the Christmas Chuggypig before being hosed down and fed a celebratory feast of plump hen’s feet.
A dark Yuletide presence in Portugal, Rudolphus is the malevolent alter ego of the beloved red-nosed ruminant. This half-deer, half-demon has razor-sharp horns, a fire-breathing nose and an incessant bleat that echoes through the night sky like a wailing clarinet playing Away in a Manger. Tradition says that Rudolphus visits the bedrooms of naughty children on Christmas Eve, chewing holes in their stockings, roughly licking their sleeping faces and leaving a messy reminder of his presence in the corner.
The little-known half-brother of St. Nicholas, Gerald is venerated in the Austrian town of Blinksen, where he is reputed to have spent his adult life working as an accountant after waving goodbye to his far showier sibling. During Geraldimus––which runs on the first dreary Tuesday of December––the bars are closed, the main street is festooned with necktie-shaped garlands and locals gather at park benches to feast silently on Tupperware lunches of fish paste sandwiches.
Rolling of the Puddings
When young Scot Iain Gilhooley left his home in Tumshie in late 1843 to buy his mother a plum pudding, thick fog rolled in and the lad disappeared in the mountains. A widespread search proved unsuccessful until, three days later, the mist parted and he came barreling downhill with a gargantuan pud bouncing ahead of him. Terrified Gilhooley, his hair now the color of brandy butter, could never explain his absence. Since then, locals have gathered every December 9 to chase fast-moving puddings down a steep slope in a whiskey-fueled race that causes multiple broken ankles.
The Icelandic town of Vesen adheres to a plant-based command system once common in pagan Europe. A vestige of the practice is the requirement to kiss under mistletoe. But in latter-day Vesen, additional orders are triggered by alternate flora. Elevated holly means having to stroke the beard of its wielder; a lofty sprig of parsley entails nibbling their ears; and some dangled catmint compels a drunken tryst dressed as a saucy gnome––unless you counter with your own swiftly-raised parsnip. Vesen is also reputedly the world’s quietest Christmas town, with most locals hiding indoors for the duration.
Gift giving in the Polish city of Nie is a little different. Instead of swapping presents with friends and family, locals gather up all their beautifully wrapped packages and, on December 22, head outside to give them to strangers. The streets are full of other people trying to do the same, so everyone ends up with plenty of glittering parcels to take back home. On December 25, the gifts are opened in a state of giddy excitement. And on December 26, stores across the city open at 4 a.m. so that thousands of exchanges can be efficiently processed.
The villages of Ezels and New Antwerp on the Belgian island of Klootzak spend months building a humungous wooden Christmas cracker alongside the only road between them. At midnight on December 25, hundreds of locals gather at either end of the mile-long, 30-foot-high construction, grasping the rope inside and pulling in opposite directions. Soul-sapping tugging continues for several days until someone sees sense and sets fire to the glitter-covered monstrosity, igniting the badly packed fireworks within and sending dozens of exhausted revelers to the local hospital.