If you’ve been anywhere near the internet the last few months, you may have noticed a current holiday tradition that’s causing many people to scratch their heads: upside-down Christmas trees. Hotels and shopping malls have taken to suspending trees from ceilings in lobbies and plazas, and homeowners are putting up and decorating trees that balance on their tip.
The entire spectacle is causing quite a stir, with some calling it sacrilegious. But upside-down Christmas trees are actually nothing new and have decidedly religious origins. Earlier this year, home renovation blog The Spruce pointed out that inverted Christmas trees date all the way back to the Middle Ages, when Europeans hung trees upside down to represent the Christian Trinity.
Home Depot has reportedly offered upside-down trees for the past four years but have only seen sales of them take off this year. The lines drawn over this intriguing trend underscore how important traditions, especially holiday traditions, are to people.
“People need different things from traditions at different times of their lives,” says Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays & Everyday. “Some people like novelty and a good visual gag, and they are probably the ones going for an upside-down tree.”
“Other people would have trouble getting into the holiday spirit without repeating traditions, in decorations and rituals, that they grew up with and might prefer a tree that looks comfortably retro.”
Cox says that our human need for pattern and repetition helps us create stability and meaning around our holidays. “A ritual or tradition is something we do mindfully (not mindlessly) with an intent, a purpose to connect, or celebrate and express something of deep meaning.”
In her years as an author and traditions expert, Cox has seen her fair share of fun and interesting family traditions, from the yearly exchange of goofy slippers to a father who goes up on the rooftop with jingle bells on Christmas Eve and stomps around after his children fall asleep.
“And of course lots of people [have] very silly gift exchanges that involve recycled and tacky gifts, the weirder the better, with some favorite items resurfacing every year,” she says.
“Garden gnomes, ugly sweaters, and in one family, a pair of very large red underpants. In the case of the red panties that this one family told me about, whoever gets stuck with them one year tries to palm them off the next year, and this one couple literally baked them into a loaf of holiday bread.”
James Cooper, creator of the website whychristmas.com, which explores the history and meaning behind most Christmas traditions, says that the interesting thing about traditions is how often they change. “Many of the ‘traditions’ that we associate with Christmas have really only been around for about 150 years or less,” he says.
A Christian and self-proclaimed “Christmas nut,” Cooper has operated his UK-based site since 2000. Cooper’s site, which garnered 6.2 million visitors and 17.5 million page views last December, as well as many others that share holiday traditions, underscore the importance tradition holds in all of our lives.
Here are five more bizarre holiday traditions from around the world:
1. The “Pooping Log” of Catalonia
Cooper calls this tradition “a, erm, ‘different’ type of Advent Calendar!” According to his website, children in the Catalonia province of Spain are well acquainted with “Tió de Nadal” (the Christmas log), or, as he’s sometimes known, “Caga tió” (the pooping log). It’s a hollow log propped on wooden legs with a painted smiley face on one end. Beginning on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, families will feed the log food and even lay a blanket on it to keep it warm.
On Christmas Eve or Day, their efforts are rewarded when Tió de Nadal gives out small gifts in a rather interesting way. Whacking the log with sticks while singing a holiday song is supposed to ease Tió de Nadal’s indigestion and help him “release” sweets, dried fruit and nuts. Just try not to think about which end they come out.
2. Krampus, Saint Nick’s Evil Companion
Forget Elf on the Shelf (a bizarre modern tradition in itself). If you really want to terrify your kids into having good behavior at Christmas, introduce them to Krampus, the furry, horned half-demon who tortures bad kids in Western Europe.
In countries like Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia, Krampus appears on the night of Dec. 5, accompanying his good-natured companion Saint Nicholas on his nightly rounds. But while Saint Nick rewards good children by placing candy in their shoes, Krampus is known for beating the naughty ones with birch sticks. If they’ve been really bad, Krampus will stuff them into his sack and carry them off to his lair, where they are tortured or even eaten.
If it all sounds a bit demonic, well, that wouldn’t be surprising. In mythology, Krampus has ties to the Norse god of the underworld, and his name comes from the German word for “claw,” “krampen.” Krampus festivals date all the way back to at least the 11th century, when the Catholic Church, horrified at Krampus’ similarities to the devil, tried to ban the character.
Nowadays, Krampus festivals are more lighthearted affairs, akin to Halloween. Adults dress up in elaborate costumes and lurk in the shadows, frightening children (and some adults) who may need to reckon with their less-than-desirable behavior.
3. A Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas
One of the most important aspects of holiday traditions is the food. But can you imagine Christmas going by without eating a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken? For many people in Japan, they can’t.
“Christmas has only been widely celebrated in Japan for the last few decades,” Cooper writes on his site. “It’s still not seen as a religious holiday or celebration as there aren’t many Christians in Japan.” Although recently, more Americanized traditions have started to make their way overseas, like gift giving and Christmas cards. But nothing has been as successful as the American fast-food chain KFC, which has solidified itself as a national holiday tradition.
In what is arguably the greatest feat of marketing in modern history, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families feast on KFC on Christmas Day. The Christmas Dinner special sells out months in advance, and people without foresight wait hours in line for it.
According to the BBC, the tradition dates back to 1970, with Takeshi Okawara, the manager of the first KFC in the country. After overhearing tourists talk about how much they miss turkey at Christmas, Okawara literally dreamt up a KFC Christmas Dinner special. The offer soon went national and quickly went viral.
4. Donald Duck, Swedish Christmas Celebrity
America’s cultural exports aren’t limited to food: “About half the population of Sweden [watches] Donald Duck on Christmas Eve afternoon,” Cooper says. Every year, at 3 p.m., the Swedish television station TV1 screens the holiday special Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, or Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas.
The English title of the special is From All of Us to All of You, and it was part of the Walt Disney Presents anthology series. The special first aired on ABC on December 19, 1958, and it’s been going strong in Nordic countries since 1959.
In the special, Jimmy Cricket presents Disney cartoons from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, not all of which are related to Christmas. In his first-person account about being introduced to the tradition for the first time, Slate writer Jeremy Stahl says that most Swedish families plan their entire Christmas around Kalle Anka.
“The show’s cultural significance cannot be understated. You do not tape or DVR Kalle Anka for later viewing. You do not eat or prepare dinner while watching Kalle Anka,” Stahl says. “Age does not matter—every member of the family is expected to sit quietly together and watch a program that generations of Swedes have been watching for 50 years.”
Each year, ratings show that about 40 percent of Sweden tunes in, with the record—a whopping 50 percent of the population—made in 1997.
5. The Christmas Pickle
Cooper maintains that the origins of the Christmas Pickle, in which a pickle-shaped ornament is hidden in a Christmas tree for children to find, is probably fabricated. In the 1800’s, Woolworth started selling ornaments in the shapes of fruits of vegetables.
“Around the same time, it was claimed that the Christmas Pickle was a very old German tradition,” he writes. “And that the pickle was the last ornament hung on the Christmas tree, and then the first child to find the pickle got an extra present.”
Except the story that it was a German tradition seems to be a myth. Most Germans have never heard of such a thing. “So it’s most likely that an ornament salesmen, with a lot of spare pickles to sell, invented the legend of the Christmas Pickle!” Cooper writes.
If you’re interested in partaking of some of these traditions (KFC sounds particularly intriguing) or even creating some of your own, Cox says it’s important to make sure everyone in your family has a say.
“Before starting a new tradition, you need to discuss it with everyone involved and give everyone a voice in shaping it. This is especially the case if you’re replacing an existing tradition, which is sometimes a healthy thing and sometimes just a case of outgrowing something.”
And of course, it’s important to question your traditions and figure out if they’re still doing their job. Most people would hardly think twice about the weirdness of hanging decorated socks from the fireplace on Christmas Eve, and yet, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without them.
“I think it starts with the emotional heart of a holiday: what makes you feel like it’s a celebration?” Cox says. “What reflects your beliefs? Do you want to sit around your tree and sing ‘Silent Night’ while drinking cocoa, or are you looking for a laugh with friends and maybe you’d prefer an upside-down tree or a ‘Festivus pole’ from Seinfeld.”