Peggy Keener: Wonky holiday traditions

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, December 23, 2020

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If you think everyone in the world celebrates Christmas like we Americans do, think again. There are umpteen unusual … dare I say bewildering? … traditions in this world that will leave you mired in puzzlement..

Let’s start off with how folks in Venezuela get to Christmas mass. It begs the question of why walk when you can roller skate? Yes, that’s what I said. Roller skate. Even the neighborhoods are closed to vehicles to accommodate skaters. After church, tostados and coffee are served. (What? No fruitcake?)

A creature called Mari Lwyd appears in the darkest months of the Welsh year. Contrary to its appearance, this figure ironically brings good luck. The “gray mare” is either a stick horse or a real person dressed like a horse, complete with his head stuck in an actual horse’s skull. The mane is decorated with streamers, bells, and ribbons, while the eyes are glowing lights or green bottle tops. Accompanied by carolers, Mari Lwyd recites rhymes and poems to win entry into homes where they are then treated to food and drink. Interestingly, little children are not afraid, even when the bony jaw is snapped in their direction. For me, I’ll stick with reindeer … live ones with their own bodies.

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It’s difficult to explain such a custom as Mari Lwyd, but one legend has it connected to the nativity story. A pregnant horse was sent out of the stable where Mary was about to give birth. The horse roamed the land for many dark days trying to find a place to have her foal. As suspect as this may sound to us, I suppose that to the people of Wales, this may appear no more bizarre than a bevy of elves building toys in an isolated, arctic, icicle-clad workshop.

Christmas trees in Ukraine are often covered with spider webs. The tradition began when a poor family once grew their own Christmas tree. But when it was grown, they had no money with which to decorate it. On Christmas morning they awoke to find their tree covered with spiders who had spun shining silken webs throughout the tree branches. Today spider webs symbolize good luck in the coming year. I would therefore suggest that if you live in the Ukraine, do not sweep out the corners of your basement.

In Central Europe, misbehaving children get a visit from a grumpy creature called “Krampus”. Beast-like, he is accompanied by a posse of demons and gods who prowl the streets looking for naughty youngsters. When they find these disobedient scamps, they bundle them in Krampus’s sack and cart them away where the little ones later become his midnight snack …. making, in my book, the discovery of a lame lump of coal in your stocking sound like a pretty darned good deal!

The stalking Yule Cat of Iceland is one scary feline. He’s huge, hairy and vicious, and during Christmas time he lurks about eating people who do not have new holiday clothes. This began long ago as a threat dreamed up by sheep farmers to urge workers to finish processing the autumn wool in time for Christmas. Those who joined the effort were rewarded with new clothes. Those who did not, received nothing and were therefore eaten by the monstrous cat. I’m not sure, but I’m thinking this was the original recipe for Fancy Feast.

If you don’t have radishes, you cannot truly celebrate Christmas in Mexico because there the vegetables are exquisitely carved to depict nativity scenes. It began years ago when merchants tried to entice people into their stores. I would have suggested candy, but that’s just me.

If you’re the first German child to discover the hidden pickle in your Christmas tree, you will receive an extra gift! Meanwhile the Spanish eat 12 white grapes at Christmas, while in Equador scarecrows are burned to destroy any remaining negativity from the previous year. Bah! Burn! Humbug!

In South Africa, they have two traditions: throwing old furniture out the windows and eating caterpillars. Unable to understand the marrying of these two customs, I will only add that the caterpillars are not just any old run-of-the-mill caterpillars. They turn into Emperor Moths! The biggest problem the merchants have is keeping enough moths in stock. Let’s face it, running out of caterpillars can be a real bummer at Christmas time.

If you’re Estonian, you will celebrate Christmas by getting into a sauna with all the members of your extended family … in the buff. Yes, the whole bare naked gang! It is said to purify the blood and remove any evil spirits lurking in the family’s fusty clefts and creases. You know, the family that sweats together …..

But, quite possibly the most bizarre tradition is found in Catalan, Spain. There a hollow log with legs, a face and a little red hat is known either as Tio de Nadal (the Christmas log) or el Caganer (the defecator). He is squatting with his pants down, and yes, he is pooping—pooping out gifts for the children to find on Christmas morning. It is not surprising that the origins of such a scatological tradition are lost in time. Or at least no one wants to claim them.. But legend has it that farmers will be punished with a poor harvest if they do not include el Caganer in their nativity scenes. Go figure.

So, there you have it … Christmas around the world, making the traditions of kissing under a white-berried, parasistic plant that lethally latches onto trees look downright sensible—or a sleigh pulled through the sky by twelve flying reindeer appear as nothing short of sound logic.

Oh, Santa, Santa! We know you are a noun, but why not also make you a verb? What would be so all-fired bad about continuing the love and sharing that we’re feeling during this holiday season by Santa Clausing each other throughout the year? You know … whenever the spirit moves us?

I send my heartiest wishes for a wonderful, though utterly unique, holiday season … and don’t forget to send masks to the visiting Wise Men.