For many of us, an annual Christmas celebration includes little more than giving gifts, singing carols, and overeating. Around the world, however, many pagan practices evolved and blended with newer religions to create a patchwork quilt of bizarre holiday customs. Flying witches, anthropomorphic goats, angry trolls, and undead horses can be found in Christmas traditions to this day.
The Mari Lwyd of Wales
In some Welsh villages, a peculiar local goes wassailing (singing) into the dark nights near Christmas. Draped in a white sheet and carrying a pole topped with a horse skull, the Mari Lwyd knocks on neighbor’s doors. The specter boasts lights for eyes and a mane of holly and ivy. Accompanied by a jester or perhaps a lady, the ghost horse sings to the homeowners. If the mischievous spirit is welcomed into the home, a year of luck soon follows. The old custom first appears in books around 1800, but the tradition shares a Celtic pagan origin with several other Christmas practices.
The Yule Lads of Iceland
While American children need mind only the one elf sitting on the shelf, Icelandic youth have 13 trolls to worry about. In the weeks before Christmas, this pack of trolls (Jólasveinar including Spoon-Licker, Curd-Gobbler, and Doorway-Sniffer) travels the countryside. They visit each home, determining which children are naughty and which are nice. Good children who leave their shoes in their window receive presents. Bad children get only rotten potatoes.
The Witches of Norway and Italy
According to Norwegian fairytales, witches take to the sky on broomsticks every Christmas Eve. In the dark hours they make mischief for good children, steal presents and causing a ruckus. Because the witches need broomsticks to fly, many Norwegian families hide their brooms on Christmas Eve to thwart their plans. To the south, Italian families have a similar legend of La Befana. This witch flies through skies on her own broomstick on the eve of the Epiphany. She drinks wine and eats sausages at each house, leaving presents and coal for Italian children.
The Christmas Spider of Ukraine
On many Ukrainian Christmas trees, a tiny spider ornament hides among the branches. A local legend tells of an impoverished widow and her children too poor to afford holiday decorations. On Christmas Eve, a spider covered their tree in glistening cobwebs. In the morning, the webs reflected the sunlight in a rainbow of silver of gold. Today the little spider, known as a Pavuchky can be found in many Ukrainian homes.
The Yule Goat of Sweden
Dating back to the 11th century, the Yule Goat of Sweden began as a companion to St. Nicholas. This enormous beast had the power to control the devil, bringing good to the world. By the 1600s, young men would dress as the goat and demand gifts from neighbors. Over the years, the Yule Goat became a symbol of giving, with family members dressing as the animal to deliver gifts. While the goat has since fallen from favor, many Swedish homes still celebrate the custom with decorations of a straw goat tied in red ribbons.