Throughout the many countries where Christmas is celebrated, the peculiar fable of Santa Claus (or Papai Noel or Father Christmas or Babbo Natale) is generally left unquestioned, even by adults. For instance, in the U.S., the story we happily tell our children goes as such: a plump, bearded man invades people's homes through their chimney as they sleep, nibbles on some cookies and then unloads a bunch of presents that are labeled with handwriting that looks suspiciously like your mother's. It's tradition, sure, but, umm, what?
Yet, there is clearly a theme here. In other cultures, Saint Nick isn't a fan of chimneys and instead shimmies in through the bedroom window, stuffing presents beneath sleeping children's pillows in lieu of placing them underneath the tree. Or, those who sleep late on Christmas Day are woken with a toe-yank from a stranger. Whatever the totally nonsensical Yuletide tradition is, sleep always plays a pivotal role: only when children are dozing does Santa arrive.
Shinto and Buddhism are the main religions in Japan, not Christianity. But many still celebrate the traditional commercial aspects of the Christmas holiday. The one big switch up? Santa Claus comes through the bedroom window, rather than down the chimney. And he leaves just one present, placing it underneath kids’ pillows. Sort of like the Tooth Fairy, which Japan doesn’t actually have.
Though it may sound better suited for Halloween, the Finnish see Christmas as an opportunity to honor the dead. On Christmas Eve, many families set out meals for visiting spirits, and take strolls through cemeteries and leave candles by gravestones. (It’s meant to be peaceful, not spooky.) At night, they’ll sleep on the floor, a polite way of offering their beds to the wandering ghosts.
The fruitcake just might be the worst dessert around, but a centuries-old tradition from England actually puts it to good use. Legend has it that if a woman puts fruitcake under her pillow, she’ll dream of the man she’s supposed to marry.
In the past, it was customary for unmarried wedding guests to bring home a piece of the cake for this very reason. So while it may not be a Christmas-specific tradition, it’s definitely a productive use of all the hardened mass of raisin-specked dough you’re sure to receive from some unoriginal relative.
Waking up on Christmas Day is a memorable experience for any child, but it’s especially so in Venezuela. On Christmas Eve, it’s customary in some areas for kids to tie long pieces of string to their big toes and sleep with their feet hanging out the window. In the morning, people will roll by on rollerskates and tug on the strings, to wake any still-sleeping child and ensure she or he is not late for mass.
This one’s actually for New Year’s Eve, but it still applies. In Ireland, single women are encouraged to go to bed with mistletoe under their pillows. The reasoning? The amorous branch is supposed to bring good luck in the New Year, particularly for finding a husband. Even if it doesn't land a man, there's still some worth to the tradition: mistletoe is linked with reducing blood pressure and inducing sleepiness.