Christmas and New Year are popular holidays celebrated across the world. Today, I want to talk about some of the more unusual ways to celebrate during the winter season. What is the weirdest holiday tradition?
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Tradition (n) – a way of behaving or a belief that has been established for a long time
It is a western tradition for brides to wear white.
Weird (adj) – very strange and unusual, unexpected, or not natural
Her boyfriend’s a bit weird but she’s nice.
Unique (adj) – being unusual or special in some way
I’d recognize your handwriting anywhere – it’s unique.
To decorate (v) – to add something to an object or place, especially in order to make it more attractive
He decorated his Christmas tree with lights and stars
To poop (v) – to pass solid waste from the body
Your dog pooped outside my house
Mischief (n) – behaviour that is slightly bad but is not intended to cause serious harm or damage
He needs a hobby to keep him busy and stop him from getting into mischief.
Oblivious (adj) – not conscious of something, especially what is happening around you
He was oblivious to his friend’s feelings
Obscure (adj) – not known to many people
He only like obscure bands
Merry Christmas and happy holidays! It is almost the end of 2022, and once again we are entering a festive time of the year! Christmas, New Year, Hanukkah, and many other festivals are about to take place around the world.
I know a lot of you won’t be Christian but learning about traditions around the globe is fascinating! And there are a lot of fascinating Christmas traditions.
In the UK, we eat roast turkey, mince pies and puddings made of dried fruit and spices, and lots of chocolate. We watch the royal family give speeches, decorate our houses with trees, stars, lights, and angels. We meet our family, listen to Christmas songs, and eat far too much.
I think a lot of places have similar traditions – maybe with different foods or styles of decorations. Some places have incredibly unique, maybe even weird, traditions… and these are what I want to talk about today!
What is the weirdest holiday traditions in the world?
I’ve selected three unique Christmas traditions and one New Y ear celebration that are all strange in their own way. They each have unique backstories, cultural meanings, and probably seem strange for people who haven’t grown up with those traditions.
From fried chicken to spider webs, let’s discuss these traditions and learn vocabulary at the same time!
Christmas KFC in Japan?
Christmas food varies across the world. From roast meat and fish, to cakes, fruits, and desserts – most places will eat a lot of food during the holidays. One place with a very unique Christmas food tradition is Japan. In Japan, people like to eat KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken, on Christmas day!!
It might seem strange to eat fast food, especially from KFC, on Christmas day… but for millions of Japanese people this is the reality. KFC stores in Japan can have up to 10 times more customers than usual on December 25th. I’ve witnessed it myself – last Christmas I was in Tokyo and saw long lines of people waiting to pick up their Christmas meal. People order fried chicken days, sometimes weeks, early – it is a really unique tradition.
Japan is not a Christian country – Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, and it is seen as a more commercial event rather than cultural or religious. In other words, in Japan Christmas is focused on the decorations and buying things – not on the deeper meanings.
New Year is the important winter holiday in Japan. Christmas is spent with friends, girlfriends, and boyfriends, while New Year is for family! But this doesn’t explain how KFC became the food of choice for Japanese people on Christmas day.
The story of how KFC became associated with Christmas in Japan is a lesson for all marketing and businesspeople listening. In 1970, the first KFC opened in Japan. The manager of the first store apparently overheard some foreigners complaining that it was impossible to find Christmas food in the country – and he came up with a great idea.
Kentucky for Christmas. KFC would offer a party set of fried chicken on Christmas day – as a form of special Christmas food! There were no Christmas traditions in Japan at this time… KFC were the first. As they were the first to promote Christmas food in the country, they used adverts to tell millions of people that fried chicken was the best food to eat on the day.
They were very successful. In a non-Christian country, where people like to celebrate events but don’t have the day off work… a bucket of fried chicken is an easy and tasty thing to share! KFC were the first to target the Japanese audience at Christmas, and now it seems natural to eat fried chicken for millions of people!
Ukraine and Christmas Spider Webs
Decorating houses is a big part of Christmas and holiday celebrations around the world. From Christmas trees covered in shiny tinsel, lights, stars, and baubles, to miniature figures of Jesus and his family – there are a lot of Christmas decorations out there.
I found a quick list of popular Christmas decorations in the UK and USA. It included things like figures of Santa, snowmen, reindeer, and angels; candles; trees; Christmas stockings; and wreaths. If you were from Ukraine, there might be a slightly more unique decoration on your list… spider webs!
That’s right – spider webs or cobwebs… made by spiders to live in, move around, and capture their food. Most of us probably try to remove any spider webs from our houses before the holidays, but in Ukraine spider webs are part of Christmas tradition.
Ukrainians consider the spider web to be good luck. They will often decorate Christmas trees with artificial spider webs as a way of encouraging luck and fortune for the next year. How did this become a tradition?
Let me tell you a short Ukrainian legend…
Long ago there was a woman living with her children in a tiny old house. Outside of the house a pine tree started to grow. The children were excited that they could have a Christmas tree in the future, so they cared for the tree to make sure it grew to be strong and healthy.
However, the family were poor. They couldn’t afford decorations and went to bed sad on Christmas eve that their tree would be without decoration on Christmas day.
The spiders living in the old house heard the children crying because their tree wasn’t decorated, so during the night the spiders created the most beautiful webs all over the tree.
In the morning, the children woke to find their tree decorated in beautiful webs. As the sunlight hit the tree, the webs would shine gold and silver as if by magic.
The poor family didn’t feel so poor anymore!
This is why Ukrainians today like to decorate their Christmas trees with spider webs!
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Caganer: The Christmas Pooper
Ukraine is not the only place to have a unique Christmas decoration. Catalonia, a region in the northeast of Spain, has one of the most unusual.
A lot of Christian countries will have a type of decoration called a nativity scene. A nativity scene is a model representing the birth of Jesus – with different people, animals, angels, and features of the bible represented.
Both my parents and grandparents have nativity scenes in their houses during Christmas – and some places will have large models in public buildings. What is usually included in the nativity scene? Almost all of them will have figures representing the baby Jesus, his mother Mary, and her husband Joseph. And other common characters include sheep, shepherds, angels, donkeys, stars, and models of a barn.
Catalonia adds a unique character to the nativity scene… caganer. Caganer has to be seen to be believed. It is a pooping figure; a character going to the toilet in the nativity scene. The word caganer literally means “pooper” in the Catalan language. Usually, the figure will have his pants around his ankles, be bending over, and going to the toilet.
In Catalan areas, the caganer is a common and much-loved figure. But how did a pooping figure become a Christmas icon?
The caganer started appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia hundreds of years ago, but no one really knows why he is “pooping.” One theory is that it is a symbol of fertility, good luck, and good health. Another theory is that caganer represents evil and mischief – the opposite of the good in the rest of the nativity.
Today, the caganer is still popular. However, not everyone loves the cheeky character. When Barcelona decided to not include him in their nativity scene a few years ago, local people were angry and successfully had him return a year later!
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“Dinner for One” in Germany
The final tradition I want to talk about is very different. First, it is not a Christmas tradition but a New Year tradition. Second, it doesn’t seem weird on first glance – but it is something that has confused me since I first heard about it.
Every year, on New Year’s Eve, families across Germany gather together to watch an old comedy on TV. This isn’t that strange – TV traditions are common around the world. The comedy Germans traditionally watch is what I find interesting.
The German New Year tradition, maybe the most popular New Year tradition, is to watch an old black and white British comedy… that no British person has ever watched. It is called Dinner for One, and I’ll leave a link to a version on YouTube (it is only 10 minutes long) on the transcript.
It is an English comedy skit filmed in the 1960s. The elderly Miss Sophie is throwing a birthday party and has invited all of her friends… but is apparently oblivious to the fact all her friends have been dead for many years. Miss Sophie’s butler is responsible for serving food to the guests and drinking their drinks! As the dinner goes on, he gets drunker and drunker.
Many German people will know the comedy so well that they can repeat the lines word for word. It is watched every year by millions of people. But in the English-speaking world, no one has watched it! How did an obscure English comedy sketch become the most popular tradition in Germany?
Well, a Dinner for One was originally written in the 1920s and designed to be performed on stage. In 1962, a German entertainer saw it being performed in a club in the north of England and loved it so much that he invited the actors to record it for his TV show in Germany.
People in Germany loved this performance so much that it was regular repeated on TV in the 1960s, before becoming a regular New Year show in the 1970s. It is shown in other European countries as well, including in Switzerland, Austria, and Scandinavia. In 2017, apparently, 12 million Germans watched it on New Year’s Day.
Despite it being so popular in the German speaking world, no one in England knows about it. In fact, when a German TV station asked the BBC if they had ever thought about showing it in the UK, the BBC responded that they had never even heard of the show.
And to me, this is weird. It is weird that Germany is in love with an English comedy sketch that English speakers have no idea about!
Thank you for listening to Thinking in English in 2022! This is probably the last episode I will release this year – I’m going to take the final week of the year off.
I just want to say thank you for all of the support over the past 12 months. I can’t start to describe how much you have changed my life. A year ago, I had nothing – I was a research student who didn’t like what I was doing and had a podcast with no listeners. Today, there are tens of thousands of people who listen to me, support me, and have helped me to turn Thinking in English into my job.
Thank you all so much!
How do you celebrate Christmas in your country? How do you celebrate New Year in your country?
7 thoughts on “194. What is the Weirdest Holiday Tradition? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
Dressing up Christmas tree with cobwebs is not a Ukrainian tradition, but a Polish one. In Ukraine, it exists only where parts of this country were part of the Commonwealth and later Poland. For most of Ukraine there is no such tradition. In the USSR, Christmas trees for the New Year were decorated almost everywhere with a variety of tinsel, which can be considered as a prototype of the web, as an echo of that tradition, but this is not a fact at all. It would be interesting to know your source of information about this tradition, Tom.
I read at least six different articles saying it is an Eastern European tradition most prevalent in Western Ukraine?
And this video from the Ukrainian Culture and Education Centre – https://ms-my.facebook.com/oseredok/videos/have-you-ever-wondered-why-ukrainians-put-spider-webs-on-their-christmas-treeswe/416944353446409/
Please show me any evidence to say that I am wrong? If you search Christmas and spider webs online Ukraine is the only result
I looked at Polish sources. Yes, it looks like you’re right. Only this tradition, most likely, is still from Western Ukraine. Because in Eastern Ukraine I have not seen such decorations. Well, on the site it is written as if it is a national tradition, although it is regional.
You are wrong Trixter. I am from Poland and I have never heard about such tradition in Poland! I live in the south of Poland but I have a lot of friends from central and north Poland. Nobody decorates christmas tree with spider webs.
In the USSR and later in Russia there is also one film that is always shown on TV on December 31st. This is a satirical comedy “Irony of Fate” (https://imdb.com/title/tt0073179/). The plot of the film is that the main character on the eve of the New Year always went to the bathhouse with friends. But this time, he and his friends drank too much alcoholic beverages and he was mistakenly put on a flight to Leningrad (initially it takes place in Moscow), where the protagonist (surprise!) finds a street with exactly the same name, an apartment building that looks exactly the same, and even the key to his door went to the lock to the apartment with the same number! And in this apartment lived a middle-aged woman completely unfamiliar to him, who was preparing for the celebration of the New Year and was waiting for the arrival of her friends and her fiancé. The film is quite long, consisting of two episodes. Usually, many people turn it on in the background and at the same time prepare something for the festive table. But many people are already so fed up with the film that they immediately change the channel if they watch it on TV.
Hi Tom! Incredible the history about Caganer, hard to belive how people hang figures like that in christimas tree. In Brazil normaly we have a quote “Taste is not discussed”, probaly you have some quote similar in english. Change the subject, today I became supporter on Patreon plataform, anual! Cheerful 🙂 Just a wanna know where / how the conversation will happen, could you please explain? Thank you very much, best wishs and have a good holidays.
Thank you so much for joining. All the information is on Patreon, but we run the conversation club on Discord.
At the moment it is on Tuesday at 12pm and 6pm UK time, and we are going to be launching extra sessions in January 2023.