This Christmas, replace chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with straw goats, rollerskates, and St. Nick’s demonic alter ego by venturing abroad for the holiday. Travelers interested in discovering such unique international Christmas traditions should plan a trip to one of the following four destinations this year.
1) Vienna, Austria
For centuries, Austrian children have been taught the difference between naughty and nice by Krampus, a half-goat/half-demon beast who beats misbehaving kids with a bundle of sticks. The creature’s name comes from the German word for “claw” and the legend itself if centuries-old, and was created as a counterpart to jolly St. Nicholas, who rewards children with sweets. Krampus shows up the night of December 5, Krampusnacht (“Krampus Night”), as December 6 is St. Nicholas Day. Today, those interested in a unique spectacle should plan a trip to Vienna for December 5, when Vienna hosts a Krampusnacht Festival, where visitors can join in with young men and women as they dress up as Krampus (and enjoy a drink or two) for a nighttime party. Visitors to Vienna should check out the affordable yet chic Falkenstein Hotel Wien Margareten or the Lindner Hotel am Belvedere, both located in the heart of the city.
2) Caracas, Venezuela
Those wishing to combine a workout with Christmas Mass should consider a visit to Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas. Bring your roller skates, because every year from December 16 to December 24, streets are blocked off before 8 a.m. as residents roller skate to Mass. Children are expected to go to bed extra early on these nights, and will tie one end of a string to their big toe and hang the other end out of a window – so that passing roller skaters can affectionately tug on the strings as they roll by! At the end of Mass celebrations, revelers share coffee and tostados with each other. On Christmas Eve, known as Nochebuena, families sit down to a huge feast after midnight mass. Travelers interested in experiencing this unique community’s traditions should consider staying in downtown Caracas, in the glamorous but affordable Gran Melia Caracas or the Eurobuilding Hotel and Suites.
3) Gavle, Sweden
The town of Gavle, Sweden has marked the beginning of the holiday season for the last 40 years by building a straw goat, one the town calls the “biggest Christmas goat in the world!” The strange tradition began in 1966, when a man named Stig Gavlen decided to create a giant version of a Swedish tradition – a straw Christmas goat. The purpose was to draw customers to the shops and restaurants in the center of the town. That first Christmas, the 40+ foot long goat stood on the town square, and at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, went up in smoke! Since then, vandals try to burn the goat down every year, succeeding 25 times since 1966. The goat itself becomes increasingly modern every year; nowadays he has a presence on social media, with an Instagram and Twitter page! Visitors hoping to witness this quirky tradition should check out the four-star Elite Grand Hotel Gavle or the Clarion Hotel Winn, in the heart of downtown.
4) Cardiff, Wales
Travel to Cardiff this Christmas and observe the Mari Lwyd (Welsh for “grey mare”), a pre-Christian tradition meant to bring good luck. Villagers would take a horse’s skull, decorate it with colorful bells and ribbons, and wrap it with a white sheet and carry it around on a pole. A singing procession would accompany the Mari Lwyd from door-to-door, and challenge residents into battles of rhyming insults. At the end of this battle of wits (called “pwnco” in Welsh), the procession would be invited into the home for refreshments. While the old tradition has died out in many parts of Wales, it’s made a comeback of sorts in recent years and visitors can head to the St. Fagans National History Museum for a modern revival. Visitors to Cardiff should try staying in the affordable and conveniently-located Hilton Cardiff or Copthorne Hotel Cardiff-Caerdydd.