Continental Cousins

Life & Living

By Charlie Smith-Knight


Can you hear it? Much like the jungle drums signal the start of a game of Jumanji, the palpable opening beats of the Band Aid classic, do in fact, make sure we know it’s Christmas time. Back in 1995, I am frantically circling things I want in the Argos catalogue and getting ready to hang my pillowcase on the end of my bed because we didn’t have Christmas stockings or a fireplace- Santa had a key to our house. Up and down the country, families are partaking in their own holiday traditions; preparing to drag a tree into their living room, setting the table with Christmas crackers and keeping a silver penny by to bake into a Christmas pudding. Thanks to Queen Victoria, none of those things seem odd to us, having become quintessential staples of British Christmases since the glory days of her reign. But much like Eurovision, there are some things our Continental cousins can teach us about their own unique Christmas customs. 

Krampus of Austria

Buckle up for this one, Krampus is essentially the anti-Santa of Alpine folklore. A horned creature, Krampus is the bad cop to Santa’s good cop, a partnership akin to Riggs and Murtaugh. Whilst kindly Saint Nick awards good children with fruit, chocolate and nuts, Krampus dishes out punishment to those on the naughty list by beating them with birch rods. Think Simon Cowell with a whip and cloven hooves. Thought to have origins either in the Bavarian ‘krampn’ meaning dead or rotten or the German ‘krampen’ meaning claw, this hairy beast can still be seen in traditional parades. In Tirol, Austria, men dress up in real animal hide costumes and wooden masks for their annual procession through town. Krampus is known to rattle chains and carry a basket in order to abduct the worst behaved boys and girls. Not for the faint of heart but possibly a useful ally in the perpetual negotiation that is parenthood. Krampus is likely to get the kids to tidy their rooms faster than the promise of some V Bucks.    

The Witches of Norway

Like many other European countries, Norway’s main Christmas celebrations occur on December 24th. Decorations are made for the tree, presents are exchanged and the big dinner is consumed. Then the superstitious hide all the brooms before bedtime. With roots in Paganism, some Norwegians still hide their brooms to stop witches and mischievous spirits from taking flight on Christmas Eve. Because in Norway witches aren’t just for Halloween, they’re also for Christmas. 

The Yule Lads of Iceland

Coming in like the So Solid Crew of Icelandic Christmases, are the Yule Lads. Over the 13 nights in the run up to Christmas, 13 different ‘lads’ visit the children of Iceland. With names like Pot Licker, Doorway Sniffer and Window Peeper, you’re guaranteed they are some interesting characters. Each night the children leave a shoe on their windowsill and can expect to receive either sweets or rotten potatoes depending on their behaviour. Despite coming in more instalments than the Fast and Furious franchise and utilising various means of theft to harass the population of Iceland, these mischievous fellows are actually less concerning than their folklore matriarch, Grýla, who, legend has it, comes to town to grab the naughtiest children and take them back to the mountains to boil in a stew. In comparison, Gully Gawk and his predilection for stealing milk, seems like a sleigh ride in the snow. You see what I did there. 

The spiders of the Ukraine

Once upon a time a Ukrainian widow lived with her children beside a large tree. When a smaller tree started growing from a pinecone that fell from the larger one, the children wanted to cut it down for Christmas. Having brought it into the house, the widow was dismayed that she had no ornaments to decorate the tree for her children. The spiders of their little house heard the soft cries of the mother and set to work spinning beautiful silken webs around the tree. In the morning, the widow and her children were enchanted by the glittering silver mesh encompassing their humble tree. The widow no longer felt sad and instead appreciated the gifts she had in life. Modern day Ukrainians still dress their trees with cobwebs in faith that they will bring good luck. No matter your belief system, it’s hard to dispute that this bewitching bedtime tale of modest appreciation is a palette cleanser that serves to counterbalance the commercially driven nature of this time of year. 


So, as the warm up vocal exercises of Michael Bublé herald the coming festivities across our rain-lashed island, it’s time to lean into this most magical season of all and embrace the celebrations. Whatever your beliefs, or not as the case may be, I hope you find the time for your own rituals this year. I shall be raising my Slade hymn book for an off-key singalong, whilst decorating my real fir tree, whose pine needles will stick in my carpet and my husband’s last nerve for the next 4 weeks. From the bottom of my 80’s born heart, I wish you and your loved ones a Womblin’ Merry Christmas.