Right off the bat, I need to admit something. I am an Elf Mom. No, don’t click away! Look, at first I only put it on literal shelves and in high places. Then I felt the Pinterest pressure and tried to step up my game with a few Barbie car rides and Goldfish cracker fishing. Now, three years in, I am in the basement creating Elf-Zilla, the elf who is hell bent on destroying the Lego Friends’ village. He breathes paper fire. (No, I don’t have a lot of local friends. Why do you ask?)
Anyway, while I actively participate, I can understand why it rubs some people the wrong way. It is kind of a creepy way to get kids to behave (though somewhere between the doll check-ups and the My Little Pony party, we completely dropped the behavior element of our elf.) Also, it’s annoying- for every night I am trying to transform him into Harry Potter, there is another night where I am exhausted and just throw him into the tree. Plus, the damn thing is $30. With $30, I could buy something awesome for myself, like materials for a hobby I apparently desperately need. So, here in the US, with our expensive felt nark, we have the market cornered on weird Christmas traditions, right?
Wrong! The world is a treasure trove of weirdness!
The Christmas Pickle:
There is some confusion as to whether this is a German or American tradition. Regardless, focus on the pickle. Basically, there is a glass pickle ornament somewhere on the tree Christmas morning. Whoever finds the pickle is thought to have a year of good fortune, and in some households, receive an extra present. Extra present, you say? This means one of my kids would yell “Pickle fight!” and ornaments would go flying. Awesome.
Yule Cat or Jólakötturinn:
Iceland’s answer to getting kids to do their chores and to appreciate boring gifts. Icelanders apparently put a lot of stock in hard work, and the mark of a good worker is new clothes at Christmas. Lazy friends do not get a new piece of clothing. The Icelandic monster cat was said to then eat those without new clothes. That really puts that box of socks into perspective. Also, at least my elf hasn’t threatened to eat us… yet.
In Latvia, there are mummers for winter solstice. We have those in Philly too. Half of our Mummers are hard core professionals and the other half drink, throw beads, and relieve themselves in alleyways. It makes for an interesting parade and awesome questions from your preschooler. In Latvia, they dress as a wide range of animals, fortune tellers and corpses, while going from house-to-house singing and asking for food and drinks. Hostesses oblige, as it is said to bring blessings to their households and frighten away evil. Want to scare your kids? Dress your Elf as a corpse singing for food!
The Yule Goat:
In Scandinavia, there is a Yule Goat. Mixing pagan and Christmas traditions, men in costumes, including one dressed as a demanding goat, would walk in the village singing, dancing and playing pranks. At one point in their history, Scandinavians believed the Yule goat brought the Christmas gifts. Today, the Yule Goat is a straw Christmas ornament. The best part? Many towns and cities create giant Yule goats which are often illegally burned before Christmas. As a bonus, I got to learn a fun phrase today- “BrinnBockjävel” which apparently means “Burn, fucking goat!” Merry Christmas!
Finally, we have the Catalan tradition of the CagaTio. The CagaTio is a log with a cheerful face panted on one end. Kids take care of him from December 8th until Christmas Eve by covering his backend with a blanket and “feeding” him orange peels to fatten him up. The fatter the blanket appears to grow, the more presents the kids can hope to get. And how do the kids get the presents? Well, the children get sticks and beat the log to help it poop out gifts! There’s even a song about helping the log along, with a line that roughly translates to “If you don’t poop well, I’ll hit you with a stick!” After they beat him for a while, the kids lift the blanket and discover their presents.
Kind of puts Elf on a Shelf in perspective, huh? Now these little guys can be traced back to 19th century Scandinavia before we took them and made them into a marketing tool. Imagine what we could do with logs that poop presents… The books! The accessories! The promotional opportunities – I am thinking a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade float! Who’s with me? Oh, no one? Well then, I guess it’s back to fashioning an elf top hat. He’s the mayor of the Munchkin City tonight. (No, I don’t get out much. Why do you keep bringing that up?)