Last week we learned that there are some Christmas traditions that make the Elf on the Shelf look like a cherubic angel instead of the beady-eyed serial killer he so clearly truly is. But if reading about all the bizarro holiday traditions out there that make the Elf look normal still didn't convince you to cave in to your kids' agitations for store-bought holiday magic, there's an alternative. From all around the world, here are eight different holiday traditions to re-ignite that Christmas spark without having to invest in your own copy of that little felt-and-wire tyrant.
1. Kentucky Fried Christmas
In Japan, a favorite Christmas Eve dinner is nothing other than a big ol' bucket of KFC. Like the Elf on the Shelf, this tradition was born out of a systematic marketing campaign, but unlike the Elf, it does not make me want to build my own rocketship to fly to Jupiter to celebrate Christmas separate from human society. If you're going to be hosting Christmas dinner together, you're going to be spending a lot of the day in the kitchen: getting dinner to go the night before is an amazing idea. I would make one small update to this tradition, though, and visit the local southern-food takeout joint, whose fried chicken is actually good. And who has never thought serving an entire fried chicken meal with the fixings in a single bowl was a neat idea.
2. La Befana
Italian children get some presents on the night of Epiphany from this friendly witch if they've been good. Traditionally, a glass of wine is left out for her, which beats the hell out of milk and cookies. As a witch, Befana naturally travels by broomstick, and she's reputed to sweep up in the household before she leaves. That's my kind of Christmas magic.
3. King Cake
I'm pretty sure I don't need an excuse beyond "cake" for wanting to adopt this tradition. Mostly found in French-speaking parts of the world, the types of filling and decoration vary from region to region, but usually a small choking hazard figurine is baked into the cake. Whoever finds the figurine becomes King or Queen for the night, so depending on how tyrannical your kids are, that can either mean you let them make the rules until bedtime, or that they just get an extra scoop of ice cream. When in doubt, play it safe, so that you don't accidentally become the victim of a king-cake induced coup d'état.
If you're too worried about accidentally inhaling a miniature plastic baby Jesus figure during dessert, but you still want cake, I suggest you try the Italian equivalent, panettone, instead. The cake is made with citrus zest and raisins, so if you're one of my fellow philistines who insists on adding raisins to your Thanksgiving stuffing, this should be right up your alley.
4. St. Lucy
Part of the lead-up to the Christmas season, St. Lucy's day is celebrated in Scandinavia - Lucy's name comes from the Latin word for "light", which is something in short supply in Norway, Finland, and Sweden come December. (And Wisconsin, for that matter.) In Sweden, the oldest daughter in each family dresses up as Saint Lucy with a crown of candles, and wakes up her family on December 13, St. Lucy's Day, by bringing them coffee and pastries. (Boys can also get in on the action by dressing up as stars or carrying lanterns.) I like the breakfast-in-bed theme of this holiday, although the prospect of putting lit candles on my kid's head makes me nervous. Maybe someone can invent a crown made out of mini-flashlights instead?
5. Patinatas Navideñas
Parts of Venezuela see entire streets shut down for Christmas block parties called patinatas that feature music and caroling, roller skating, Christmas light displays, and even fireworks. Sure, it's colder here than in Caracas, but I'd still rather go outside to share a cup of wassail with the neighbors than spend a millisecond of my time arranging a toy Elf so it looks like he's pooping mints into a toilet.
6. Christmas pyramids/angel chimes
Christmas pyramids and angel chimes are two variations on the same Christmas theme: a candle-lit ornament with a propeller turned by Christmas magic. Christmas magic and the rising hot air warmed by the candle flame, that is. But mostly Christmas magic. We had one of these when I was little, so I'm overly sentimental about it, and I don't have anything to say except that I'd 110% rather light one of these and sing a Christmas carol every night during Advent than have to concoct a scheme for that dumb Elf.
If you're expected to be awake for midnight mass, you could 1.) take a nap and try to rest up, or 2.) get together with your family for a delicious, hours-long meal with great wine and, depending on your family, either great conversation or great excuses to take your blood pressure medication. Either way, you shouldn't have a problem staying awake till midnight.
8. Mari Lwyd
Finally, for those parents considering Elf on the Shelf solely to scare their kids into being good for Christmas: have you considered shaking a horse skull in their faces instead? The Mari Lwyd is a Welsh tradition in which a horse's skull is mounted on a pole because, you know ... reasons. The skull is then carried from house to house, and pub to pub, by carolers, who are rewarded with wassail, song, general carousing, and plentiful opportunities to scare the bejeesus out of children. The horse skull represents the death of the old year, or the long and dark days of winter, or shitting your pants in abject terror. Something like that. Merry Christmas, everyone!