Festive traditions at universities around the world

Olivier Guiberteau
Olivier Guiberteau
Published on: 15 December 2020 • 5 min read

The longest year in history is nearly over. I’m well aware of the mathematical errors of that sentence, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. 2020 has managed to feel like at least five years, but as one of the most difficult years in memory draws to a close, the festive season is once again upon us. 

It’s difficult to imagine that this particular festive season is going to feel normal for many, but the show must go on.

Here are our selections of intriguing, wacky and sometimes downright bizarre festive traditions at universities around the world.   

1. Krampus - Germany/Austria/Czech Republic & other countries in Central Europe

After such a year, it’s perhaps appropriate that we begin with something a little creepy. For those of you who like your festive traditions all sweet and cuddly, this might be for you. Krampus is a fictional creature (we hope) often referred to as half-goat, half-demon. His role is to whip children who have misbehaved in the run-up to Christmas in the hope that they will mend their ways. He is probably the closest you’re going to get to the exact opposite of Santa Claus. 

Towns and cities across the Central Europe region traditionally hold parades with Krampus characters galavanting through the crowds, raising many a cheer and no doubt a little fear among the children. If you’re lucky enough to attend a university in one of these places, you can expect plenty of Krampus shenanigans as Christmas creeps closer.   

2. Romance & KFC - Japan

Associating romance with Christmas is at least understandable, but how exactly did Colonel Sanders become Japan’s number one Christmas tradition? Thanks to some nifty marketing during the 1970s KFC was able to persuade millions of Japanese that not only was Christmas about chicken but about KFC chicken. 

Since then the tradition for families to eat at the fast-food chain at, or in the run to, Christmas has never been higher. If you’re attending university in Japan, you can expect plenty of invitations to KFC.  

Away from the questionable chicken, Japanese Christmas has also become very much a romantic occasion with an unusually high number of proposals coming in the final month of the year. KFC and Love - a bizarre, yet oddly satisfying Christmas tradition.   

3. La Befana/Three Kings Day - Italy and Spain 

Whatever happened to the twelve days of Christmas? In the UK and USA, we’ve developed a habit for a speedy Christmas. Once Boxing Day is done and dusted in the UK, things quickly tend to revert back to normal - with the extravaganza (and hangover) of New Year’s Eve almost an afterthought. 

But in Italy with La Befana (5th January) and in Spain with its Three Kings Day (6th January), some of the biggest celebrations don’t even occur until the first week of January. While much of Europe is already struggling with their New Year resolutions, Italy and Spain hit their festive heights with parades, shows, presents and much more. Most universities won’t have re-opened by this point, but if you happen to be studying in one of these countries and have gone home for the holidays, this is a great reason to get back as quickly as possible. 

4. A Good Old American Christmas - USA 

While other countries might put on a wackier Christmas, you’d be pressed to find better university events than what is held across the U.S each festive period. Whether it’s the 87-year old Christmas Show as Perdue University with over 100 student performers, the University of Redlands Feast of Lights event that dates from 1909 or the Pacific Lutheran University focusing primarily on Scandinavian Christmas traditions, this is a time where American universities are at their charming best. 

Maybe it’s all the Christmas movies we watched as children, but a festive period in the United States is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. Big, bold - well over the top - but heartwarming nonetheless.  

5. Mari Lwyd - Wales 

OK, enough of the sentimental talk - this another strange one. Normally, if you were to see a horse's skull mounted on a pole with Christmas decorations jangling and a sheet hanging over it, you might well run. Mari Lwyd is a Welsh tradition that almost died out during the 19th Century but has been brought back in recent times. 

The horse’s skull is traditionally carried door to door by a group in fancy-dress singing Christmas songs, with the hope that those listening might grant them a little food or drink. This is one tradition that universities in Wales have taken to with great enthusiasm and there are even cases of it migrating across the border into England. Though, if you’ve never heard of Mari Lwyd before, opening your front door to find horse’s skull staring back at you, might well be the most terrifying few moments of your life.

6. Different Down Under - Australia

For many, when you think about the festive period you think of cold days, a roaring fire and a succulent turkey on the table. But down under, things are done very differently. For starters, it’s summer, and an Australian summer can be a real scorcher. 

Then there are trips to the beach and BBQs complete with that most un-Christmassy of foods, shrimps. Universities across Australia tend to hold numerous events in the lead up to Christmas, with carol services, concerts and even Santa runs on offer. 

But if you’re used to a northern hemisphere festive period, and with cold and a runny nose replaced with BBQs and t-shirt weather, this will be a Christmas quite unlike anything you will have seen. 

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Olivier Guiberteau
Written By
Olivier Guiberteau

Oli lives in London and is a writer and photographer.


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