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These are some Christmas traditions around the world, from fistfights to KFC

In this Dec. 25, 2015, photo, Karen Quispe prepares to fight another woman for sport at the <em>Takanakuy</em> ritual fighting event on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Taking part in the fights is voluntary, and no one is obligated to accept a challenge. But by refusing to participate, the challenged party automatically acknowledges the superiority of their rival.
Martin Mejia
In this Dec. 25, 2015, photo, Karen Quispe prepares to fight another woman for sport at the Takanakuy ritual fighting event on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Taking part in the fights is voluntary, and no one is obligated to accept a challenge. But by refusing to participate, the challenged party automatically acknowledges the superiority of their rival.

In the U.S., holiday season customs can range from the cozy to the confounding, like sharing a kiss under the poisonous and parasitic plant, mistletoe.

Around the world, the traditions are as diverse as the countries in which they originated. From flying fists to crispy chicken wings, here's a look at some of the interesting ways in which people celebrate the Christmas season and beyond.

A fistfighting festival in Peru

Christmas Day in Santo Tomás, Peru, starts off as families make their way to church. But later that morning, and into the afternoon, is the time for Takanakuy, a series of organized fistfights. Takanakuy means "to strike" in Quechua, an indigenous language spoken in the Andes Mountains region of Peru.

The festival is an opportunity for friends, families, neighbors and business partners to settle their differences outside of the courts, which can be difficult to access for Peruvians living in rural Santo Tomás.

There are typically at least a couple dozen fights that day. Participants – who usually include men in their 20s and 30s, but also women and teenagers – are not able to fight before Takanakuy. Before the match, they must announce who they are fighting and why, and embrace.

Each fight lasts from five to 10 minutes. Opponents cannot hit each other while one person is on the ground, there are no weapons allowed, and a referee will call the fight if it begins leaning too far in one person's favor.

Those who are elderly or have disabilities, or otherwise cannot fight, can have someone fight on their behalf. The person who loses must publicly apologize to the town. Both parties must again embrace after the fight.

"But the assumption if you agree to fight during Takanakuy is that you announce the umbrage or the offense, and then after the fight, regardless of who wins, you're supposed to hug, make peace in the town square, and you make a promise to the villagers that the dispute is over," said Dr. Raymond March of North Dakota State University.

The day is punctuated by a big feast.

The very beginning of the festival is hard to trace, March said, but he estimates it dates back to the 1600s when conquistadors began taking over indigenous land in the Andes mountains to mine for minerals.

"You start to have instances where conflicts naturally arise," March said. "And there's not a clear way to resolve that."

So in some instances, disputes over land were settled with fistfights.

Now, about 8,500 people celebrate Takanakuy, March estimates. It has spread to some nearby cities, but most people come to Santo Tomás to partake.

Over the years, there has been resistance toward the event from the Catholic Church and people living in bigger cities, like Cusco. Opponents say Takanakuy is "barbaric ... antiquated, not helpful [and] against Christmas spirit, to say the least," March said.

But settling disputes in a courthouse means traveling to Cusco, which can take up to a week and a half, as buses travel to Santo Tomás infrequently.

"It is a way to end the dispute so it doesn't go year after year and involve more people and disrupt public life," March said. "So in that instance, it does work. Whereas, in the Peruvian court system, it's not clear that will happen."

"They fight, but then they agree that the grievance is over and they're going to make peace after that," he added. "And in that regard, it does have somewhat of a festive flair to it."

Pilgrims chant during the celebration of Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas at Saint Mary's Church in Lalibela on Jan. 7, 2023.
Amanuel Sileshi / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Pilgrims chant during the celebration of Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas at Saint Mary's Church in Lalibela on Jan. 7, 2023.

A January Christmas in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, for many, Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 7, in a celebration known as Ganna.

It's in January because Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar, while much of the world uses the Gregorian calendar.

Ganna is the conclusion of a 45-day fasting period that begins in late November. It is celebrated by most Christians in Ethiopia, but especially by Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians, said Amlaku Eshetie, an Amharic language lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Overall, Ganna, or Christmas, is celebrated by all Christians all over Ethiopia, though there could be some minor variations in the intensity and style of celebrations from region to region or tribes to tribes," he said.

The fast, in which celebrants refrain from eating meat and dairy, commemorates the Fast of the Prophets, who fasted for 44 days in anticipation for the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the Tewahedo Church has added an extra day of fasting.

On Christmas Eve, people dress in all white and gather for church service, which ends around 3 to 4 a.m., Eshetie said. People then go home to sleep and break their fast with a light meal.

"Next, the actual traditional celebration will begin," Eshetie said. "Traditionally, holidays in Ethiopia are more social or communal than religious. ... Yet, the social part of the celebration continues for days!"

Families and neighbors gather, and sometimes, a bull might be slaughtered and divided among various people or eaten together. Traditional Ethiopian meals, such as Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew, and Kitfo, finely minced beef seasoned with hot spices and butter, are prepared.

The Amharic term for Christmas is Lidet, though Ganna has since become synonymous with the holiday, as it is a game that is believed to have been played by shepherds after hearing Jesus was born. The game is similar to golf and is still played.

"To deeply understand the what, how and why of Ganna holiday, it's essential to understand the Ethiopian seasons and weather, the history and practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the cultures of the Ethiopian people in general," Eshetie said.

KFC for dinner in Japan

Christmas is the busiest time of year for KFC in Japan, as, per tradition, many families get their holiday dinner from the restaurant.

The tradition started around 1974, but there are a couple theories within the company about how it began. One is that a store manager dressed up as Santa Claus and delivered chicken to a Japanese school. The kids enjoyed it, so he launched an advertising campaign. Another is that Japanese people began buying KFC during the holidays because turkeys weren't easily available. Though, neither of the theories has been confirmed, KFC Japan said.

Merry White, a food anthropologist and professor at Boston University, lived in Japan in the 1960s, when there was no KFC.

KFC Japan was founded in 1970, and for many years was seen as more of a date night spot. A recession in Japan made people turn to the restaurant as a way to feed their families, White said.

Regardless of how the tradition came to be, each year KFC Japan runs an advertising campaign from Dec. 23 to Christmas Day. Since 1985, it has sold special "Party Barrels," which contain KFC Original Recipe fried chicken, gratin and cake.

Christmas is KFC Japan's busiest time of year. It said it had 2 million customers last year from Dec. 23 to 25. Those few days brought in about 6 billion yen, or $41 million, in 2022.

Spiders on Christmas trees in Ukraine

In Ukraine, some of those who celebrate Christmas hang pavuki, or "spiders" made from materials such as straw, beads and wire, a tradition rooted in the belief that they will bring prosperity to those who participate.

There are quite a few theories on how the custom came to be.

Natalie Kononenko, a folklorist at the University of Alberta who does fieldwork in Ukraine, says there are two origin stories.

One stems from a folktale about a poor family who could not afford Christmas gifts for their children. The dad brings home a fir tree that spiders have woven webs onto. The family is scared at first, but in the morning, the webs have turned to silver, bringing them good fortune.

In the second story, Ukrainians weave wheat straws together "to ensure a good crop of wheat in the following year," Kononenko said.

Robert Romanchuk, who teaches Slavic at Florida State University, cited a Ukrainian folk calendar written by Vasyl Tymofiyovych Skurativskyi in 1993 that says straw spiders were first hung on roofbeams in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine.

Christmas trees are a fairly new tradition in Ukraine, and with time and the immigration of Ukrainians to other parts of the world, people likely began hanging the spiders on trees as well as around the house, Romanchuk said.

"This would explain why Ukrainians from Ukraine (including those from Ivano-Frankivsk) are mystified and even upset by these displays, but diaspora Ukrainians maintain that they are traditional," Romanchuk said. "In a sense, both are right."

While some Ukrainians may still make the spiders by hand, others may choose to buy premade spider and spiderweb ornaments.

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Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]