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Christmas in the UK, where I grew up, thrives on tradition. Although conventionally considered a Christian celebration, a British Christmas has roots in ancient pagan festivals, subsequently layered with influences from around the world. In today's cosmopolitan (and largely secular) Britain, December 25th concerns itself as much with the Eastenders Omnibus as it does the birth of Christ.
I wanted to know more about Christmas traditions in the rest of the world, so I asked a very well-travelled group of bloggers: the Lonely Planet Blogsherpas. Here's what they told me:
Christmas Traditions in the Netherlands: Zwarte Piet & Sinterklaas
First off the blocks is the Zwarte Piet ("Black Peter") tradition in the Netherlands. On December 5th, weeks before I've even thought about starting my Christmas shopping list, the Dutch paint their faces black and wait for the arrival of Sinterklaas himself. As Jeff from Big City Blog says "the celebration is simultaneously fun, innocent, and mildly horrifying. Think of it as a plate of holiday goodness, with a dash of racism from yesteryear." Zwarte Piet, he explains, represents the devil, a slave or a chimney sweep, depending on who you're talking to...
Apparently Britain isn't the only country to set its food on fire at Christmas! Nellie from Wild Junket explains how festivities in Germany involve "boiling a huge tub of mulled wine at home, placing a gigantic cone of sugar on top and then drenching it completely with rum before setting it on fire."
She also talks about my favourite Christmas treat, stollen cake, a loaf-shaped fruitcake littered with nuts, raisins, candied citrus peel, spices, and dusted with icing sugar." This, apparently, represents baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes...
Add in the glühwein, the handmade gifts, the Christmas markets and the snowy landscape and I think I've worked out where I'd love to spend Christmas next year...
True to stereotype, Italy goes wild about food at Christmas. Against stereotype, they start early. As Cherrye from My Bella Vita explains, Italy gets the party started on 8th December with the Immacolata, a day that commemorates the conception of Mary. They build up momentum by serving up the main meal, the cenone, on Christmas Eve instead of waiting until Christmas Day. In Calabria, expect seafood salad, pasta with clams or mussels, cheese, olives, wine and grilled fish. Also, "no Christmas Eve dinner is complete without sauteed broccoli rape." After all that, there's still seasonal fruit and sweet panettone and torrone to come!
On Christmas Day,Babbo Natale brings presents for the children and then everyone bundles on over to Grandma's for another five or six course meal. Sounds terrible...
Britain simply oozes with tradition at Christmas, from the Queen's Speech to leaving a sherry out for Father Christmas and a carrot somewhere for Rudolph. Heather from Heather on Her Travels talks about the main meal: lunch on 25th December:
"For a British Christmas lunch, the plates are groaning under legs of turkey, stuffing, roasties and mini sausages on the side with the brussel sprouts and a few other veg and then lashings of gravy, bread sauce and cranberry sauce too. We pull the crackers, wear the silly paper crowns and tell the corny jokes. For desert there’s always a boozy Christmas pudding with some lucky sixpences inside, that we attempt to flame with brandy if we remember to buy some, although everyone secretly prefers Nigella’s pomegranate pavlova."
The US, with its melting pot of global cultures, throws in and mixes up a bit of everything. Christmas involves turkey, gluhwein and Santa Claus. Shopping can become a "consumer feeding frenzy," according to Sean Oliver on Pocket Cultures.
"The hectic month-long American Holiday Season" lines up Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year in quick succession, so "it’s great for parents to have the threat of Santa Claus to calm down overly-excited children!"
The Philippines are "abuzz with celebration as soon as the calendar hits the '-ber' months," according to Claire from First Time Travels. "There are parties and reunions left and right with gift-giving as the main activity. Highways are filled with Christmas lights and Christmas lanterns, while children go house to house (or car to car) to sing carols."
The main event, however, doesn't seem to be Christmas Day. It's nine days before at Simbang Gabi or Misa de Gallo, when locals reenact the nativity scene at a dawn mass.
While the chubby guy in red velvet trousers sure travels a lot, he doesn't make it everywhere. Despite sharing an English name with a prominent Christmas tradition, Turkey passes on the chance to overeat and wear tinsel. "I haven’t seen any Santas, Reindeer, Elves, or icons of anyone other than the founding father of modern Turkey," says Vago on Vagobond. "And trust me, no one better think about putting a Santa hat on him."
Yet apparently, the place looks like "Christmas" does elsewhere all year round. "In Manisa, they have these red and green tulip lights that are on all the light poles. In the town square there is a huge thing that is really just a big lit pole but ...it sure looks like a Christmas tree."
So, you're miles from home at Christmas and wondering what to do. Get inspired by Benny from Sunset Mood who booked himself onto a boat trip in Vietnam, Julie from A Lady in London who ended up feeling festive at a Christmas Fair in London and Jason from Alpaca Suitcase who found that fellow travellers brought his children a slice of Christmas cheer. As for Barefoot Inked, they built a gingerbread house in Australia.
No, I haven't been sipping too much mulled wine. As Jennifer on Orange Polka Dot explains, a traditional nativity scene in Catalunya involves a caganer,a figure at the back, poised mid-poo. I'd seen these for sale around Andalucia but it wasn't until I'd read Jennifer's post that I realised the full extent of Christmas defecation in the north of Spain: I hadn't heard about the caga tió.
"A caga tió has no ordinary poop.. if you treat him well, he will poop candies and turrones. But wait, in order for him to poop properly, he needs to be hit with a big stick while you chant for him to poop chocolate, turrón and plead for no sardines."
By now, it's easy to see that Christmas can span a good six weeks - and I'm not the first to notice this, as this beautiful post on Sophie's World points out. In Rome, children look out for the befana...
"On their way to Bethlehem, the magi stop by her house, the cleanest in the village, and ask for shelter for the night. When leaving the next morning, they invite her to join their search for a special baby. Befana declines, she’s too busy cleaning. After they leave, she thinks for a bit – and decides to go along after all. She finishes her work and follows the men. But she’s too late. She never finds the baby.
Come 6 January, Epiphany, she’s still flying about on her broom, searching. On that day, Italian children leave a glass of wine and some nibbles for la befana. And she, in turn, leaves a present for the children in every house she looks. After all, anyone of them might be baby Jesus."
The enterprising global child can therefore stretch the gift-giving season across an entire month...
Do you know of any other interesting Christmas traditions across the world?