Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Let’s Go Abroad For Christmas

A giant tree with little white ornaments shaped like Godzilla and shooting smoke from its mouth. It's in a mall and people are looking down on it from a railing.

As an alternative to the standard ho-ho-ho-ing most of us are used to at this time of year, I decided to explore what people in other parts of the world do for the holidays. As it turns out, some celebrations sound like way too much fun, others seem potentially hazardous to life and limb, some are just plain enviable and many are deeply strange (from an American standpoint anyway). Here are a few of them:

A young Japanese woman in a Santa-style outfit holding a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There is a red background with white Japanese lettering.

Let’s begin with Japan: The Japanese have long embraced the quirky way of doing things and their Christmas celebrations are no different. I think it’s safe to say you won’t find a Godzilla Christmas tree anywhere else. Christmas is a bit like Valentine’s Day in this non-Christian country; presents are given between lovers and going out for romantic dinners is the thing to do. The “it” place to dine -Kentucky Fried Chicken (it’s a long story, but suffice to say a 70’s marketing scheme worked better than anyone could have imagined – more on that here).

Workers in Bolivia and Brazil get extra pay in December. In Bolivia, it’s known as El Aguinaldo (The Bonus) and is mandated by law. 
These countries have large
Santa Claus riding on a bicycle in a small gray alley. There are people in the foreground watching his approach.populations of underpaid and underrepresented workers, so this money must be tremendously appreciated at Christmastime. In Rio de Janeiro, Santa braves the favelas each year to make sure no child there is missed.

In Sweden, Yule goats (small goats made from straw) are a traditional decoration. Back in 1966, the town of Gävle decided to create something spectacular to draw people to their downtown. So they built a straw goat that is over 42 feet tall and 26 feet long. The original Gävle Goat was burned down on New Year’s Eve of that year, but was re-built the next year. Every year since, someone has tried to burn the poor thing down. In 52 years, the goat has been burned down 36 times, a clear win for the burners. These days, the goat can be monitored by webcam, but that didn’t prevent it from being torched in 2016, it just made for a nice clear video of it burning. Let’s see who wins this year.

A giant straw goat statue dusted with snowA large effigy of the Devil is burning in a bonfire.A man is bending down and adding something to the fire.Guatemala has its own burning tradition in December, La Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil). On December 7, people gather to burn effigies of the Devil and party around the bonfires. It is an old tradition that is found in other Latin American countries and is seen as a way to clean out the bad/evil from the previous year in anticipation of starting out fresh in the New Year.

Santa Claus zooming by on roller skates with a large red bag over his shoulderFurther south in Venezuela (Caracas, to be exact), they have developed an interesting way to get to church on Christmas – they roller-skate. The origins of this custom may be somewhat murky, but nowadays it is firmly a part of Christmas in Caracas. The government even closes streets down early Christmas morning so large groups of people can skate safely to mass. This light-heartedness extends to the rest of their day as people gather in the streets to eat, dance and party in general.

A snowy cemetery with large trees and lights illuminating graves all around
Finland has a Christmas custom that is very similar to El Dia de los Muertos in Latin America. There is a traditional belief that departed family members return to visit after dark on Christmas Eve, so Finns go to the cemetery and place lights on the grave to light their journey. Crowds can be huge in the larger cemeteries, to the point where police are assigned to keep traffic and visitors in line. The lights and snow combine to make hauntingly beautiful images.

A giant statue of a man defecating. It is in a mall and he is wearing a Santa hat, blue jeans, white shirt and grey vest.And now for something less reverent: people in Catalonia may not have the same Nativity scene most people are familiar with. In this part of Spain they have something a little extra tucked away in a corner–El Caganer (The Crapper). There you will see a figure relieving himself. Although this is another custom with unclear roots, it is commonly seen to be a symbol of good luck. In the past El Caganer figures were male and dressed in traditional Catalan clothing, but these little figures have been swallowed up into the pop culture universe and are available as politicians, celebrities and many other things. See here for more statues pooping than you could have ever dreamed existed. Apparently small El Caganer figures are not enough, in 2010 a mall in Barcelona sported a 19 foot tall figure. Hopefully it was far away from the food court.

Two large trees with red flowers on grassy field overlooking the ocean, There is a bench under the tree on the left.People in New Zealand don’t have any customs quite as extraordinary as a scatological statue, but they have a special Christmas tree, the Pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excels). Known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, this large and beautiful tree blooms with vivid red flowers in December and January (summer in that part of the world). It is a staple in Kiwi Christmas cards and decorations and has deep meaning to the native Maori. Sitting under one of these on a warm Christmas Day does sound inviting. On another note, it seems that Santa Claus may not get milk and cookies from Kiwi kids, beer and pineapple chunks are often on the menu instead. I’ll bet he goes there last.

So, pick your favorite custom and let’s go abroad for Christmas!

Submitted by Pam

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