Christmas

Born Into Exile

IMG_1232-225x300.jpg

Christmas with the family this year was one of the best we've ever had. As the patriarch of a gathering of thirteen people, I was filled with joy and gratitude to watch the love flow between my sons, their wives and girlfriend, and their offspring. It probably helped that our Christmas dinner was actually a relatively simple but tasty brunch, eliminating some of the stress of cooking. But for my wife and me, Christmas also carried with it a new dimension, shaped by our experiences last summer with the European refugee crisis. I thought I would share with you the contents of the note that accompanied the ornament, pictured here, we gave to each of our three sons and their families:

Last summer we were forever changed.

As the European refugee crisis began to gain more and more international attention, we began to realize how little we really knew about the complexities of the situation. We decided we needed to understand better, and up close.

Having very little idea what to expect, we signed up to meet up with a team from Servant Group International to work with refugees in Athens. “Work” is a relatively loose term here – if we did any work, it was nothing more than helping with some meal preparation and giving some English lessons. What we mostly did was observe and learn from the Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees we encountered. Some we met at the tent camps at the port of Pyraeus. Others we met at the “squats” – abandoned buildings such as schools, where they had set up tents in the classrooms.

We heard stories of heart-wrenching trauma. We talked to people who were successful, upstanding citizens in their home country before they were forced to flee and leave everything behind. We listened on the verge of tears to accounts of the harrowing, multi-leg journey to where we now sat together. And more than once we were on the receiving end of hospitality that put us to shame.

We quickly learned that many of the refugees we befriended had loves ones waiting for them in Germany, so we decided to follow two or three of the stories and look up some of these loved ones in Berlin. We were mostly successful, and gratified and saddened at the same time to witness the separation first-hand.

Being in Germany brought back a number of family memories, one in particular related to Christmas. Some time in the early 90’s we found ourselves in the so-called “Christmas Village” of Ravensburg, where we wandered, with Jonathan and Michael, through numerous shops filled with more Christmas paraphernalia than you can imagine. In one shop in particular, we walked slowly through a somewhat cramped and cluttered maize of merchandise until it suddenly opened up to a cavernous wonderland of toys, reindeer, winter scenes and countless lights. It was a Disney-esque, sensory overload, especially for a four-year-old. Said four-year-old was so overcome, he had no words to express what he was witnessing. “This is…this is…” and when no other words would come, he coined a word that would live on in Durham family lore: “FLYTUS!”

In Berlin we now found ourselves in a similar Christmas store. As memories of Ravensburg came flooding back, we made our way through the extensive stock of ornaments and other Christmas trappings, hoping to find something that would remind us at future Christmases of our impacting experience with the refugees. We were about to give up when we came across the ornament in this box. It spoke volumes to us:

The love of God become incarnate in Jesus, who along with his parents, began his life as a refugee. It reminded us that for all our efforts to understand the plight of the displaced, no one identifies more with them – or with any of us – than He.

And we will never be the same.

Explaining Christmas

Explaining Christmas
Explaining Christmas

I’ve found myself wondering of late what someone from a relatively unchristianized country might think of the American celebration of Christmas. The dialogue might sound something like this:

“Well, see, it’s like this. The two most important people at Christmas time are Santa Claus and baby Jesus. Which one is more important depends on who you ask. Christmas is the time we remember the birth of Jesus in a feeding trough around 2,000 years ago. (No one knows exactly when he was born, so we took an old pagan holiday on December 25 and turned it into Christmas.) That’s why you see so many scenes of a baby surrounded by animals and a few people. But none of them are wearing red suits with big black buttons — that’s Santa Claus, who they call Father Christmas in the UK and other Commonwealth countries. The story goes that he lives at the North Pole and makes a visit every year to hand out presents, coming down the chimney if your house has one. Parents of young children love to put their sometimes terrified children in the lap of an old guy dressed up to look like Santa. Most people don’t know where Santa Claus comes from, but rumor has it he is a devolved version of a man named Nicholas who lived in what is now Turkey many years ago and was apparently an incredible guy. Parents agonize over whether to raise their children believing Santa really exists and dreading the day they find out he doesn’t — or just telling them from the start that he’s no more real than Frosty the Snowman.”

“Who’s that?”

“Oh, you don’t know Frosty either? He’s one of a thousand characters that make up the myriad of stories that are pulled out at Christmas time. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (Somewhere along the line Santa Claus acquired a whole herd of reindeer. And he has lots and lots of elves who help him in his workshop. I’m not sure how much they think about baby Jesus.)

You see, Christmas is about way more than Jesus OR Santa; it’s a time to feel all warm and cozy and watch schmaltzy movies and treat each other nicer than usual. We call that the Spirit of Christmas. We give each other presents — so many that Christmas shopping counts for 20% of American retailers’ annual profits. And giving to non-profits for one last tax deduction is part of that spirit, I suppose.

And we sing songs which we call carols. No idea why we call them that, but no other songs we sing throughout the year are called carols. They’re about the birth of Jesus, Santa Claus, other characters as mentioned above…and winter — especially songs that make you feel warm and cozy in spite of the winter cold. (Here in the States we don’t really think about the millions of people who celebrate Christmas on or below the equator — that just doesn’t make sense to us and would mess everything up.)

And of COURSE there’s food. Lots of it, especially sweets. Not sure how baby Jesus feels about the amount of weight gained in this country at this time of year. But who doesn’t love a slice of pumpkin pie or peppermint bark or bourbon bonbons or fudge or…I could go on. And somewhere, some time, someone decided that if two people were found standing together under some mistletoe, a parasite that grows on trees, they have to kiss each other. But you never hear mention of mistletoe at another time of year, so I’m not sure it counts if you’re looking to kiss someone.

On Christmas Eve, some people go to church, where most of the songs are indeed about the birth of Jesus. Then you go home to listen to the rest. It’s a time for families to get together, specifically around an evergreen tree decorated with all kinds of ornaments and keepsakes.”

“What does the tree have to do with the birth of Jesus?”

“Uh, no idea. In fact, the tree thing probably dates back to the pagans as well, but oh, we love our Christmas trees.

In fact, most of us love pretty much all of it.

Does this help?”

Day 12: Around the World in 12 Days

23globe-paris-xmas-blog480
23globe-paris-xmas-blog480

After circling the globe and dropping in on friends in the four corners of the earth, it seemed fitting to end our journey with a tribute to our friends who have suffered more than their share of trauma in the past year: les Français. For those who know that I am an avowed francophile and French speaker, it may come as a surprise that I have never spent Christmas in France. I spent six years in Switzerland, just half an hour from the French border, but can't say I've had the pleasure of a purely French Christmas. That said, there are many traditions in the French-speaking part of Switzerland that are shared with the French. It seems Christmas in Paris has passed relatively uneventfully this year. Thank God. According to some of my friends, emotions are understandably a little more intense for Parisians who celebrate Christmas. And just as many Americans in the US love to be in New York City at Christmas time, many French and foreigners alike flock to Paris to see the lights and sights. From the famed Champs-Elysées:

Ferrris wheel
Ferrris wheel

...to the Eiffel Tower, whose second level is turned into an ice skating rink:

Eiffel-Tower-skating
Eiffel-Tower-skating

...to the posh department stores such as Galeries Lafayette:

galeries lafayette
galeries lafayette

...there is something for everyone.

50_marche_noel_Strasbourg[1]
50_marche_noel_Strasbourg[1]

But those outside Paris will tell you that there is much more to see in France than Paris -- and they of course are absolutely right. Because the country has many diverse regions, Christmas customs can also be just as diverse. One of my favorite cities is Strasbourg, just across the Rhine River from Germany. The city calls itself La Capitale de Noël, and it's not hard to see why. Its Christmas markets make even the grinches among us want to get out and do some browsing, stopping perhaps for a cup of vin chaud or some hot chestnuts.

buche9
buche9

France is famously secular, but there are still many who will attend a midnight Christmas mass if at no other time of year. The big Christmas Eve feast, called the réveillon, very often includes seafood such as shrimp, oysters, or lobster, and other famous French delicacies such as escargots and foie gras (goose liver paté), often alongside a roast turkey with chestnuts. Dessert, more often than not, will be a bûche de Noël (Yule log). It is generally a yellow sponge cake in the form of a roulade, iced with chocolate buttercream or ganache frosting to look like an actual log. Perhaps not the most visually appetizing, but delicious nonetheless (at least the Swiss ones are). The origin of the actual Yule log burned in many European hearths on Christmas Eve is unclear, likely dating back to pre-Christian paganism like many other modern traditions.

Just a few days later, there will be another réveillon, this time at New Year's, also called Saint Sylvestre. Here you will taste some of the finest cuisine, wines, and champagne, as they toast each other and the prospects of a new year.

May those prospects be the most hopeful yet for our amis français.

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

Day 11: Around the World in 12 Days

From Bella Italia we head back across the Atlantic to Central America. As in other parts of the Americas, Guatemala's culture is a blend of indigenous and European heritage, with more than 20 ethnic groups represented. The Christmas tree is an imported custom from German immigrants and is generally erected and decorated around the 1st of December. But at the foot of the tree is a very special component of Guatemalan Christmas: the Nacimiento, or Nativity. Tradition has it that the first Nacimiento was brought from the Canary islands by a monk named Pedro de Betancourt, considered the St. Francis of Guatemala. You will find one in virtually every home, but they vary tremendously in design and detail:

...from simple wood carvings:

simple nacimiento
simple nacimiento

... to Mayan influence:

Mayan nacimiento
Mayan nacimiento

...to a regal touch:

regal nacimiento
regal nacimiento

Christmas decorations are a must in Guatemala. Not only are the houses decorated, but the streets of towns and villages as well. Some large corporations even finance the decorating of entire neighborhoods.

As in many other cultures, the first Sunday of December is the beginning of the Advent season, marked by a wreath with four colored candles and fifth white one, symbolizing Christ as the Light of the world, to light on Christmas Eve.

On December 7 an age-old practice known as "Quema del diablo" (burning of the devil) can be seen. Old objects are thrown out of the house, symbolizing evil, and burned at night. From December 16 to 24, processionals called posadas are carried out through the neighborhoods. The posada commemorates Mary and Joseph's search for a safe haven. The party is turned away at each house until the previously arranged ninth one (la novena), where they are welcomed with hugs, goodies, and sometimes ponche (traditional Christmas punch).

Christmas Eve in Guatemala is a joyous cacophony of family celebrations, lighting of firecrackers called cohetillos, feasting, opening of presents for the children, and a midnight mass called la misa del gallo. (My friend Mario didn't explain why this mass is called the "mass of the rooster"!) The firecrackers are lit at six-hour intervals until noon on Christmas Day.

No Guatemalan Christmas feast is complete without multiple varieties of tamales, called chuchitos, often made ahead of time. Think of Grandma making Christmas cookies with the kids, only here it is tamales. Some are savory, with beef, chicken, or pork, and some are sweet, with apples, prunes, or raisins.

By Christmas Day, I can imagine everyone is ready for a rest, and rightly so.

Desde Guatemala, ¡Feliz Navidad!

Where will Day 12 take us? Stay tuned!

Day 10: Around the World in 12 Days

Christmas-in-Rome1
Christmas-in-Rome1

From Mother Russia we make our way west again, this time to Bella Italia! You might expect Christmas to be a big deal in the nation considered by many to be the cradle of Christianity -- and you would be right. But as in many if not most Western countries, there is great ambivalence when it comes to the religious aspect of the Christmas celebration. While the overwhelming majority of Italians are nominally Catholic, the Christmas Eve mass will likely be the only time most set foot in a church, and, as my friend Caty puts it, that is to "make grandma happy." The relatively small number of Evangelicals in Italy have what most outsiders would consider a reactionary approach to the expression of their faith, and not without historical reason. When the Evangelical movement came to Italy, its followers felt the need to distinguish themselves from what they considered unbiblical or even corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic church. As a result, today's evangelical churches might be decorated with holly, but you will rarely see a Nativity scene in an Evangelical church or family home. On the other hand, many Evangelicals see Christmas time as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with others.

There are actually two consecutive holidays in Italy: December 25 (Natale) and 26 (Santo Stefano). This is family time, perhaps more than any other holiday of the year; as the saying goes, "Natale con i tuoi, Pasquale con chi vuoi" ("Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you like.") Generous gifts are exchanged, and as if Italians don't eat well year round, there are two big feasts: the cenone on Christmas Eve, then the big Christmas dinner during the day on Christmas. In the south and in coastal areas, seafood will have an important place. In the interior, such as Tuscany, you might find wild boar, roast beef, rabbit, and needless to say, lots of home made pasta. Most of us are familiar with panettone, the sweet Italian fruit bread that always comes out at this time of year, and torrone, or nougat, is also popular in different varieties.

Piazza-Navona
Piazza-Navona

Many Italians enjoy the mercatini di Natale (Christmas markets), where Santa comes to hold court and children bring their letters for him with their Christmas wishes. Interestingly enough, there are relatively few Italian Christmas carols; this is why, according to my friend Adina, singers like Andrea Bocelli sing more English carols than Italian.

In addition to Christmas Day and Santo Stefano, there are two additional bookend national holidays related to the Christmas story: the Immaculate Conception (of Mary) on Dec. 8 and Epiphany on Jan. 6, commemorating the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus.

Seems I'm always in Italy in the summer -- which I love -- but some day I'd like to celebrate Natale with my amici italiani!

Buon Natale!

Day 9: Around the World in 12 Days

Orthodox Christmas
Orthodox Christmas
christmas-in-russia
christmas-in-russia

From the Far East we make our way west -- but not by much. At their closest point, Japan and Russia are only about three miles apart. It will be no surprise that Christmas was not widely celebrated in the USSR under Communist rule. Now with greater freedom, more people are celebrating, but mostly NOT on December 25. While a few Catholics and Evangelicals may celebrate with the West, the majority of Russians who profess faith are Russian Orthodox. While Advent in the West begins on the first day of December and goes until Christmas Day, Orthodox Advent lasts 40 days, from November 28 to January 6, with Christmas Day on January 7. The date discrepancy with Western tradition is due to the use of the Julian calendar in the Orthodox church. My friend Andrei tells me he and his family usually decorate the Christmas tree around the end of December and leave it up until about a week after Christmas Day. For Orthodox believers, Christmas is the end of a month-long fast, so you can believe the feasting is that much more meaningful! Many wait to break their fast until Christmas Eve when the first star appears in the sky. Because most of the gift giving is done at New Year's, the Christmas celebration is mostly about the birth of Christ (what a concept). Church services are festive, and this is a special time for families to be together.

A common staple of the Christmas meal is sochiva, a wheat or rice porridge served with honey, dried fruit, poppy seeds, or nuts. The porridge is sometimes eaten from a common dish, symbolizing unity. The rest of the meal might consist of sauerkraut, borscht (beet soup), individual vegetable pies, and different kinds of vegetable salads, topped off with a dessert of fruit pie, gingerbread cookies, or fruit and nuts.

At the end of the Christmas feast, a beverage called zvzar is often served. Made from dried fruit and honey boiled in water, it is customary at the birth of a child, hence at Christmas for the Christ child.

The Christmas celebration in Russia is in some ways overshadowed by New Year's, when Ded Moroz (Santa Claus equivalent, lit. "Grandfather Frost") makes his appearance and gifts are exchanged. But for the faithful who celebrate the First Coming of the Savior, Christmas remains...well, Christmas.

Stay tuned for the last three days of the Christmas trip around the world!

Day 8: Around the World in 12 Days

christmas in japan
christmas in japan

From the warmth of Peru -- both literally and culturally -- we head to an unlikely place to find Christmas: Japan. Although less than 1% of Japanese identify themselves as Christian, Christmas is one of a number of Western imports, including Halloween, now popular there. My friend Chester tells me many Japanese are not even aware of the Christ part of Christmas -- it's simply a good excuse to celebrate a cozy, festive time, even though December 25 is not an official holiday in Japan. Who doesn't enjoy the lights and glitter of Christmas, and the Japanese know how to do it. Decorations can be found at most any department store, and (mostly artificial) Christmas trees go up all over the country.

There is one Christmas tradition in Japan I find HILARIOUS: fried chicken. Many Americans may not be aware of these fun KFC facts:

KFC Japan
KFC Japan
  • KFC is the second largest restaurant chain the world (after McDonald's, of course) 
  • Japan is KFC's third largest market (after China and the US) with about 1,200 stores
  • Christmas Day is KFC's busiest day of the year in Japan

For dessert on Christmas Eve, so-called Christmas cakes are served, usually some sort of sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries. Gifts are often exchanged, but usually just for the children.

Christmas Eve has also taken on a Valentine's Day aspect in recent years: couples go out on the town for a romantic dinner, and reservations must be made months in advance.

Another aspect I find amusing is how they say "Merry Christmas" in Japanese. I have noticed before that the Japanese will often take an English word or phrase and slightly modify it to fit their phonetic system. (Actually, all languages do that to one extent or another.) So Merry Christmas is rendered:

Meri Kurisumasu!

Look closely at the word Kurisumasu and you'll find all the phonetic components of the word "Christmas". Brilliant.

Next stop on Day 9: a country where Christmas is celebrated, but not in December!

Day 7: Around the World in 12 Days

navidad-ano-nuevo-peru
navidad-ano-nuevo-peru

From the age-old traditions of Romania, we make our way to South America, where Christmas in Lima, Peru awaits us. Being predominantly Catholic, Peru holds the Christmas celebration dear, although many now see it as simply a festive family holiday rather than a commemoration of the birth of Christ. Those who do celebrate the Nativity generally have a manger scene on display, and the gifts are placed around it. Most mangers are carefully crafted out of wood, pottery, or huamanga stone. Although every Peruvian knows who Santa Claus is, he is widely regarded as nothing more than a Western import; in fact, at one time he was banned by the government as a symbol of Western capitalism and greed.

huamanga nativity
huamanga nativity

Most of the actual celebrating in Peru happens not on Christmas Day but on Christmas Eve, called Nochebuena. Families gather for the big feast, which generally features a roast turkey, along with tamales, salads (remember, it's summer!), and desserts. Some practicing Christian families, like our friends Francis and Carmen, recount the story of the first Christmas to their children and remind them of its central place in the celebration. At midnight, like New Year's in many countries, everyone hugs and kisses to the sights and sounds of fireworks. It's not uncommon that only after midnight the presents are opened. (Most children I know would never be able to wait that long!) Once the thrill of the presents has finally given way to fatigue, the children head to bed (sometimes as late as 2:00 or 3:00 am!), while the adults continue celebrating into the night.

Needless to say, most Peruvians sleep in on Christmas morning, finally waking up to hot chocolate with cinnamon and cloves and panetón, a tradition sweet bread of Italian origin (panettone).

Merry Christmas to all and ¡Feliz Navidad!

Day 6: Around the World in 12 Days

Romanian star carol
Romanian star carol

From South Africa we head back to Europe, this time to Eastern Europe. I'm always interested to hear stories from this part of the world -- especially from people my age and older -- because memories of a time when it was illegal to celebrate the birth of Christ are not too distant. My Romanian friends tell me Christmas has come back in full force after the fall of communism and the demise of President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose atheist regime forbade any open celebration. It is only recently that most people can afford to buy gifts for each other; in times past, if there were any gifts, they were for the children. Even today, children are widely regarded as Romania's most valuable resource, and they are often the focus of celebrations.

As in many other European countries, December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, or Sfantul Nicolae, in Romania. The night before, children clean their shoes and leave them next to the door in hopes that they will be full of small presents in the morning. Tradition has it that, if it snows on Dec. 6, Mos Nicolae (Old Man Nicholas) has shaken his beard and winter can now begin.

cozonac
cozonac

December 20 in Romania is designated St. Ignatius Day, at which time, if there is one to be had, a pig is slaughtered and serves as the basis of the Christmas feast. Because life has been so difficult in Romania for so long, Christmas is seen as a time to feast more than any other period of the year. If you're going to spend money on fine food or drink, it will be at Christmas and New Year's. Practically all parts of the pig are eaten in various forms, including steaks, ribs sausages, even rind, ear, and tail. Stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes, meatball soup can also be seen on the table, along with a cake called cozonac which my friend Lily calls a "caloric bomb."

A treasured tradition that has seen a resurgence in the last twenty years is Colinda, where groups of people go caroling from house to house singing carols and wishing others well. Many powers that be have tried to abolish Colinda over the centuries, including the church, claiming it was a devilish practice. Traditions that bring so much joy die hard, however, and Colinda lives on. These groups are sometimes all male, sometimes mixed, and sometimes rehearse weeks ahead of time. They are usually compensated with gifts of fruit, walnuts, and cakes. Children also go caroling on Christmas Eve. One popular Romanian carol is called "Christmas Star," where a decorated paper star is put on a pole and carried by one of the carolers.

Here's to a merry Christmas to all our Romanian friends, and to many more joyful and prosperous Christmases in this endearing land.

Crāciun Fericit!

Day 5: Around the World in 12 Days

christmas-lights-in-South-Africa
christmas-lights-in-South-Africa

From the Holy Land we make our way south once again -- about as far south as you can go before reaching Antartica. South Africa beckons! Similar to our first stop in New Zealand, we find ourselves in a summer Christmas, complete with all the contradictions like listening to Jim Reeves' "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" while lying on the beach or barbecuing outdoors (called a braai). Juxtaposed with the full-on commercial side of Christmas -- decorations, shopping, etc. -- is a general respect for the fact that this is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Churches are full, whether for midnight services on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, and outdoor candlelight caroling is not uncommon. Because South Africa is a blend of indigenous, British, and Dutch culture in its origins, there is a healthy blend of traditions carried over from the various people groups. Santa Claus is also called Father Christmas, or in Afrikaans (derived from Dutch), Sinterklaas or Kersvader. Gifts are exchanged under a decorated Christmas tree, and the holiday is seen as a special time to be with family. There is the traditional feast which often includes roast turkey or duck, beef, suckling pig, mince pies, saffron rice and vegetables, and Christmas pudding or a traditional South African dessert called Malva pudding.

December 26, as in the UK and other Commonwealth countries, is called Boxing Day. It is generally agreed that the name originated with the tradition of servants and tradesmen receiving Christmas gifts, called Christmas boxes, from their employers. Today it is a bank holiday and, in South Africa, a great day to spend at the beach with friends and family.

From South Africa, Geseënde Kersfees!

Day 4: Around the World in 12 Days

Star of David with cross
Star of David with cross
xmas trees jerusalem
xmas trees jerusalem

We now leave the frozen northern extremities of Europe for the land where it all started. Not Santa, not St. Nicholas. Jesus himself. A stroll down the streets of Jerusalem or any other major Israeli city will not afford you many views of tinsel and lights or manger scenes. Even the relatively few Messianic Jews (Jews who believe in Yeshua [Jesus] as the Messiah) don't really celebrate it like most Christians in other countries. They tend to believe Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles (September or October). This does not mean Christmas is not observed. If for no other reason, the city of Jerusalem acknowledges its many expat residents by giving away free Christmas trees to internationals. My friend Norma tells me you can see them dragging the scrawny little trees through the streets. The city also provides free bus rides to Bethlehem's Manger Square, where there are carol sing-alongs and masses at the Church of St. Catherine and Church of the Nativity. Needless to say, foreigners flock to Bethlehem as well, which is wholly within Palestinian territory and almost entirely Arabic-speaking. Travelers from Jerusalem must pass through a military checkpoint. On Christmas Eve, Christmas carols can be heard at three packed out locations: the YMCA, the Lutheran Church, and Christ Church (Anglican). Even non-practicing Israelis are drawn to the joyful and reverent sounds of the music, and can be seen walking late at night from one carol service to another. At midnight, the bells of the Catholic churches resound throughout the Old City and beyond.

Although the town where Jesus grew up is now mostly Arab, Nazareth still puts on a Christmas display for the thousands of pilgrims who would otherwise be disappointed. There is a Christmas parade in early December, and lights, decorations and celebrations can be found throughout the season.

Manger Square, Bethlehem
Manger Square, Bethlehem

In the United States, it's difficult for us to imagine living in a country where those of us wanting to celebrate Christmas would be in a very small minority. From where I sit, it might actually be a welcome change to celebrate a quiet, reflective birthday of Yeshua without all the extra trappings that the holiday has accumulated over the years -- even avoiding the few celebrations put on for tourists and pilgrims.

Of course, that's easy for me to say -- I no longer have small children.  :-)

In any case, חג מולד שמח (hag molad saméa'h)!

Day 3: Around the World in 12 Days

Lucia-13.12.06
Lucia-13.12.06

We leave the balmy climes of the South Pacific and head to the long nights and short days of winter in Sweden. Because Sweden lies so far north, much of its folklore, mythology, and culture revolve around sun and light -- or the absence thereof. The winter solstice, when the days finally begin to grow longer again, falls only four days before Christmas, so the celebration of the two are often intermingled. Perhaps the most unique and cherished tradition in the Swedish Christmas season is "Lucia", or Sankta Lucia, known in English as St. Lucy and in Italian/Latin as Santa Lucia. Lucia was a third century Sicilian martyr from Syracuse, known for having brought food and aid to Christians in hiding. Her feast day is December 13 and is celebrated in a number of countries, but not always in the same fashion. In Sweden, Lucy is one of the few saints celebrated in this overwhelmingly Protestant / secular society. She is commemorated by the election of a teenage girl to represent her with a white robe and a crown of candles, leading others in a processional and the singing of carols. (The classic tune, "Santa Lucia," was written in Naples, Italy and has nothing to do with the feast of St. Lucy; the Swedes use other lyrics customized to their purposes.) It is said that the real Lucy used this crown with candles to light her way and to keep both hands free to carry provisions on her benevolent missions. In Scandinavia, tradition has it that a proper celebration of Lucia, complete with lots of candlelight, will help one make it through the long winter days until spring. (To see a video of a Lucia done right, click here.)

Tomte
Tomte

As in most other Western countries, Christmas in Sweden is the typical mixture of religious, secular, and pagan traditions. Our friend Marianne tells us that churches are the fullest on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (the first Sunday in Advent) and Christmas morning at a service called the julotta. On Christmas Eve the big feast happens, called smörgåsbord (literally "bread and butter table"), filled with much more than the name indicates: ham, meatballs, salmon, herring, and Janssons frestelse, a casserole of potatoes, onions, bread crumbs and cream. Children expect a visit either from Santa or a Nordic folkloric character called a tomte -- a creature that can best be described as a gnome or dwarf.

The Swedish name for Christmas, Jul, comes from an ancient mid-winter festival celebrated by the Nordic and Germanic tribes. With the advent of Christianity, it eventually became the name for the Christmas holiday. And so we wish you...

God Jul! (prod. gode [with a Minnesotan "o"] yule)!

Day 2: Around the World in 12 Days

IMG_1488
IMG_1488
Meke dance
Meke dance
Spear dance
Spear dance

If you're a semi-regular reader, you'll remember that my wife and I spent the Christmas holidays a year ago in New Zealand, which we featured yesterday as our starting place in this round-the-world glimpse of Christmas. Our frequent flyer miles steered us to Fiji Airways to get there, which meant a layover in Nadi, Fiji's international gateway. We left Nashville on December 23, skipped the 24th altogether due to crossing the International Date Line, and landed in Nadi early Christmas morning. The photo is the view from our hotel. It was a bit surreal strolling a white sandy beach under a gorgeous, warm sky on Christmas Day. All along the beach, we were greeted with "Bula! Merry Christmas!" by families enjoying a meal cooked in the traditional lovo, an underground hot stone oven. (Bula is the Fijian greeting, which we learned before even leaving the Los Angeles airport.) The meals often consist of garlic spice chicken, roast pork or beef, chicken, cassava (a starchy root), and dalo (a green leafy vegetable). You might also see palusami, a spiced mutton dish wrapped in leaves and cooked in coconut cream. Because the Fijians take just about any excuse to celebrate, the Christmas/New Year's celebration is a month-long affair. Like most Pacific islanders, they are very community-oriented, so starting about two weeks before Christmas, most celebrations take place not in the home but in the local community house. And like most places around the world where Christmas is celebrated, there is a mixture of Christian, pagan, and secular practices, all rolled into one festive concoction. There are carols, special church services and masses, candles, and yes, Santa Claus (the children do expect presents from Old Saint Nick on Christmas eve); but there are also traditional dances such as the meke dance by the women and the spear dance by the men.

Ever had a South Pacific Christmas? Share your experience!

Bula! Merry Christmas!

Around the World in Twelve Days

Kiwi Santa
Kiwi Santa

Today we begin a 12-day countdown to Christmas Day, featuring Christmas traditions in twelve different countries. It is so unseasonably warm here in the eastern half of the US right now that it reminds me of my childhood Christmases down under in Australia. Instead of Australia, however, we begin our round-the-world journey in New Zealand, just across the Tasman Sea from its larger neighbor. (See my first post on our recent visit to New Zealand here.) Our dear friends Neil and Jill tell us that traditionally, New Zealanders used to pretend it was winter, spraying fake snow on windows and trees and playing wintry American Christmas music. More recently, Kiwis have begun to embrace the fact that "it's summer, for goodness sake!" So rather than the traditional Christmas dinner of roast lamb with mint sauce, you'll just as likely find people barbecuing outdoors or at the beach.

Although fewer and fewer New Zealanders seem to see the primary purpose of Christmas as celebrating the birth of Christ, what Christians who do often find creative ways to breathe life into this special day for believers. Overall, the day is seen as a welcome day off to spend time with family, exchange gifts, and overeat!

Be watching tomorrow for Day 2 of our Round-the-World Christmas!