culture2

Should Your Children Learn Chinese?

Chinese numbers
Chinese numbers

I was recently invited to a Chinese New Year celebration as the Year of the Monkey opens. One of the hosts was Dr. Ming Wang, whom I have mentioned in earlier posts and who is going to be my guest on an upcoming podcast later this spring. Dr. Wang spoke briefly on the evolving relationship between the Chinese and American economies. He spoke of the slowdown in the Chinese economy as a necessary adjustment, something all economies must go through on the road to maturity.

Dr. Wang is a co-founder of the Tennessee American-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (TAC3), which exists to facilitate business partnerships between China and the state of Tennessee. While many Americans are concerned about the enormity of US debt owned by China, TAC3 encourages American business people and entrepreneurs to push against the negative talk and invest in the Chinese market -- but not in a haphazard or uninformed manner.

Here are a couple of important take-aways from Dr. Wang's remarks:

  1. Right now there are more Chinese actively learning English than there are people in the United States. Why are they learning English? Yes, partly because they plan to travel to the US or other English-speaking countries. But primarily, according to Dr. Wang, because they want to learn what their customers want -- the first rule of any business. And for every ten thousand Chinese learning English, it is tough to find one American learning Chinese.
  2. If you want to do good business with China -- or any other culture, for that matter -- and you want to make a favorable impression, you should learn to view that culture from their perspective. Learn their history. Learn their philosophy of life. In the context of China, it is wise to learn something about Confucianism and how it still affects Chinese daily life today. Learn what is appropriate in face-to-face meetings. (Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway's book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands is a great resource.)

So should American schools at least offer Mandarin? Seems like a no brainer. The world economy is shifting towards Asia, whether you as an American intend to do business there or not. We can look at the Chinese as an adversary -- or we can engage them.

Have you or your children begun learning Chinese? Is it offered in your local schools? Tell us about it!

The Unfinished Bridge

Photo: Andrea Schaffer
Photo: Andrea Schaffer

I've seen it so many times.

As I'm sure you do, I know quite a few people who are second generation immigrants to the US. Many are Hispanic, but there are lots of other ethnic and linguistic groups represented. And one of the saddest things I see is when the children speak only English. For whatever reason, the parents stopped speaking their native tongue with the children at some point.

Few would question, of course, the necessity of learning English in order to succeed in the US or any other English-speaking country. But how many parents have unwittingly deprived their children of an entire dimension of their cultural heritage by not raising them bilingually. A bridge unfinished. This is poignantly depicted in this story from PRI's The World in Words. I encourage you to take a listen.

Of course, it's easy for me to judge these people from the outside looking in. I've never felt the extreme pressure to fit in that prevents so many from speaking their native tongue. Many immigrants my age and older came over with parents who were determined that their children would assimilate into mainstream American culture as quickly as possible, so they even stopped speaking their native tongue at home. (In more recent times, it seems the parents tend to maintain their mother tongue more than in previous generations, in such a way that a native Spanish speaker can live an entire lifetime in the US without learning English. That's for another post.) Or sometimes it happened more naturally over a longer period of time. English began to replace the original family language because that's what was happening just outside the front door.

Take my sister-in-law, for example. She is a fourth generation Mexican American. Her parents were both perfectly bilingual and spoke mostly Spanish to the older children. But by the time the younger children came along, including my sister-in-law, the family conversations had morphed into mostly English, with only occasional Spanish words thrown in.

As a result, my sister-in-law was not confident enough in her Spanish to speak it with her own children, who she and my brother would have liked to grow up bilingually. Her two children, my nephew and niece, both look Hispanic, with piercing dark eyes, so many Hispanics address them in Spanish, only to be told they don't speak it.

But the PRI story doesn't stop there, laying the blame squarely on the parents for the fact that their children are monolingual. The child also has choices, as the narrator recognizes at the end. So he goes from saying, "OK, Dad, why did you kill Spanish in our family?" to "OK, I'm the one who killed it." So began his own journey to learning the language of his ancestors.

Do you have a similar story? Or a variation? Tell us about it!

"Nunchi": The Art of Anticipating

Nunchi
Nunchi

The Far East is known for being extremely hospitable. But there is a concept in Korea that goes beyond hospitality. It's called nunchi.

Nunchi is anticipating not only someone's needs, such as expecting you to be thirsty when you come in from a long trip, or having the sugar within arm's reach when you need it for your tea.

It is about anticipating someone's mood. Being aware of others' presence. Knowing what to say in certain situations -- and what not to say. Yes, anyone who practices hospitality with nunchi will be a cut above the rest; but there is a lesson here for all of us.

It has to do with emotional intelligence. It means not being so self-absorbed that you are not aware of what is going on around you. It means respecting others' space and watching out for their well being. This is so important in Korean that there are a number of words and expressions that have nunchi as part of them. If someone is completely clueless, they are called nunchi eopta -- without nunchi.

Wy wife, who teaches world geography, makes a point to introduce her students to the concept of nunchi. It has become a part of their collective vocabulary. And as one of the students put it, "It's not nunchi if you have to be asked."

How can you learn to practice the art of nunchi?

Family First

I am excited to announce the upcoming launch of my new podcast! Tentatively entitled the World to the Wise podcast, in keeping with the name of our company, we will explore new perspectives on culture, including language learning, as well as listen to compelling stories from fascinating people. One such person is Dr. Ming Wang, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago as a guest panelist at the Tennessee Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which Dr. Wang founded. He was one of the first people I contacted for an interview as I was setting about recording a handful of podcast episodes before we launch. He graciously accepted and we set a date. Just a few days later, I noticed online that his new autobiography, From Darkness to Sight: A Journey from Hardship to Healing, had just come out. I had to read it before the interview! So we postponed the interview and my wife and I are devouring his fascinating story.

You'll be hearing a good deal more about my interview with Dr. Wang, but here is one central theme for starters: throughout his incredible journey from the poverty and oppression of the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China to his astounding success, first as a student and then as an eye surgeon in the United States, his first thought was to bring honor to his family.

In fact, in China and other Eastern cultures, the family name actually comes first. He would be called Wang Ming-xu if he still lived there. (He dropped the "xu" part upon arrival in the US.) I would be called Durham David. The family entity takes priority over the individual identity of the family member. At every milestone on his way to becoming an internationally renowned physician and surgeon, Ming thought of making his family proud. Of honoring the family name.

I can't wait for you to hear more of the story of this remarkable man. Stories of overcoming enormous obstacles, of the gentle encouragement of two devoted parents, of record-setting success against all odds, of facing racial discrimination and prejudice in the Land of the Free, and of a generosity of spirit that is an example to many.

Stay tuned. And in the meantime, you can order Dr. Wang's compelling autobiography From Darkness to Sight: A Journey from Hardship to Healing for an inspiring read.

Border Blues

IMG_5935
IMG_5935

My wife and I both have memories of numerous stops at national borders in Europe in the 80's and 90's. Passports were stamped, currency was changed -- in fact, we often had to carry four or five different currencies with us, depending on the number of countries we were going to be traveling through. The number of stamps in our passports shrank dramatically, however, with the creation of the Schengen Area.

Many people think the open borders in Western Europe coincided with the creation of the Euro zone, but in fact, they were and are two separate entities. I have to confess to not knowing until today where the name "Schengen" comes from: it is the name of the town in Luxembourg where the agreement between 22 of the 28 countries of the then European Community was signed. The idea was to facilitate travel between these countries, effectively becoming a single country as far as international travel is concerned. (The Euro zone came later, establishing the euro as the common currency for nineteen member states in 2000.)

Today, the open borders are a subject of great tension and debate. Over one million refugees have flooded into the Schengen Area, creating enormous strain on a system that most Europeans don't want to see reversed. And yet, the 20-year-old agreement seems on the breaking point. Even the countries whose arms were the most open to welcome the hundreds of thousands of migrants, such as Germany, Sweden and Denmark, are reining in their liberal policies as they groan under the weight. The Danish parliament has even passed a plan where border officials can seize any assets above $1450 from migrants, as long as said items are considered non-essential and have no sentimental value.

It's looking possible that the open borders of the Schengen area could be suspended for up to two years. It could be hello again to long lines and waits at border crossings, something the younger generation knows nothing about.

But more importantly, the fate of the refugees who continue to stream into Europe, primarily through Greece, remains uncertain at best. My wife and I have been greatly impacted by this situation -- stay tuned for further developments as we look at possible ways to be of service.

Sunni? Shiite? Why Care? Part 2

Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with used rope
Teenagers hands playing tug-of-war with used rope

(For part 1 of this post, click here.)

Misconception number 2: There is no significant difference between Sunni and Shiite. 

So here's the deal: After the prophet *Muhammad died in 632 AD, his followers decided a leader should be chosen to lead the people and settle disputes as the prophet had done. This office was called the khalifa ("successor"), or caliph. The first caliph was Muhammad's friend, Abu Bakr. The next three caliphs were also close friends or relatives of Muhammad, including his son-in-law, Ali. (Ali's wife was Fatima, daughter of Muhammad.) Ali was murdered by a disgruntled follower, and his rival, Mu-awiyah, became the first caliph of a powerful dynasty called the Umayyad dynasty. But Ali's son, Husayn, wasn't going to take this lying down. His army fought the Umayyads, but Husayn and many of his followers were massacred.

So here is the historical explanation of the Sunni-Shiite conflict: the majority of Muslims (about 85%), known as the Sunni, believed that the caliph was primarily a political and military leader, not a religious authority. The minority Shiites (10-15%), those who followed Ali and Husayn, believed that the caliph must be a descendant of Ali, through Fatima.

Today, if you ask a Sunni or a Shiite to explain their differences, however, you may hear other reasons. The doctrinal differences that initially divided the two groups are given greater or lesser importance, depending on whom you ask. There are certainly political and religious differences: Shiites generally do not acknowledge the authority of elected government officials, holding to the belief that all authority -- political AND religious -- should be in the hands of the imam, or Muslim cleric, whom they believe to be without sin. This is why the Supreme Leader of Iran, for example, is Ali Khamenei, an imam, not the president, Hassan Rouhani. The Sunni-Shia divide can also be seen in certain rituals such as prayer and marriage.

Are these differences essential and crucial to all Muslims? No. Millions of Muslims prefer to simply refer to themselves as Muslim. The reason you might have the impression that all Muslims are militant on either one side or the other is, just as in most situations (American politics comes to mind), it is the extremists who make the most noise.  In some regions it has become more like an intense sibling rivalry and a competition for power and territory. Think of the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics: if one of each sat down across from each other, their debate (to put it kindly) would not be over the worship of Mary or the sale of indulgences. It would be other hostilities that have festered for generation upon generation. It would be over the fact that So-and-so killed my uncle or my cousin. In truth, many of the Middle Eastern conflicts are not religious conflicts at all. Often cloaked in religious language, they are power struggles. They are tribalism alive and well. They are the Capulets and the Montagues.

This is important as we attempt to follow ever-changing developments in the Middle East and other areas of conflict among Muslims. Iran, along with Lebanon and most of Iraq, is primarily Shiite. Saudi Arabia, an ally of the U.S. (that's another discussion), is majority Sunni. At this writing, the tension between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia is so high that diplomatic relations have been severed.

Saddam
Saddam

You cannot understand the dynamics of the Iraq War OR the Iran-Saudi tensions unless you get this Sunni-Shiite piece. I am no foreign policy expert, but apparently neither were the decision makers in charge of the first American invasion of Iraq. The vacuum and ensuing civil war that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein were all about the power struggle between Sunni and Shia (not to mention hundreds of splinter groups on each side), and the ongoing instability because of this is something the Americans would have done well to anticipate. Although Saddam had a strangle hold on the power in Iraq, he was a Sunni, who are in the minority in Iraq. So when he was yanked out of power by the American-led coalition, what ensued was a power struggle that is still going on and blocking this war-torn nation from stability. It is becoming increasingly more clear that neither the US nor any other Western power will be able to bring an end to these hostilities that existed long before the first American soldier set foot on Iraqi soil.

For a concise and objective explanation of this epic struggle, I recommend you listen to this brief clip from PRI's The World.

And ISIS? That's yet another story. Stay tuned.

*You'll see different spellings of the prophet's name (e.g. Mohammed), as they are all approximate transcriptions from the Arabic.

Sunni? Shiite? Why Care?

Allahu akhbar
Allahu akhbar

For years now, the news has been chock full of the words Sunni and Shia (or Shiite). What do they mean and why should we care? For Westerners not directly affected by the conflicts in the Middle East, it is easy to just ignore these labels. Or worse, some will say "those Arabs are all the same, as far as I'm concerned." Nothing could be farther than the truth, and for us to make any sense at all of what is going on -- and this conflict is getting closer to home all the time -- it is important to have a basic understanding of the major players. And they're not all Arabs.

Misconception number 1: All Muslims in the Middle East are Arabs. 

Yes, the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, and the majority of the peoples of the Middle East are Arabs from one tribe or another. But there are some notable and very important exceptions:

Iran is the ancient Persia (once the most vast empire on the planet), and Persians are NOT Arabs. Nor is their language Arabic. Yes, they use the Arabic alphabet, but their native tongue is Farsi and happens to use Arabic script. Do yourself and your Iranian neighbor or acquaintance a kindness by not, as in NEVER, calling him or her an Arab. They are a very proud people and once a great civilization. Most Iranians are at least nominal Muslims, but there is a very small Jewish minority and even a few Christians, although the state says that only Assyrians and Armenians may be Christian.

The Kurds are not Arabs. The Kurds, who live in parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, are widely believed to be descendants of the ancient Medes. (You may remember seeing them mentioned in the Old Testament. Does the "law of the Medes and the Persians" ring a bell?) The Kurds are the largest people group in the world without their own state. (On a side note, Nashville, where I live, is home to the largest Kurdish community in the U.S.) Many Kurds speak Arabic, but their native tongue is, of all things, Kurdish. It also uses the Arabic alphabet, so you'll be forgiven for thinking they were one and the same.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look at the difference between Sunni and Shiite and why it matters. Nothing in the Middle East will make much sense without a basic understanding of this conflict.

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!

A Letter to My Non-American Friends on Thanksgiving

cornucopia
cornucopia

Dear International Friends, We in the US have exported much to you over the years. Everywhere I travel I see American products, hear American music, and can easily find a burger if I'm in the mood. I happen to know that some of you have learned English just by watching American and British movies. Coca-Cola has become one of the top three universal vocabulary words. Even some holidays have begun to be celebrated American style in other countries. (Halloween became a thing in Europe while I was living there.) I'm not always proud of what we send your way. I even find myself wanting to apologize at times on behalf of my people.

But there is one uniquely American holiday I am actually proud of. I'm proud that our country sets aside a day every year simply to be grateful.  Most Americans consider the first Thanksgiving the celebration of the first harvest by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in the year 1621. Our first President, George Washington, first declared a day of thanksgiving in 1789, but it did not become a national, annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln responded to the pleas of one Sarah Joseph Hale, who for thirty years had been writing to president after president, suggesting a national Thanksgiving Day. Lincoln's successors followed suit each year, but it wasn't until 1941 that Congress, during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, permanently established the fourth Thursday of November as a national day of thanks.

Now the object of that gratitude is up for discussion. The Pilgrims were thanking the God of the Bible. So were Washington and Lincoln. These days it's a little more complicated. Some thank Allah, some thank their lucky stars, or the universe...and some simply aren't sure whom to thank, so they just say they're thankful. Whatever the case, I know I've found myself in the school of gratitude of late. And although my faith in God has been tested at times, I find -- and I'm thankful for this in itself -- that the impulse to thank someone has never left me.

In the words of Andrew Peterson:

Don't you ever wonder why In spite of all that's wrong here There's still so much that goes so right And beauty abounds?

'Cause sometimes when you walk outside The air is full of song here The thunder rolls and the baby sighs And the rain comes down

And when you see the spring has comeAnd it warms you like a mother's kissDon't you want to thank someone?Don't you want to thank someone for this?

                 - from "Don't You Want to Thank Someone" from the album Light for the Lost Boy

When I realize the breath in my lungs is on loan to me, when I am surrounded by the family who is everything to me but which I don't deserve, when I remember that I am a recipient of grace upon grace upon grace...I want to thank someone. And I have to believe that Someone is a person, someone higher and greater than myself, someone who alone can not only make sense of this world, but somehow spoke it into existence. And so I thank God.

And if some day this holiday happens to be exported, well, worse things could happen.