I'm posting this from the domestic airport in Buenos Aires in early December, and like the Christmas decorations are up. This got me thinking: How is Christmas celebrated around the world? Never one to let a question go unanswered, let's begin in:
Japan has only a small percentage of religious Christians, but many Japanese enjoy the spirit of gift-giving and decorating home and stores in tribute to the seasonal festivities. Instead of Santa Claus, Japanese children look to a legendary Buddhist monk named Hotei-osho, known for bringing children gifts, and making sure they behave.
Ethiopia’s calendar differs from our western calendar, which is why they celebrated the year 2000 seven years after we did, and why Christmas takes place on January 7th. They also have a different clock, but that’s another story. Christianity in the country dates back to the 4th century AD, and its famous rock churches were built as a new Jerusalem by Ethiopian kings. The Xmas church ceremony has three rings of prayer: men and boys sit inside a ring of women and girls, with a choir on the outside circle. Candles in hand, worshippers also walk around the church three times during mass. Instead of turkey dinners, traditional feasts involve injera (the pancake-like bread of Ethiopia) and various stews and curries.
Many North American Xmas traditions derive from Scandinavia, with Santa Clause living in Greenland or Finland, depending on whom you speak to. Millions of people have written letters and posted it to Santa’s address, just outside of Rovaniemi on the Finnish Arctic Circle (write to: Santa Claus' Main Post Office, Santa Village, FIN-96930 NAPAPIIRI). Yuletide has always had special significance in the Scandinavia, where traditions were formed to hold off the dark, cold days of winter. The Yule log was an entire tree, fed into the fire over the course of the winter, with much ceremony. In Finland, Xmas dinner is preceded by a visit to the sauna to bathe and clean for the meal. Candles are important throughout the region as a means of ushering in the warmth of light during a dark time of year.
The Bulgarian Christmas Eve dinner consists of 12 courses, with each course representing a month of the year. Made with nuts, beans, vegetables and sweets, no meat is served. Tradition has the family seated on straw, and sitting down and getting up at the same time. In the past, boys and single men would visit houses singing carols for the health of the families (and maybe the eye of a maiden too).
Around the country, in churches, homes and shops, many Brazilians set up nativity scenes called Presèpio, named after the bed of straw Jesus slept on in Bethlehem. Father Christmas is known as Papa Noel, flying in from Greenland to pass out gifts, dressed in silk because it’s too hot to be robed in furs. Religious Catholics head to Missa do Galo, the midnight mass named after the rooster that announces the coming day. Even the streets of Rio de Janeiro are quiet on Christmas Eve, as families gather for their Ceia de Natal feast. Like most days in Rio, Christmas Day is a perfect time to hit the beach.
The only major Christian nation in Asia also celebrates its Misa do Galo, a tradition dating to its Spanish occupation. Unlike Brazil however, this mass takes place nine days before Christmas, and involves reading the story of Jesus. On Christmas Day, masses are held hourly so that everyone has a chance to attend. Pastore are plays based on the birth of Christ, performed at many religious services. Children go carolling for tips and treats and setting off fireworks, with another tradition being the making of lanterns, a symbol of the guiding star. Xmas dinner involves a lavish feast, often started after midnight when the family returns from midnight mass.
The inspiration of Santa Claus, St Nicholas, holds a special place in the heart of Russians. Revered as a saint since the 11th century, his name adorns many churches, and is commonly passed onto Russian boys. During the communist era, the role St Nick was transformed into Grandfather Frost, enabling traditions to be kept without antagonizing the atheist principles of the time. Similarly, Christmas trees became New Year’s Trees, although both traditions have reverted with the fall of the Soviet Union. Russians also talk about Babouschka, a woman who roams the countryside in search of Christ, giving gifts to children as she does so. Eastern Orthodox Russians customarily fast until after the first church service on Christmas Eve, and their feast contains no meat. One traditional dish is called kutya, a sweet porridge symbolizing hope and happiness, eaten from a common dish.
Christians are a minority in Vietnam, but Christmas is celebrated as one of the four major holidays of the year (along with New Year, the Buddha’s birthday, and the mid-autumn festival). Jesus Christ is known as Kito, and Christmas is a big cause for celebration, although this was not always the case. During communist rule, Christmas was relegated to the home and was not the public spectacle. As the country modernized and liberalized, Xmas has returned with a bang, with the usual lights and decorum proudly displayed throughout cities, shops, villages and homes.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and all the best for the silly season!
Fresh and rotten in time for Halloween, here’s a gallery of the places that blasted chills down my spine. Haunted, sinister, evil or just plain weird, for those that dream about travelling the world, welcome to your nightmare.
The Bone Church of Kutna Hora
Some time in the 13th century, a monk brought sand from Jerusalem to this small ossuary in central Europe. Suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there, but soon enough, space ran out. The monks collected and stored the bones. Several hundred years later, a local woodcarver decided he’d get creative with the surplus skeletons. Using the bones of some 40,000 people, he created wall art, columns, even a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. Today you can visit this small bizarre church, marvel at its morbid creativity, and literally stare death in the face.
San Franciscan Monastery
Sticking with the bone theme (“the hip bone’s connected to the…thigh bone”), the 17th century San Franciscan Monastery in the Peruvian capital of Lima is high on most visitors list. It looks amazing from the outside, but head inside and below to the narrow, creepy catacombs. You’ll find carefully geometrically arranged skeletons of some 25,000 has-beens. Built using bricks of guano, the air is dense, lit with a distinct atmosphere of spookiness, as opposed to the intended religious devotion. One catacomb is piled head-high in skulls. With the low ceilings, you might want to watch your head too.
The Killing Fields
There is creepy and there is spooky, and then there is just plain evil. Nothing makes your hair stand up, your throat parch, your nerves collapse and your faith in humanity shatter like the physical site of genocide. And yet, sickening places like the killing fields of Cambodia, the Nazi death camps in Europe, and the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda are vital to understand the horrors of the past, and make sure they never happen again. It is beyond comprehension to picture mass graves, murdered skulls piled 30ft high, or pools of human ashes. It is also beyond the tone of a column of this nature. And yet I’ll continue to draw attention to historical acts of genocide, the importance that travellers acknowledge them, and the fact that even today, the horror of mass murder continues to exist.
The Museum of Medieval Torture
My head is on the chopping block. This actual piece of wood above was used in dozens of decapitations, which believe it or not, is one of the kinder punishments you’ll find in this gruesome collection of authentic medieval torture instruments. This bizarre museum, located off the main square of Tallinn’s old town, has wooden, iron and spiked contraptions that date back to the inquisition. Accused of being a witch? They’d lower you on a giant wooden spike and split you in two. Spanish Tickle Torture was a device used to strip flesh from bones. You can see the genuine rack, used to split a body in in two, thumbscrews, and iron contraptions designed to expire the victim in unbelievable agony. I’m not sure what’s sicker: The wicked contraptions, that someone has actually collected them, or that I paid good money to visit the museum in the first place.
Transylvania is the birthplace of modern horror. At least in books and movies. Fictional Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless leader who enjoyed the sight of his Turkish enemies being skewered. “Dracula’s Castle” is in Romania, but it’s a renowned hokey tourist joint. Hang on, aren’t the hills of Transylvania perfect roaming grounds for werewolves. Nobody has seen one of them in ages, in fact, nobody has ever seen one outside of a movie theatre. What you will see in Transylvania are small villages alive with traditional music and cuisine. You’ll visit the capital of Cluj Napoca (above), full of cool bars, frequented by hip students listening to dance music or reggae. There’s nothing particularly creepy about Transylvania at all, other than the fact that, hey, it’s Transylvania. I’m not walking alone in those woods, pal.
Lamanai Mayan Ruins
Most ancient ruins up the creep factor, which is why they frequently feature in horror movies. Some Mayan ruins have the added bonus of having been the setting for human sacrifice, where decapitated heads echoed off the jungle as they bounced down the steps of temple pyramids. Found throughout Central America, the fate of Mayan civilization remains steeped in mystery. Why and how did one of the most powerful empires in history suddenly disappear? It is uncertain if human sacrifices took place here in Lamanai as it did in other later Mayan temples, although blood-letting sacrifices almost certainly did. I walk up the blackened stairs, soak up the mystery, with silence so spooky it could break my fall.
Chernobyl and Prypiat
Site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, it didn’t feel that weird standing outside reactor number 4. That’s because radiation is a silent killer, and sure enough the Geiger counter was reading levels dozens of times higher than in the nearest major city of Kiev. The true creep only sets when you visit the nearby deserted city of Prypiat. Residents had just hours to leave, abandoning everything, including their pets. A quarter century later, the city is a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. Dead silence, school books flapping in the wind, buildings cracking with time. Since everything inside the 30km Zone of Alienation is considered nuclear waste, there they will remain. Including this haunting doll, one of many to be found in an eerily silent school.
The Kataragama Festival
Hang on, there’s nothing creepy about the Katharagama Festival! It’s an incredible, peaceful and unforgettable celebration of faith, as three major religions congregate in worship and respect. Still, when I stumbled on this unique Muslim ceremony, I witnessed a spectacle soaked in blood and wide-eyed fear. Holy men had gathered in a circle, and to demonstrate the intensity and extent of their faith, proceeded to stab themselves with knives and spears. To the chant of voices and the beat of drums, the holy man pictured jammed two knives deep in his skull, slashed his tongue and chest, but seemed to recover perfectly with a dab of ash on the wounds. Filming an episode of Word Travels, the reaction of our sound guy Paul (look right) speaks volumes.
Bonus: Introducing The Creepiest Guy I Ever Met. In Ethiopia's Southern Omo Valley. Oh, he was holding an AK-47. I believe I complimented him on his hair style, maintained eye contact, and backed away, very, very slowly....
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.