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!
Making friends at Montana's Testicle Festival. Yes, you've seen this, and now you cannot unsee it.
Originally Published on Sympatico.ca
Take it from me, there’s a lot of weird events out there. Fun stuff, but weird. Many of these festivals below have roots stretching back hundreds of years, which is ample proof that people have always needed an outlet to release their communal energy, or maybe just to leap over screaming babies. Most countries have a festival that belongs on my list, but these are my personal favourites:
Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill
Take a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese and roll it down a steep, muddy hill. Fun I know, but the cheese doesn’t have to stop there. Allow 20 guys at a time to chase the wheel to the bottom. By chase, I mean a head over shoulders, slipping, sliding, bone crunching, joint smashing descent into certain physical discomfort. After several rounds of competition, the fastest guy to the bottom wins great honour, and presumably a lot of cheese. Dating back 200 years, this annual event in England’s Cotswold region has become so popular organizers have had to cancel it in 2010 for safety reasons. That’s OK, you can always head over to Whistler, BC, which has started it’s own Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival.
World Bog Snorkelling Championship
Swimming races are far more interesting when competitors have to navigate a murky peat bog. An annual event held near the small town of Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales, competitors must kick their way forward through a 55m trench, twice, in the fastest time possible. This popular event has expanded into a bog mountain bike race, and even a bog triathlon. I’d tell you more about it, but don’t want to bog you down with the details.
World Toe Wrestling Championship
There’s no reason to trip over the puns at this unique event, which attracts the feet of competitors from around the world. Opponents toe-off during a toe-down, with the goal to force each other’s feet off the toe-dium. If your little piggies are getting slaughtered, you can forfeit by crying “toe much!” Seriously. Rules are governed by the World Toe Wrestling Organization, and champion Toeminator Paul Beech is, I imagine, someone you do not want to get into a round of footsies with. The event takes place at the Bentley Brooke Inn in Ashbourne, everyone is welcome, and all proceeds go to charity. Toe-tally worth it then.
The Naked Festival
The origins of the Hadaki Matsuri date back to the 7th century, a communal act of ritual cleansing and purification. There are variations around Japan, taking place in summer or winter, but the gist of it is that men get naked (save for optional loin cloth and sandals) and go bananas. The Shinotoko, a highly honoured Naked Man, walks amongst the crowd who, with one touch, can expel your bad energy. The crowd heave their way towards the Shintoko in the hope of touching his skin, while officials throw mud or water to calm and cleanse the masses. Nothing gets rid of bad vibes like being naked with thousands of other guys, all going bezerk. Nothing.
Rolling Wood: Onbashira and Danjiri Matsuri are two different festivals with a similar premise. Large wooden objects are rolled, dragged and pushed through crowded streets. Danjiri are decorated wooden carts built by proud carpenters demonstrating their skill, which does not extend to cart pulling, since carts often reach tremendous speeds, topple over, and occasionally kill someone. Onbashira takes place in the Nagano region, as tall trees are cut down and rolled down a mountain to revitalize an ancient shrine. Huge rolling logs, steep hills, large crowds – what could go wrong?
Not everyone has the balls to enjoy the Testicle Festival, taking place annually in Montana. After visiting Testy Fest in Missoula, I can confirm that the taste is not unlike liver, which makes sense, since both originate from vital organs. Vital for me, anyway. The Testy Festy seems to attract a lot of drunk bikers, who clearly have what it takes to consume the vast amounts of oysters and “turkey fries” on offer. Given this unsavoury element, visitors might take special care to protect the family jewels.
Summer Redneck Games
The town of East Dublin Georgia hosts the annual Redneck Games, featuring events such as The Cigarette Flip, the Mud Pit Belly Flop, Hubcap Hurling, Big Hair, and of course, a Wet T shirt contest. Originating in 1996 as a response to a DJ’s comment that rednecks were hosting the Olympics in Atlanta, the Redneck Games now attract thousands of people every year, with all money raised being donated to charity. If your family tree doesn’t branch and you’ve got a natural knack at Bobbin for Pig’s Feet, head on down to Georgia. A legion of fans await.
SPAIN & PORTUGAL
Never have I been so thankful for the existence of a low wall.
Bullfighting on a Rope
Think running with bulls is impressive? On the island of Terceira in the Azores, they let their kids run with bulls on the beach! Bulls form the backbone of the annual Festival of St John. I experienced this first hand, including a thrilling bolt down a boxed-in street as a 600kg monster charged ahead in his quest to make mincemeat of anyone standing in his way. Unlike Spain, where bulls are killed in bullfighting, Portuguese bullfighting-on-a-rope spares the creature’s life. Several men hold back the bull from a safe distance connected with a long rope. Kids run safely into the sea, while on the streets, only the bravest men taunt the bull by running up close enough to touch it. Braver men than I, I might add.
In the Spanish village of Castrillo de Mercia, locals celebrate Corpus Christi by taking a running jump. Harmless enough, unless you place half a dozen helpless babies beneath them, which on a list like this, you bet they do. El Colacho, as it is known, dates back to 1620, when people were also known to burn witches at the stake. This tradition continues however, as men dressed like the devil jump over rows of babies, laying bewildered on a mattress. It’s a symbolic attempt to chase away evil, and clear a path for a healthy life. Providing the jumper clears the mattress, of course.
50,000 people. 100 tons of overripe tomatoes. A tradition that encourages throwing tomatoes at everybody and anybody as hard as you can? La Tomatina takes place the final Wednesday of August every year in the Spanish town of Bunul. Travel tip: Goggles help with the acidic tomato juice running into your eyes, and don’t wear an expensive suit. If you’d prefer to change the colour, the Italian festival of Ivrea uses oranges instead of tomatoes. And elsewhere, children go hungry. Just saying….
The Giant Omelette
Seven cities around the world join together annually to make a 5000-egg omelette, harking back to the Napoleonic era. Canada is ably represented by Granby in Quebec, joining towns in France, Belgium, New Caledonia and Argentina. The idea is to create a giant omelette, which is then fed to the community, free of charge. According the official website: “It has also become the symbol of a world-wide fraternity, rich in friendship, tradition and cultural exchange, known as the Confrerie.” Somewhere in the world, there must be a giant toast festival. If we bring in the tomatoes from Spain and pigs from the Rednecks in Georgia, we can start a new festival: Esrock’s Big Breakfast World Championship.
Things get pretty weird in a Finnish sauna
Finland deserves their own entry, because their festivals are so wonderfully bizarre you have to give credit where it’s due.
Wife Carrying World Championships
Its origins supposedly date back to that marvelously romantic custom of attacking a village and carrying away your future wife. He who runs fastest, or with the best technique (like the Estonian legs around the neck maneuver) presumably outran an enraged father not too far behind. The event takes place every year in Sonkajärvi, as competitors race across a 252m obstacle course. The wife does not have to be your own, but must be at least 17 years old, and weigh a minimum of 49kgs. Every summer, competitors come from all over the world, and the sport has spread to the United States, where apparently it is a lot simpler than dealing with divorce lawyers.
Finnish Sauna World Championships
If you can’t stand the heat, don’t compete. Sauna is deeply entrenched in Finnish culture, so it makes sense that the country would host the World Championships. Starting off at a cool 110C, water is poured on the rocks every 30 seconds until there is but one person remaining, able to walk out, unassisted. Everyone else presumably melts away. Competitors from 20 countries now attend this annual event in the town of Heinola, although naturally Finns dominate. I once spent two minutes on the top shelf of a public sauna in Helsinki, and saliva started to boil in my mouth. Yes. That is true.
World Cell Phone Throwing Championships
There’s a fuzzy connection between the country that gave us Nokia, and professional cell phone throwing competitions. But hey, this sport is dialed in. Depending on the event, athletes are given the same phone, and must throw the phone behind their shoulder as far as they can. A freestyle event awards points for creativity (no word if you get extra points for hitting the idiot who can’t explain why your roaming charges tally the GDP of Ghana). The World Championships take place every August in Savonlinna, and millions of people around the world are practicing every day, they just don’t know it.
Mosquito Killing World Championships
I’ve seen the mosquitoes in the Finnish summer. They’re more like bloodsucking vultures, hunting in packs. The WKMC takes place annually in the town of Pelkosenniemi. No chemicals or machines allowed. Competitors only have five minutes to extract revenge, even as the mosquitoes extract their blood. There’s also a mosquito swatting event held in Italy, and probably at every lake cottage in Canada during the summer months.
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.