Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas 'Round the World

Opinion |

So here it is, Christmas Day. All the halls are decked, all the chestnuts roasted, and all the eggs nogged. If you have kids, your home is no doubt filled with the cheerful din of the little ones doing their level best to completely destroy the toys Santa brought. It’s tradition.
There are lots of traditions at Christmas. There are the big, widely shared ones, like the tree and the pretty lights. But it should surprise no one that, around the world, people celebrate the holidays in ways that are, shall we say, a little different.
In Japan, for example, nothing says “Christmas” like KFC.
While the birth of Jesus isn’t a national holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun, a combination of clever marketing and a craving for holiday fowl among homesick expatriates has caused Colonel Sanders to be as much an icon as Santa Claus this time of year in Japan.
The chain sells an estimated 240,000 “party barrels” of chicken, chocolate cake and wine every holiday. Better get your order in early, though. They often sell out months in advance (My wife, by the way, heartily approves of this tradition).
The folks in Greenland enjoy some more traditional (at least for them) delicacies at Christmastime. There’s “mattiak,” which is a strip of whale skin with blubber inside. It’s reputed to be somewhat chewy.
Or if you’re not into seafood, there’s “kiviak,” which is the flesh of 500 or so auks (a tiny Arctic bird), packed inside a sealskin, which is then sewn up and allowed to ferment for about seven months before the sealskin is opened and what must be a truly indescribable mess is consumed.
Yum! After contemplating that, fruitcake doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?
For truly odd Christmas treats, however, you have to go to the Catalan region of Spain, where one of the iconic figures of the season is the “Tió de Nadal,” or Christmas Log — a hollowed-out piece of wood with a happy face and little wooden legs on one end and the other end open.
Starting Dec. 8, it’s the children’s job to “feed” Tió de Nadal by stuffing him with candies, nuts and other foodstuffs. On Christmas Eve, it’s time for the little guy to earn his other name: Caga Tió, which, politely translated, means “poop log.”
The children beat the log with sticks to make the goodies fall out, while chanting the traditional song that goes, “Poop, log! Poop nougats, hazelnuts and cheese! Poop well, or I’ll beat you with a stick!”
This goes to show you one thing that binds all humanity together: Whatever their nationality, little kids find poop jokes hilarious. When the poor, put-upon log is finally “emptied,” he’s tossed into the fire and burned, which hardly seems fair, really.
And yes, the kids do eat the candy.
The people of Venezuela haven’t had a lot to celebrate recently. But let’s hope they’ve kept one great Christmas tradition alive, by which I mean the tradition of roller-skating to Christmas Mass.
According to MSN, “vehicular access to Caracas is blocked off in many areas before 8 a.m. to allow this unconventional commute to take place, and the night before, children will tie one end of string to their big toe and hang the other out of the window — allowing the passing roller skaters to offer a friendly tug as they pass in the morning.”
All of the above seem somewhat whimsical and light hearted. But in the Netherlands, they seem to have gone out of their way to discover the dark side of Christmas.
For one thing, “Sinterklass,” their version of jolly old St. Nick, doesn’t live with his wife at the North Pole. He lives in Spain, surrounded by a group of dark-skinned assistants (possibly slaves) known as “Zwarte Pieten” (“Black Peters”).
The Zwarte Pieten are sort of like Santa’s enforcers; they’re tasked with beating naughty children with sticks and stuffing the really bad ones into sacks to be dragged off to slavery in Spain. The Zwarte Pieten, played by guys in dark makeup and curly-haired wigs, are a fixture at every public appearance of Sinterklaas, because, after all, what would the joy of Christmas be without the dread of black guys coming to your house, beating you senseless, then dragging you off in a sack?
To their credit, some in the Netherlands have begun questioning whether the idea of scaring little kids with violent guys in blackface is a little bit racist. It’s a debate we’ll leave for another time, because hey, it’s Christmas.
Whatever your Christmas tradition, even if it involves roller skates, KFC, pooping logs or scary black elves, I hope it brings you joy and peace.