Christmas around the world

By Tom Cardella

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 20, 2012

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A traditional Christmas means different things around the world. Your intrepid columnist has dug out a few of the more unusual ones. The traditions are real. The comments his own.

Greenland: The traditional meal is Kiviak. It consists of 500 auks (birds of the area) complete with feathers, beaks and all in a seal stew that is placed under a rock, sealed with grease and allowed to ferment for many months. And then, yummy! Think of Kiviak the next time you complain about the Christmas turkey. It is not true that Kiviak was the featured Christmas dish on “The Chew,” but Mario Batali did consider it.

Italy: It is traditional that instead of Santa Claus, La Befena, the witch, brings presents to children. She is very economical; instead of needing all those reindeer, she uses a simple broom. The drawback is she scares the hell out of the children, and is one reason why my Uncle Nunzi fled the old country for America.

Ukraine: Apparently they never heard of sprayed on snow, tinsel or Christmas ornaments in the Ukraine because natives decorate the tree with real spiders and spider webs. The big problem is they wind up with a lot of flies in their Christmas trees.

Japan: Two things to remember if you’re celebrating Christmas in Japan. Never send a red colored card there because it is considered poor etiquette. Isn’t red one of the traditional colors of Christmas? It also is a tradition in Japan to eat at Ketucky Fried Chicken (true). Reservations are needed. I’m not sure whether they prefer original or extra crispy. Pass the soy sauce.

Caracas, Venezuela: On Christmas Day in Caracas, the streets are closed and churchgoers rollerskate to services. This could be a kind of Christmas roller derby if they allowed body checks. You see what lengths people will go to when the NHL is on strike.

Spain, Portugal and parts of Italy: Have you ever heard of El Caganer? This one is a bit bizarre even for me. The Caganer is a figure of a male with his pants down defecating to symbolize a good harvest. Think of the marketing possibilities — a definite natural for the Wildwood Boardwalk. Spain seems fixated on excrement because they also have a traditional Christmas “pooping” log that even has a name — Caga tió. Believe me, readers, I am not making this crap up (if you’ll pardon the expression). The log is placed in a fireplace, beaten with a stick while serenaded with a traditional “pooping” song intended to encourage the log to do number two. The log gives forth (so to speak) candies, nuts and, as a grand finale, a head of garlic or salted herring. I don’t know about you, but I’m heading to Spain for my next holiday trip if only to see the salted herring emerge.

Norway: In Norway, they hide the brooms to keep witches from stealing them and taking a ride on Christmas. No mention of why the Italians don’t steal this idea so La Befena is grounded in their country.

United Kingdom: Always the sedate ones, the folks of the U.K. simply make a wish while mixing pudding in a clockwise direction. Maybe Jell-O can market a version. 

Latvia: This one could make it on Broad Street on New Year’s Day in our country. The Lats have a tradition called “Mumming,” whereby their Mummers wear a variety of masks, including the faces of bears, horses, goats, gypsies and living corpses. What, no ostrich plumes?

Austria: In Austria, they celebrate Krampus Night (no, it doesn’t occur every 28 days) during which Santa’s evil twin punishes naughty children. This is why my Austrian Uncle Karl fled Austria when he was very young.

Spain again: As if it weren’t enough to be content with a tradition of defecating figurines and “pooping” logs, Spain also has a unique tradition on New Year’s Eve. People of all ages wear red underwear and sometimes nothing more to bring in the new year. I’m picturing a Spanish model wearing red Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Can you hurry up with my booking to Spain for the holidays?

Finland: Here’s a cozy Finnish tradition. The whole family heads to the cemetery on Christmas Eve to pay respect to the deceased. Picture the children singing sad songs and carrying candles while being traumatized for the rest of their lives. My family would have a lot of trouble if we were trying to live up to this Finnish tradition. How do you carry the plates of smelts, baccalà and calamari through the cemetery without spilling it? 

Luckily, we don’t have strange Christmas traditions in America. We buy a live tree and stick it in the corner of our tiny rowhome living room, decorate it with cheesy ornaments and lights that would never pass a real safety inspection and spray it with phony snow. We place toys around the tree, half of which get returned as soon as stores open Dec. 26. We eat a ton of food, get indigestion and promise to go a diet the very next day. 

And I wonder why a good Christmas song hasn’t been written in 40 years.

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.

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