Christmas is all about tradition – beliefs and customs that have been handed from one generation to the next, readily adopted without any question or comment. As a child, my family always had a ‘real’ Christmas tree, decorated with ‘real’ candles, that were lit on Christmas Eve so that the smell of pine needles would waft through the house. It was very, very confronting to visit my friend as an impressionable eight year old and for the first time discover a horrific intruder: The FAKE Christmas tree. How can you have a fake Christmas tree? With fake Christmas candles? Of course, years later I would have my own bogus shrubbery, because this counterfeit made life just a whole lot easier.
My shock over the discovery of fraudulent firs was the result of not realising that other folk have different traditions. I assumed everyone celebrated Christmas like our family – the perfectly normal family with the normal, real Christmas tree. To this day, people around the world celebrate Christmas in their very normal homes, thinking that everyone else will be doing exactly the same thing.
If you live in Ethiopia, you would shrug at the commotion that happens on the 24th and 25th December in some of the Western nations. Your Christmas is observed on the 7th of January and is called Ledet or Genna, stemming from the word Gennana which means ‘imminent’. You would be dressed in white and Christmas activities include a lot of dancing and games.
If you visit Slovakian relatives at Christmas time, there’s a great likelihood that you would have to wrangle the carp that is swimming in your bathtub into a bucket, before showering. Carp is often on the Christmas menu and bought alive at the market. When you sit down for dinner on Christmas Eve, try not to act surprised when the father of the family casually throws a huge spoon of pudding at the ceiling. He is trying to ensure a bumper crop the following season. Remember, this is normal! Meanwhile, in neighbouring Ukraine, they have a whole love affair going with spiders, who, according to legend, spun beautiful webs on the Christmas tree of a poor family that could not afford to decorate it. Ever since Ukrainians decorate the Christmas trees with, you guessed it, masses of arachnids and webs … that would go down so well with some of my friends.
Then we have my tribe: The Germans. If we are not driving our cars at insane speeds on the Autobahn, or drinking copious amounts of beer, or designing some kick-ass new technology, we also like to traumatise our children. If Brothers Grimm doesn’t do it for you then just remind your wee offspring of ‘Knecht Ruprecht’, who is a sort of dark sidekick to Nikolaus (St. Nicholas). A charming, horned monster that scavenges around the countryside looking for the bad children to punish and then present them with a birch instead of presents. Other parts of Germany do not fancy Knecht Ruprecht. They prefer a delightful cherub called ‘Schwarzer Peter’ who carries a whip. Our Bavarian brothers and sisters, suffering from ‘Anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better’ syndrome, cover themselves in straw from head to toe on St. Nicholas day.
They cover their faces with fur masks and roam around Bechtesgadener Land with cow bells hanging from their waist to drive out evil spirits. This normal tradition is called ‘Buttnmandl’ run. On the 1st and 4th Sunday in Advent, in the same place, they dress up in Lederhosen and shoot thousands of rounds of ammunition into the air to awaken nature from its winter slumber … they are yet to analyse how effective this method really is.
Slide further south and our thrill-seeking Italian cousins like to ski down slopes carrying torches after Christmas midnight mass. They also don’t stop partying until the 6th January (the day of Epiphany) and finish up with a great feast (I love Italians!). Up north, our Norwegian friends hide their brooms on Christmas Eve, just in case a witch swipes it and take it for a joy ride. Frankly, I would not hide my broom – happy for them to have it and burn all the wheelies they like. It’s interesting that in Guatemala they can’t get enough of brooms on Christmas Eve. Neighbours sweep their houses, then create a sense of community by building a huge pile out of the combined dirt and burn an effigy of the devil on top of it.
In Gävle, Sweden, patient folk have been building a Yule Goat every Christmas. Nearly every year the goat is destroyed by vandals, Volvo drivers (absolutely no surprise there) and arsonists (I suspect that would be the adrenaline-high, caffeinated witch on some stolen Norwegian broom). The peace-loving, non-assertive Brits, who hate to talk about war, have an age-old tradition of making sure every member of the family stirs the bubbling Christmas pudding in a clockwise direction, while making a wish. They also hide a silver coin in the pudding. This is a touching, nostalgic reminder of the sheer delight in the finding and keeping of treasure. But it’s Christmas – so the activity is limited to the pudding, not other nations.
*Sigh* … so much blog already, so many more countries. In China, people don’t really give a fig about Christmas, but they do give each other apples, because the Chinese words for ‘Christmas Eve’ is ‘Ping An Ye’ and the word for apple is ‘Ping Guo’ … the connection is obvious. In Japan, it is all too hard. You need to make reservations at Kentucky Fried Chicken so you can celebrate Christmas eating your tortured feather friends. Meanwhile, over in the US of A, people are reverently hanging their precious pewter Donald Trump Christmas Snowflake on the tree. That would be the tree that stands as a focal point in the house, right next to the safe filled with assault rifles, and the nativity scene of Middle Eastern Refugees seeking asylum.
And Australia? Well, we’re the lucky country, you see. We don’t give a rip about everybody else’s tradition. We are tough. In a global refugee crisis, we ‘store’ hapless humans on islands. And at Christmas we throw ourselves into the sea to find crustaceans that have run out of luck, and we throw them on the barbie. But don’t worry – our beaches are perfectly safe. We have a whole suppository of previous Prime Ministers who would don Speedos as a lifestyle choice, ready to defend this unsettled, or scarcely settled, nation against marauding lamnidae families … because “Shit happens!” All good, all perfectly normal.
Homo Sapiens do it again: We are the evolved, intelligent, normal species with wonderful traditions. Merry Christmas!
“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone