And so to #10 on the countdown to Christmas. There’s been some great posts already, but here with an amusing and alternative look at the festive traditions is Matt Posner!
Rare and Unusual Christmas Traditions
by Matt Posner
author of the School of the Ages series
All content copyright 2011 by Matt Posner
As you will recall, last year in this space I wrote about unusual and surprising Christmas traditions in the United States, including the famous “Jackalope Roundup” sponsored by the Bush family in Crawford, Texas; the New Orleans “Elf and Crawdad Fry and Jazz-a-Palooza”; Idaho’s own “Giant Santa Spud Gun Shoot-Off”; and in my hometown of New York City, the annual “Christmas vs. Chanukah vs. Kwanzaa Prospect Park Bocci Battle.” Well, this year it’s time for me to leave my native country and, in the true School of the Ages multicultural spirit, have a look at how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the globe.
I have scoured the web, looking in the archives of every weird news column you ever imagined you heard of, to see if I can find some peculiar, surprising, even shocking practices that are associated with Christmas worldwide. Fortunately, I was able to find a few. Otherwise, who knows what I might have had to write here. I might have had to make something up, and you would have seen through that, wouldn’t you, you smart-alecks, you clever dicks, you… you… Uh, sorry, where was I?
1) Luton, England: For the last thirty years, residents of one Luton council housing building have been wearing Santa Hats on their feet at the annual Christmas Eve party in the recreation room. “We attach them to our feet with really heavy rubber bands,” said Emma Gemma Smith, 67. “It does rather cut off my circulation, so I do rest them on the edge of the pool table, with the beer bottles.” This habit is someone less popular with the local constabulary, who claim that the stitched-shut red cloth hats are used to transport controlled substances between apartments. “Don’t be daft,” said Smith. “We can just use our pockets for that, you pillocks.”
2) Esperanza, Spain: In Esperanza, Christmas isn’t just gifts and trees. In Esperanza, Christmas means the annual Bull’s Tail Braiding contest. Hair donated by local barbershops and by local girls whose fathers don’t like them is woven into complex braids around the tails of bulls. The bulls, if impatient with the process, are soothed when old women stroke their backs with willow branches. At times they sedate the animals with whole bottles of Algerian wine. The judges are the town mayor, his wife, his children, and his in-laws. The winner’s family becomes the owner of the bull or receives a cash prize; often the families of needy contestants receive secondary prizes at the public expense.
3) Nádega do Pato, Portugal’s special tradition is called Cuspo no Indiano, or “Spit on the Indian.” A person dressed as a Native South American sits in the center of the town square, and everyone who passes by aims a spitball. Those who can strike from furthest away, or who can strike the ears, eyeballs, or adam’s-apple of the Indian, become temporary town celebrities and are plied with glasses of wine at the famous taberna, Estufa no Verde. Although subjugated people from Brazil were once used, the role of the Indian is now played by a good-hearted and modestly paid volunteer.
4) Irritabile, Italy. Christians in this small town in Tuscany celebrate Christmas with a revived former Etruscan tradition: They sleep under the tree with a pine cone in their mouths. Etruscan peasants in pre-Roman times always braved the cold to sleep under evergreen trees on the night of the Winter Solstice in order to placate seasonal deities and bring about a swifter spring. These days the tree is usually inside, and the pine cone may be a symbolic hard candy or a stuffed felt cat toy, but so deeply rooted is the tradition that large families sometimes install three or four trees throughout the house to provide peace and quiet to those who can’t tolerate Nonno’s snoring.
5) Faustberg, Germany: This outer suburb of Munich commemorates a famous incident during which a famous Burgomeister, Sigmund von Kokonusskopf, got drunk and ran through the street throwing loaves of brown bread from his bakery at everyone he saw. This is exactly what the Faustburgers now do on Christmas night; starting, as von Kokonusskopf did, at exactly 7:14 PM, they come out onto the street in Tyrolean hats and long nightshirts and push wheelbarrows full of loaves that have been left out to get stale so that they are extra hard. They usually sing “Ich mocht’ so gern a Masskrug sein. ” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ml240SOEWw0 The event is called “Gehen-auf- und- ab- die- Straßen-Gesangliede- über- Pumpernickel.”
6) Rnzt, Bulgaria. While famous in Bulgaria, the town of Rnzt is little known outside that country despite its very unusual Christmas tradition. In 1967, local communist bosses tried out an innovation that was somewhat at odds with the demands of the Bulgarian communist party, but which they believed would be an alternative way of enforcing socialist equality. In Rnzt, Christmas was not banned, as it was under communism in most Soviet-dominated lands. Instead, as enforced by law, every person in the town receives exactly the same gift. In June, a list of items in a prescribed price range (i.e. cheap) are put into a jar, and then one is drawn out and announced. Then each person’s family is responsible for purchasing the requisite number of the gift item and distributing them on Christmas day. Bales of hay and new cooking pots are among the more frequently drawn items. Although communism has receded, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is now an important force in the area, residents of Rnzt still maintain this tradition of an identical gift for each person, although they now give other gifts also.
It is difficult to find information on Christmas celebrations in Africa, because in most of Africa, the Internet doesn’t work very well. Those countries in Africa where Internet is available have supplied me with the following information.
1. Nigeria. Nigerian Christians do not have a ready supply of evergreen trees, so potted oil palms or iroko trees are occasionally substituted, or imported plastic trees, which are occasionally available at roadside stands in Lagos, Enugu, and Maiduguri. A rapidly growing Christmas-time phenomenon among peoples living near the Obudu Plateau is the game of “Potholes and Cousins,” in which two groups of rivals, friendly or unfriendly, gather near a traditionally rough Nigerian road and take turns placing members of the group standing atop potholes. A team member who is surrounded diagonally by three members of the opposite team is forced to vacate the pothole, leaving it empty. When every visible pothole is occupied, except for those surrounded by three members of a single team, the group with the fewest members remaining wins bragging rights.
2. South Africa. Most South African Christian families celebrate Christmas in a way familiar to Americans, but near Mosselbaai, on the southern coast by the Cape of Good Hope, the large Ogterop clan has for some years enacted an odd spectacle for charity purposes. Called the “Antelope Sleigh Fair,” it is the harnessing of a large number of antelope from the Ogterop antelope farm to a wheeled cart decorated like Santa’s sleigh. The antelope, being independent by nature, do not usually pull the cart, but ongoing efforts are made to train or otherwise motivate them to do so, at least for a small distance. The verifiable record for distance was set by the team of Bartolomeus Ogterop in 2003, with 10 yards, although there are unconfirmable claims that a progenitor, Hubrecht Ogterop, achieved a seventeen-yard pull in 1924. In the past, only fellow Afrikaners were permitted to attend the Antelope Sleigh Fair, but it is now open to all neighbors provided that they agree to wear shoes.
1. Mexico. Details are somewhat limited on some of these events, but here are short summaries of what I could learn.
a) Fiesta de los Santos Gordos Rubios (Oaxaca) — Very fat men paint themselves red and do runway modeling as semi-nude Santas wearing only red and white hats and red and white kilts. The winner gets to go out with a pretty local girl. A local magazine runs photos of the event. I ordered an issue from eBay, but I am still waiting for it to arrive because it is shipping from Hong Kong.
b) Fiesta de Comer Tinsel (Guanajuato) — Young men eat tinsel as a test of their manhood. The winner gets to go out with a pretty local girl. According to my source, ” Los muchachos sufren de diarrea terrible, pero sienten que vale el apuro.”
2. Bolivia. Because Bolivia is warm in the winter, Bolivians take extra measures to ensure some freezing cold fun in December. Thus the annual “Lake Titicaca Ice Cube Throw.” Teams come from all the major metropolitan areas in this lovely tropical country carrying coolers of ice from their freezers as well as portable barbecue grills. While grilling pork chops, fish, and steaks, the participants fight for local pride in a contest to hurl ice cubes as far as they can into the warm waters of Lake Titicaca. The team from Cochabamba won during the last fourteen years of active competition, although several years have been missed due to an interdict from President Evo Morales, who wishes to move the event from Lake Titicaca to the Salar de Uyuni in order to attract attention to his ongoing project to exploit Bolivia’s lithium resources. “No podemos lanzar cubos de hielo en el desierto,” said opposition leader Popo Calderon.
There are a lot more bizarre holiday traditions to be found, so keep checking my blog regularly, because you never know when I may have another set to tell you about!!
Happy holidays, everyone!!
Here is a sample from my School of the Ages short story book, Tales of Christmas Magic, now on sale for the Kindle and Nook:
From “Goldberry vs. Santa Claus”
Goldberry Tinker, a young woman of great beauty and significant magical power, was lonely on Christmas Eve in 2003.
She was with her mother, Rosemary, who was a powerful fortune teller and who had passed her talents on to Goldberry; and with her father, Clive, a monstrously strong sorcerer who loved her but constantly interfered with her doings. All of them were English. Neither parent was much of a comfort to a sixteen-year-old. She wanted friends with her but was relatively unlikely to admit it.
Goldberry was a student at School of the Ages in New York, America’s oldest and greatest magic school, founded in the 1840s by the wizardly industrialist Elihu Danvers. She had attended the school for three years and was one of its best-known current students as the junior year was set to begin. School of the Ages was closed for the winter holiday, and the kids had scattered, and though she could easily contact anyone she wanted, it wasn’t the same. Someone from her social circle should have realized on her or his own that Goldberry would need Christmas Eve company. She would never ask for it, of course: stiff upper lip was the best policy.
She especially missed her partner and best friend, Simon. He was out of town. They had cell phones, of course. More than that, they were magicians, and they were able to speak to each other in their minds using a special channel they shared, called thought-trading, which was not affected by distance. It wasn’t telepathy exactly; instead, each of them realized what the other was thinking. They hadn’t been using that power, though. In fact, they weren’t talking about anything important, and hadn’t been for some time. The phone wasn’t good enough, and thought-trading wasn’t good enough. They needed to talk, face-to-face.
Goldberry had been wanting to talk things out with Simon for several months, but she had been too proud, and now, when a moment had arrived when he was thousands of miles away and out of reach, she was at last ready to do something. She told her mother, who commented wryly upon the irony of the situation, and who further infuriated her by wishing that she would not be sixteen for too much longer.
“I have a feeling that I need to be in the school tonight,” Goldberry then told her father.
“There’s no one else there,” he said. “The school is entirely deserted, except for whatever ghosts might turn up. I should think you’ve had your fill of those.”
“I need to be there,” she insisted. “I have a very strong feeling that I do.”
“Bollocks,” said her father.
“Why did they leave the school empty anyway?” Goldberry demanded. “Who knows what they’ve bloody got in there anyway that someone would want to take?”
“A few of the Jabotinsky Artifacts, the Hat of Lerna, the Pasha’s Nose, the Dread Duck of Darbyshire — and those are only the ones I know about”
“Dread Duck of Darbyshire? Who’s feeding it?”
“And no one is protecting those things?”
“The Dean says the school attracts its own defenders when it needs to.”
“So drop me off there.”
The quarrel went as their quarrels always did. Clive Tinker spoke fiercely, but beneath it all, he doted on his daughter, and so Goldberry got her way, and he pulled his Rolls Royce out of its Upper East Side garage and dropped her off at the school building.
In the late fall, the island was swept by sharp updrafts that pulled the leaves from the surrounding forest and layered them on the school roof. No one had cleaned the roof since school ended in October, and it was covered with an ankle-high layer of these dried leaves.
Goldberry paced, kicking her way through the crisp dried leaves with an abandon she would never have shown with people around. Something was going to happen — things always happened on the school roof, and mysterious events had come to pass more than once when she was there, and she knew something would happen tonight.
She had heard that soft ringing sound in dozens of Christmas songs over the years.
Thanks Matt, brilliant!
I guess Christmas is different for everyone! 😉
Stop by tomorrow for some more festive fun with Partrice Fitzgerald.