Thirteen correspondents from around the world describe what Christmas means and looks like from Kabul to Buenos Aires
Somehow the idea of a Christmas special reminds us of those terrifically fake living room shows like Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, which ran every year for decades in the U.S. and ended in 1977 with an episode where the butter-voiced, sweater-vested Crosby sang a duet with the gauntly alien David Bowie. The next single Bowie would release was Cat People (Still this pulsing night // A plague I call a heartbeat); the next thing Crosby did was die, just weeks later, of a heart attack on a Spanish golf course.
In a way, that spectacularly odd pairing around the piano is something like the way Christmas is still lived around the world. Our dozen correspondents from Kabul to Istanbul to Buenos Aires tell stories about a holiday season full of Bing-Bowie contrasts: of frost or sweltering heat, of Christians run amok or Christians under fire, of a bit of war and lots of nervous peace. Oh, and julmust soda, Karachi fruitcakes, smuggled geese and all your other holiday staples. Merry Christmas, to believer and infidel alike.
Istanbul pays a visit to the last of the Levantines
Karachi tries to stage at least an underground Christmas
Moscow where free markets meet gentle saunas
Kabul for stolen tannenbaums and a smuggled goose
Hanoi is a song that slowly drives you mad
Buenos Aires and the humid holidays
Stockholm fights the endless dark, often by just leaving
Brisbane through flood, swelter and fire
Tbilisi on the hunt for chili paste and piglets
Groesfaen and the Welsh Christmas nightmares
Bethlehem, where Jesus is still Palestinian
Darkhan and the ontology of Mongolian Santa
Jakarta and the superelectric Christmas mall experience
As the first winter snowstorm gathers over Istanbul, I am on a Christmas mission with the cheeriest well-wisher I know: my mother, self-appointed guardian of the Last Levantines. These are a breed of very elderly people, remnants of the multicultural Ottoman Empire, who live scattered around Istanbul—once the Imperial capital. They belong, vaguely, to several countries and carry one or two European passports, though they have never lived there. They speak many languages, often together: French, Arabic, Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Greek or English. Their people originally came to the Levant—a French word for ‘rising’ that referred to Europeans who went east to where the sun rises—for work in the 19th century and never left.
“Levantine cities were escapes from the prisons of nationality and religion,” writes historian Philip Mansel in The Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean. “In these cities between worlds people switched identities as easily as they switched languages.”
Argentina, a sprightly 87-year-old who lives in a tiny basement flat on the Asian peninsula, has invited us for Christmas tea. They are scarce of money, Mum’s Last Levantines, but rich of heart. She lays out the good china and pastries. The tea she brews is a mix of English and Turkish blends.
Though she has lived in Istanbul all her life, she is British by way of Malta, a former British colony where her grandfather was a deep sea diver recruited by the Ottomans. The Maltese, she says, were renowned as excellent divers. All four of his sons continued the tradition – “though my dad was the best one!”. Her Christmas present to Mum is a silver dish he retrieved from a shipwreck. (We daren’t ask details.) She gets by on a pension of about $500 given by the British Consulate and considers herself British—proudly pointing to a balcony picture of the Royal Family on the dresser, next to a black-and-white photo of her father on the steps of the British Consulate.
She is other things too. Her mother was a Levantine of Italian descent. She attends mass in French at the nearby Our Lady of the Assumption. And she loves Greek TV. She and Becka, a cousin of Greek origin, also in her late 80s, chatter away in a mixture of Turkish and Greek. Becka’s family moved to Athens in the 1950s, when nationalist attacks and an overnight tax made it hard for minorities to continue living in Istanbul. “I refused to leave!” she says in accented Turkish. “Istanbul is the only place for me! When I go away I miss everything, even the way it smells.”
The multi-ethnic city of Consulate soirees and high teas at the Pera Palace that Argentina and Becka remember no longer exists. By the 1970s Istanbul was insular and entirely Turkified. But a new breed of Levantines is arriving, drawn by the pull of boomtown Istanbul—the ‘New York of Eurasia’ as an anthropologist friend put it.
Two Greek women have just opened a cosy cafe on the ground floor of my building, serving syrupy homemade sweets. A Christmas tree twinkles in the corner. One of them, Erena Lieliou worked for a construction company that folded in the Greek recession. She packed her bags and came to Istanbul. “I don’t feel like a foreigner here,” she says. “When I first came here as a tourist 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to live here. It was such a strong feeling.”
It is a homecoming of sorts—her maternal grandparents were born here and left in the traumatic population exchange between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s. She is slowly learning Turkish. This Christmas, Erena says, they will roast a turkey for a mixed group of Turks and Greeks. She called her cafe Kalimera, which means Good day!, and also, a new day has begun.
In a city so dominated by extremism and intolerance—from hateful graffiti scrawled on walls by religious-political parties to harassment and job discrimination against the beleaguered 2% of Karachi’s residents who are Christians—the idea of Christmas spirit is understandably a bit far from the mind.
Complicating this Christmas season as well is the fact that Karachi closes down over the barest whisper of trouble. Last Friday, after the Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice to the head of a national party called the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, armed men from the party went from marketplace to marketplace, threatening shop owners with death if they didn’t pull down the shutters in forced solidarity.
In seconds, Pakistan’s largest city turned into a ghost town, and restaurants only warily opened up on Saturday evening, after they’d been signaled that the day-long protests were over.
But look a little closer around Karachi, and it’s evident that some are celebrating. The churches, whose spires still dot the city’s skyline, have notices for carol performances tacked up on the wall—alongside banners condemning the Innocence of Muslims, the film that stoked worldwide protests, to ensure that no one takes the anger out on church property.
In a city where dozens of neighbourhoods are divided by sect of Islam, language, political affiliation or being from a ‘minority’—aka Christians and Hindus—it is easy to spot the poorer Christian neighbourhoods. Amid piles of trash and crumbling houses, there are glimpses of stars made from fairy lights, strung up on a wall. Across the city though, hotels and restaurants have put up Christmas trees to cash in on the holiday season and are advertising buffets and lunches. In Bohri Bazaar, vendors jostle for space on the sidewalk to sell plastic trees—and boxes of decorations—that are all made in China.
The New JC Misquita Bakery is gearing up for the holiday (the JC standing for Joseph Cajtien, not Jesus Christ). Misquita is famed for its hot cross buns on Easter, when people queue up in droves to buy them. I’d always heard it was a madhouse, particularly in the days before the holiday, but owner Syed Haider Abbas Zaidi is low-key. “It’s calm. People come, we serve them, and they leave.”
Despite being the most famous Christmas bakery, Misquita doesn’t not take orders for Christmas, and opening and closing times remain unchanged. Zaidi hands me a cheery flyer touting the holiday’s selections—the list includes plum cake, a ‘rich plum cake’, macroom [sic] cake, and marzipan and almond toffee, which he says is a popular choice. The bakery will only begin selling Christmas desserts on the December 22 and will wrap up around noon on Christmas Day.
While Karachi’s well-heeled crowd has been swept up in the craze of elaborately decorated cupcakes, Misquita sticks to what it knows. “We sell cupcakes too,” he says, pointing to some simple frosted cupcakes in the display case that wouldn’t pass muster with Karachi’s cupcake fans. “We haven’t changed anything. If we did, our customers would go elsewhere.”
Zaidi says sales have been on the decline for the past few holiday seasons. “Everything has become so expensive,” he says. “People can’t afford to buy things.”
A deeper problem even than recession: “So many Christians have migrated. So many of my own Christian friends have left for Canada or Australia… this is how the situation is.”
After I leave Misquita, I wander around the neighbourhood, where students from some of the city’s most prestigious schools—all run by Christians—are buying snacks from nearby shops. Older boys, following in the steps of many generations before them, chat up girls after that the school bell has rung.
Given that Karachi’s Christmas is nearly an underground affair these days, it’s fitting that the final shop I see is unmarked save for Christmas decorations in the window. Inside, though, people are busy doing the things of Christmas: buying up Christmas cards, sniffing candles and looking through holiday books. After I leave with my own purchases—a Christmas card and a poster depicting The Last Supper—the nun at the counter (this is a church shop, it turns out) hands me a 2013 calendar and smiles. There are no questions asked about my faith. Unlike mosques and madrassas, where I’ve been asked about what sect of Islam I follow and how many times I pray a day, no one cares in the shop, or in churches where I’ve attended services, about why I’m there. And after all, that’s all anyone could want for Christmas or any other day in Karachi: the right to live, in peace.
Saba Imtiaz (@Saba_Imtiaz) is a Karachi-based correspondent who contributes to Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog among others and is working on a book about the conflict in Karachi.
In America, the beloved, iconic, unavoidable winter holiday movie par excellence is Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946)—in which a Christmas angel saves a discouraged man from a capitalist devil named Potter. In the Former Soviet Union, the beloved, iconic, unavoidable winter holiday movie is Eldar Ryazanov’s “S Lyogkim Parom!” (1975) The title is translated “Have a nice bath!” (though it more literally means, “may the steam in your sauna be gentle”), and the movie tells the story of a man who gets so soused during a festive pre-New Year’s Eve shvitz at a Moscow sauna (a Russian tradition) that he hops a flight to Leningrad by mistake, and rings in the New Year with the wrong dame. (He doesn’t notice his error because Communist urban planning made Soviet street names and high-rises so interchangeable that one city could look pretty much like the next.) For most of the last century, Christmas was verboten in the U.S.S.R., as God and communism did not mix, but that did not mean that anybody quit making merry come solstice time, even if, until the 90s, cash on hand for gifting was scarce—as were gifts. No longer.
Lately, old-fashioned, opulent Christmas glee has returned to the Former Soviet Union, melding with their tradition of New Year’s Eve jollity, and creeping ever further back into December. Yuletide in Moscow positively glitters with Free Market tinsel. In the snowy, busy, traffic-lined squares, gigantic Christmas trees loom above intersections, glowing with green and white baubles. Before you breathe a sigh of wonderment at this festive public expression of joy, bear in mind that the globes dotting these pines are the logo of a Russian bank: Sberbank.
But this is not to say “Bah Khambag.” Quaint holiday trappings abound in Moscow, whether in the Arbat pedestrian zone, where pastel-painted townhouses hold souvenir shops (and a Starbucks and a Cinnabon), or at the outdoor folk art market Izmailovsky Vernissazh, forty minutes from the city center. At the Izmailovsky Vernissazh, gusts of snow swirl among hundreds of picturesque stalls proffering hand-painted Santa Claus and Grandfather Frost ornaments for “yolki” (fir-trees); as well as twirling wooden music boxes and rustic birchbark canisters; red-gold-and-back lacquered khokhloma spoons, trays and etuis; dainty earrings of wood, amber, malachite, and moonstone; tea sets of blue and white gzhel majolica; and holiday postcards left over from the Soviet era. There’s also a positive zoo of fur shapki on sale, the hats rustling on high racks amid the snow squalls and coming in many shapes—kubanki (pillbox), ushanki (with ear flaps), or brimmed caps—and in many animals: fox, rabbit, squirrel, or mink—sometimes with fluffy tails. Be prepared to barter.
For those who lack the time to journey out on the metro or the inclination to fight for skidkas (discounts), the color riot within the Kremlin walls comes close to a Christmas idyll anyway, and fur hats, matryoshki and other souvenirs are sold on many of the pedestrian walks and underpasses nearby. If you prefer to take cover from the wintry winds as you hunt holiday tchotchkes, you can snack on syrniki (sugary, hot cheese blintz-like pastries) at the Kofe Khaus (Coffee House) outpost in the Okhotny Ryad mall, right outside the Alexander Gardens. Hand-painted ornaments fill showcases that ring the mezzanines, around a glass elevator. And at the profusion of high-end hotels in today’s Moscow, tinsel, trees and carols abound. If you take tea in the lobby at the Ritz on Tverskaya street in December, it will be in the shadow of a huge Christmas tree, heavy with golden balls, to the sound of “Silver Bells” and Tchaikovsky, played by a pianist, hour after hour.
One more tip to keep in mind: the Christmas season lasts longer in Moscow than in much of the rest of the world, as they celebrate the holiday not on December 25, but on January 7, following the Gregorian calendar. On that day, pious Muscovites walk around the massive, restored Cathedral of Christ the Savior in a solemn procession, bearing candles, banners and icons. That cathedral was de-domed in the 1930s under Stalin, and converted into an open-air public swimming pool by Khrushchev in the 1950s. In the 1990s, the gold-glazed domes returned. So if you want to have a swim and sauna in Moscow to refresh yourself for the new year, you simply will have to do it somewhere else. “S lyogkim parom!” indeed.
White Christmases are common in Kabul but pass largely unnoticed in a city of Muslims. The only people to take notice of December 25 are the expat soldiers, aid workers, journalists, contractors and diplomats—or at least those that cannot make it home. While there is plenty of snow, there are few Christmas trees, crackers or turkeys to be found in this city.
One of the enterprising florists on Flower Street has sourced a few spindly firs, which look suspiciously similar to the ones planted by the city on the side of the road. “We have sold one so far. In previous years we have sold a few but this year is not so good,” said Mageeb Rahmy. His sad-looking firs—really no more that a six-foot branch wrapped in gaudy tinsel—sell for about $70 apiece.
“I prefer the plastic ones – I can always keep them for next year.”
Christmas for expats is a private affair, often behind sandbags and barbed wire inside the heavily-guarded guesthouses they call home.
Even inside the wire, ingenuity is needed to lay on a proper feast with all the trimmings. The keys to success come wrapped in newspaper, tucked inside suitcases arriving from overseas. Organised hosts have been compiling wishlists and ticking off delicacies as they arrive in the weeks leading up to the big day.
“We have a ten-pound goose, twenty chipolatas, Brussels sprouts and parsnips all brought in from Dubai,” said one long-term resident. “I just hope the oven can cope and we don’t run out of gas.”
The tinny notes of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” faintly waft down Phố Hàng Mã, joining the cacophony of motorbike horns, rattle of engines and shouts of haggling shoppers. It drifts past your ears with all the force of a musical card—the sort that plays when you open it, with unfinished phrases of music that lodge themselves in your subconscious, so you hum them without thinking and slowly go mad.
just like the ones I used to know
The old quarter with its streets of traders: one product per stretch of cramped road. Silk, leather, birds in delicate cages, scarves, shoes, carpets, on-trend puffer jackets, plastic buckets, seafood barbecue, car parts, Christmas decorations heaped over the paper props of ancestral sacrifice.
It’s December, so Hàng Mã is lined with bushels of tinsel—the cheapest sort—in varying garish metallic colours and levels of bushiness. The metal display grids resemble the furry coat of a children’s cartoon monster.
Within weeks, the bags of fake snow and head-bobbing Santas will be replaced with paper lanterns, crimson banners embossed with gold script, wishing passers by a Happy Tet.
where the treetops glisten
Fleets of angels swaddled in glittering nets of polyester. Bare fluorescent bulbs hanging from grimy striped awnings. Garlands of plastic gold bells. A troop of eerily smiling Styrofoam snowmen staring blankly into exhaust pipes. Polyester poinsettias. Ice blue glitter covered snowflakes. Rows of Santa hats with twisted white braids. Candy coloured rows of baubles in plastic tupperware.
and children listen
Even the traffic slows here in Hàng Mã.
Hau, in pale lemon skinny jeans and cocked eyebrows, surveys the hysteria astride his Suzuki.
“No. I don’t have a Christmas tree. And we mostly don’t believe in Jesus. But, well, you know, us Vietnamese, any excuse to party.”
An impish grin.
to hear, sleighbells in the snow
On the corner with Hàng Lược, oblivious to the consumerist festivity of the street, several residents are steadily perched on child-size plastic stools on the pavement. Sipping glasses of viscous, strong Northern Vietnamese coffee, stirring in the creamy layer of condensed milk on the bottom, running their fingers over the ice condensation down the side of the glass.
Behind them, a night sky vista of Santa and his reindeer gallops across a store front display window.
The pre-made cakes in the glass-fronted case at the patisserie are adorned with faux holly, next to the pastel sponge cake interpretation of an Angry Bird.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
A young mother with a toddler on her hip holds a tiny elf suit up to check if it’s the right size.
The disinterested child is fixated on a life-size stuffed alligator, hanging by its tail, furry and grinning into the tarmac.
with every Christmas card I write
The dusty smell of mass-produced plastic mingles with the faint scent of sewage, exhaust, deep fried fish nem.
At the Thuốc Bắc intersection a gaggle of shoppers are slurping bún chả, dipping rice noodles into the sweet tea-broth, crushing fresh bundles of coriander and mint into the soup, twisting the leaves around the slices of chargrilled pork with their chopsticks. Under their stools, overflowing bags of faux pine branches tucked between their legs.
The bún chả matriarch sits silent, tearing long locks of steaming noodles, draping them onto the chipped bowls perched on floral plastic trays.
May your days be merry and bright.
A Hàng Mã store owner picks her way between the rows of motorbikes and plastic Christmas bounty, drifting bundles of cerise paper inscribed with black characters into a metal bucket, painted scarlet. She lights a match.
The smoke rises into the late-morning mist, as the fake paper money burns for luck on the street of faux plastic festivity.
And may all your Christmases be white.
South Africa-based Nastasya Tay covers Africa for number outlets including Roads & Kingdoms. Follow her at @nastasyatay
When I think of Christmas as a child, I think of cool weather, the smell of pine trees, Santa Claus in his big red suit, milk and cookies, snow, and morning presents. My first ten Christmas’s were like that, mind you without the snow, as I was born in Los Angeles. But my mom pulled out all the stops. We had the tree, the ornaments, the list for Santa, and that uncontrollable excitement of waking up on Christmas morning and rushing to the Christmas tree to tear through Santa’s delivery.
So, at ten years old, when we moved to Argentina, I never fathomed Christmas to be such a sweaty shock. Yes, I had already outgrown believing in Santa, so that element of surprise was no longer around for the holidays, but I simply couldn’t reconcile the weather with the time of year. How do you celebrate such a warm and toasty holiday right smack in the middle of summer?
As the years went by, I slowly grew accustomed to these newfound traditions. Christmas shopping no longer entailed malls engulfed by carols and the smell of cinnamon and pine. They now consisted of navigating narrow, crowded, tree-lined streets, with aromas of coffee, bakeries, and exhaust fumes combining into one particular Buenos Aires scent. The cool California breeze mutated into the bright and piercing Argentine sun heaving its summer rays at me as I pounded the sidewalk and entered small shops that only counted on one big fan to recycle the humid air within.
Once, as I patiently waited in line in such a shop, beads of sweat started to trickle down my back in slow motion, the air became heavier with each breath, and I suddenly began to feel lightheaded and woozy. The owner noticed my pale face and rushed to my side, sat me down, and immediately began feeding me packets of sugar against my will, then pushed my head between my knees, so that I wouldn’t blackout. It worked. I left the store frazzled and in a slight daze and walked out into the oppressive heat, only to pass a Santa Claus in full costume in 90 degree weather, drops of sweat running down his fake white sideburns. Where am I and what have they done with Christmas? How am I to survive this hot and humid holiday year after year?
And then it hit me: Christmas Eve. That one special night when the horn-blowing traffic dies down and gives way to a few quiet hours followed by an explosion of sound and excitement. With each passing holiday season, I slowly discovered that Christmas Eve in Buenos Aires rocks!
My family gathers for dinner at around 9 p.m. and the celebration starts with drinks and a picada, equivalent to a round of small appetizers with deviled eggs, olives, a spread of cheese and crackers, and even the occasional L.A.-influenced chips and guacamole. While the Malbec and Clericot (Argentina’s version of a white sangria) are poured and handed to each of us, we chat around the picada table, hushing only to listen to my ninety-seven-year-old great-aunt blurt out some unfiltered, un-P.C. opinion which instantly silences the room and is followed by an irrepressible wave of giggles as we stand astounded at what just came out of her mouth. She smirks, knowingly, enjoying the effects of her shock-and-awe tactics.
Then comes the second round of food, the main course. Given the outside temperature, we stay away from hot and heavy dishes and stick to an array of salads, including the staple ensalada rusa—a classic Argentine mix of potato, carrot, and pea, bound together with great scoops of mayonnaise—as well as a variety of empanadas and a savory pionono: a sheet of sweet bread layered with mayo, cold-cuts, olives, and tomatoes, rolled up and cut into little slices of heaven.
With dinner comes light conversation interspersed with the inevitable heated political debate, drowned by some more wine and transformed into laughter. Clothes start to fit a little tighter around the waist as dinner wears on, but the meal cannot end without dessert. Creamy swirls of ice cream goodness delivered to our overheated bodies instantly cools us down and turns our conversations into simple oohs and aahs. Laughter becomes food-coma induced smiles, while a delicious heaviness sets in and anticipation builds. As midnight approaches, we all stand up, straighten out our clothes, and grab a glass of freshly poured champagne. And, much like New Year’s Eve, when the clock strikes twelve, we exhale, burst out “¡Feliz Navidad!” Fireworks go off in the plaza across the street, suddenly turning our ambrosial evening into an explosion of warlike sounds.
As the outside racket dies down, we slowly settle into our seats and start distributing and opening gifts, effusively hug and thank each other for our presents, and then float in a sea of multicolored paper, energy slowly lulling. Finally, the impracticality of finding a cab on that special eve sets us into nervous motion.
Cecilia Molinari is a bilingual English/Spanish editor, translator, and writer, and cofounder of eMdash media. She’s on Twitter at @CeciliaMolinari
At its core, Christmas in Sweden is about light in the darkness. I’m not talking about the symbolism of the winter solstice and the return of the sun. I’m talking about literal light in darkness, starting with lighting candles on the first of Advent, with lights and stars in every apartment window, and with the glowing Lucia celebrations on December 13. I stood in afternoon darkness about a week ago with temperatures in the teens and watched a procession of four- and five-year-olds walking up a hill, with most the girls wearing crowns of electric candles, and I wept, partially because my own kid was there but partially because it was just such a powerful moment of vulnerable light in the black.
You have to be in Sweden for more than just Christmas to understand the darkness, though. There is a line on the globe somewhere—my wife and I think it’s about Copenhagen—where the eternal waxing and waning of the light and dark breaches some psychological barrier, so that a rainy day in June can set off explosions of dread for the November to come, and where walking your kid to and from school on a dark and rainy night is loaded with existential fears of every moment of bad weather or unexpected sun.
In the middle of all this comes Christmas, and Swedes have fashioned their own celebration from a mix of ancient and borrowed traditions. So, for instance, the traditional Christmas goat that gave presents to children became a little Christmas elf who is rapidly becoming Santa Claus. Christmas trees came from Germany in the 19th century, and a beloved Disney hour of cartoons came from the US in the 20th.
Christmas has been commoditized here like in most places—easy listening versions of American Christmas songs play in all the malls, and the kids’ TV shows all come from either the US or odd Canadian-French-Belgian collaborations, and they all feature Santa and his reindeer and so on.
But there remains a soul to Swedish Christmas that is unchanged. Swedes celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve because the old pagan days started at sundown. There are ginger snaps, mulled wine and a uniquely Swedish Christmas soda—julmust, a fizzy mix of hops and barley that tastes like a sweeter version of root beer. They eat special Christmas rice pudding and a smorgasbord of ham and fish and potatoes that you don’t get anywhere else. Many of these things are either not so old or not so Swedish, but Swedes have incorporated them into a celebration that at least stands apart from the mass produced version on those kids cartoons.
In a way, it’s the same process Sweden has used to navigate its way to a fairly independent cultural prosperity—and churned out so much successful pop music: take in the foreign influence, smooth out its rough edges and incorporate the homogeneous remnant into a new menu or a catchy chorus.
But back to the dark. People try to talk up all the lights as cozy and sigh with relief when it snows because the snow will reflect the moonlight. There are Christmas markets by torchlight and lots of people skating down rivers in the wan light of midday. Some say they like it. I say they are kidding themselves. That’s why I’ve spent only two actual Christmases in Sweden, usually flying out about a week after Lucia. That’s why I’m writing this from California, and that’s why thousands of Swedes flee the country every Christmas for places like Phuket in Thailand—because in a few weeks we’ve got to go back to the dark and then fight through a winter that lingers six weeks longer than in New York.
And the sun is a good deal brighter than Advent candles.
Nathan Hegedus is an American writer and content strategist in Stockholm. He contributes to Slate and others, and can be found on Twitter at @NathanHegedus
First, the good news. A couple of weeks ago a report found the vast majority of Australia’s seafood stocks are fished at sustainable levels—around 90 per cent actually. Which is good news this time of year when most Australians are stocking up big on all things aquatic. Prawns are the favourite, and consumed by the bucket load. It’s stinking hot, so a traditional roast meal can be an unnecessary temperature-raising burden. The practical Christmas cook knows that prawns cook quickly, without adding too much to the ambient heat.
Midsummer falls precisely three days before Christmas this year, and the forecast is a high of 33. Not quite as high as the record 39 degrees in 1972, but mixed with that energy-sapping humidity, the day can still take on a volatile, tense character.
In Queensland, particularly along the coast, the danger at Christmas comes not so much from the bushfires that can terrorise the tinder-dry south, but from the torrential rains that can flood a swelling river in just a few hours.
But it’s the floods and fires of the humans who live this holiday that make it, in a southern clime, a particular danger.
Living in Melbourne a few years ago—where a hot dry summer days can often push past 40 degrees—I spent Christmas covering the police shift for the city’s broadsheet daily paper, The Age. In the mid-afternoon I made a routine check in phone call to the police.
“Hi, how’s everything looking?” I asked, hoping for peace, quiet and an early
“We’ve got a situation—possibly a man with hostages. We’re not quite sure yet.”
On Christmas, cops have told me many times, it’s not unusual for incidences of family violence to spike. Australia isn’t the only place where people want to kill their loved ones during Christmas, but there is something specifically Australian about the mix of booze, forced association with the people who will judge you mercilessly, and above all, the heat.
Failure seems magnified in such a setting, disappointment extreme.
When I called back an hour later the police told me the situation was diffused relatively quickly, and the man arrested. So I picked up a plastic cup of warm white wine from the newsdesk, avoiding the prawns that had sat out all afternoon, and took a cab home.
On the way, I saw a man dressed as Santa Claus, his beard pulled down and his suit top hanging open, pour an entire bottle of water over his head as he waited for the lights to change at a pedestrian crossing.
The Brisbane City Council takes the time every year to decorate one or two buses with tinsel, fake snow and reindeer antlers. Buses are the main form of public transport in this city—and the festive vehicles run on all the major routes. The drivers in charge of these buses are required to wear Santa suits, which none of them ever look particularly happy about, the shiny viscose making them sweat through their shift.
Riding the Christmas bus a few years ago the Santa changed shift halfway through the trip. Sweat-stained and lethargic, one Santa got off. The new one got on, wearing the hat and the jacket. In place of the pants he wore shorts. Hawaiian board shorts. He cranked up the air conditioning and turned off the carols that played on a loop.
He immediately became my new favorite Christmas character: practical Santa.
Sarah-Jane Collins is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia. Follow her on twitter @sarahjanenotes.
It is minus five degrees in a snowy Tbilisi and a skinny little man in a raggedy coat is strumming a panduri (a kind of Georgian mandolin) and singing some antique song about who knows what, but it is lovely and it’s not Jingle Bells. Minus five degrees is fucking cold in any temperature scale, but here at Bazroba, Tbilisi’s main bazaar and epicentral holiday shopping locale, there are no thermometers.
The closer you get to New Year’s Eve, however, the further you want to be from Bazroba. The traffic is like five square kilometers of bedlam. Hundreds of peddlers and shoppers meld into a haggling mob on ice while cars, minivans and men pushing iron dollies plow through at rude speeds. The air is filled with odors of fish and fowl and the noxious sting of melting plastic and whatnot from little fires the hucksters use for warmth. There are shouts, honks, and continual chants of “hatchapuri, shoti, cigaretti” in polyphony while hysterical colors swirl, tangle and jump: mandarin orange, wet juicy green, plastic bucket red and glittery holiday tinsel flapping in the breeze. Bazroba is an LSD substitute.
I decided to come do some Christmas shopping on the 17th to beat the holiday rush. It’s St. Barbara’s Day—Barbaroba to Georgians—the beginning of the holiday season, which is essentially a 27-day binge that peaks on December 31st and winds down on January 14th, the old New Year. The crowds are about a week away, so I’m enjoying a diluted anarchy as I stroll past tables loaded with mandarins, freshly plucked chickens, shelled walnuts, knitted woolen garments and hog heads mounted on hooks and poles. I stop at a table of dead piglets which will be bought and taken to corner bakers, who will drop them in the same traditional ovens that bake our bread, to roast holiday “gochi.”
“How much?” I ask, pointing at a succulent little cadaver.
“Sixty,” the guy says. About 40 bucks, or half what they’ll soon be going for—a kind of pre-Xmas sale.
Today I’m concentrating on foodstuffs: a delicious seasoning called Svanetian salt, the hot pepper paste known as ajika, aromatic home-pressed sunflower oil, strings of nuts dipped in grape juice thickened with a roux called tchortchela, strings of dried persimmons and whatever else calls. I’m not interested in the shopping mall-like cubicles full of Turkish counterfeit name brands today. I’m in Georgia and the holiday season means I don’t have to buy a bunch of junk that the people I love don’t really need.
Georgia is a country where the “ism” has been taken out of the holiday consumer. There is no Christmas as it is known in the U.S.A. The 25th is an ordinary December day because Orthodox Jesus was born on January 7th and this is commemorated at church. The Christmas tree and Tavis Babua—the Georgian Santa—is really a Soviet-era formula for celebrating New Year’s Eve that has been embraced by a nation that has a particular weakness for celebrations. Gift-giving is a purely symbolic affair; the real event is partying with your family at a table stacked with holiday chicken swimming in walnut sauce (satsivi) and roast piglet, along with the rest of Georgia’s delicious standard fare—all washed down with this year’s young wine.
Paul Rimple is a Tbilisi journalist, writer and musician whose work has appeared in the Moscow Times, Time.com, and Roads & Kingdoms. Find him at @paulrimple
What should I say about Welsh Christmas? Let me start here: As a child, I was afraid that Jesus might appear to me. Although fascinated by all things mysterious, by Joan of Arc and stories of statues weeping blood, true awe sounded like an experience so terrifying that it would probably result in my death. Possible visitations smacked to me of hauntings, and hauntings were of the earth; the mystical mixed with the macabre, something further explored by my friend Simon Critchley in his book The Faith of the Faithless with reference to the medieval mystic Christina the Astonishing:
“While mass was being said for her at her funeral, her body suddenly revived, rose into the air and soared into the rafters of the church and remained there until mass was over. Christina felt such loathing for people that she fled into the wilderness and survived for nine weeks by drinking milk from her own breasts. She threw herself into burning-hot baking ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days.”
That sounds like religion to me. But then, I’m Welsh. And there is a vague sense that some Celtic otherworldliness might have been passed down through the centuries to us, even if we’re from Bridgend. As the most famous Welshman after Tom Jones, Owain Glyn Dŵr—the last true prince of our Principality?—says (as ventriloquized by Shakespeare), “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” My personal grasp of our culture was so tenuous, however, that I mostly experienced it through fear. Ladies’ Welsh costume (which includes a tall pointy black hat) looked to me like witch’s garb, and I once fled a hotel in Fishguard because of a mannequin all trussed up in the lobby. My whole family had to change not only hotels, but towns: moving to an alternative residence in Haverford West during that small holiday weekend. I was about five.
A lot of Welsh mythologizing was cooked up, often as an expression of nationalism in a time of crisis and by no means to be trusted. In the late 18th-century a self-styled Iolo Morganwg made a certain amount of mischief, and this is something Gruff Rhys explores in his current project American Interior—the tale of an expedition from Wales in the late 18th-century to find an apocryphal tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Look it up.
I was, eventually, ‘chaired’ as ‘the Bard’—it’s all a ritual, you see, so you have to get the lingo—at my school’s Eisteddfod, this being a traditional festival of song and poetry. I was honoured as a poet, if not otherwise. A sword was unsheathed over my head as some of my best friends read out verses in my honour, as composed by my unforgettable headmaster—Mr. John Jones of Oldcastle School, Bridgend—in what remains the very proudest moment of my life. I must have been eleven years old.
One truly ancient ritual, however, is kept alive in the Glamorgan area where I’m from. And could it be more macabre? In this ritual of the Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, a horse’s skull is made festive with ribbons and glass bottle-bottoms for glinting eyes. Every midwinter—it’s a winter solstice ritual, but practised between our Hallowe’en and mid-January—such decorated skulls are paraded, as it were, from house to house, now from pub to pub, and those with the Mari Lwyd party sing to request admittance, and refreshment, within. And you’d better grant such things, because this death’s head brings Good Luck. But you have to put up a fight for the sake of luck. In a ritual called ‘pwnco’ the residents of whatever door the Mari Lwyd knocks at should riposte with witty sung verse, at first repelling the skull before cheerfully relenting and welcoming it in. It is but sport, although I have heard of Mari Lwyd parties getting out of control and barred from certain establishments.
This Sunday I will attend the ritual of the Mari Lwyd. We meet at noon at the Dynevor Arms in Groesfaen. Come and join us. My sister and partner will not attend. In his words: “It’s a great big piss-up.” And, indeed, this pagan ritual has been repressed for appearing just so. “O tap the barrel,” the Mari Lwyd will sing (in Welsh!), “and let it flow freely.”
In D. H. Lawrence’s story of “St. Mawr”, the eponymous horse comes from the Welsh borders, “belonging to a Welsh gentlemen, Mr Griffith Edwards. But they’re wanting to sell him.” Ominous words, and sure enough St. Mawr turns out to be more than our American heroine bargains for:
“He was so powerful, and so dangerous. But in his dark eye, that looked, with its cloudy brown pupil, a cloud within a dark fire, like a world beyond our world, there was a dark vitality growing, and within the fire another sort of wisdom. […] his great eyes came bolting out of his naked horse’s head, and she saw demons upon demons in the chaos of his horrid eyes.”
Nemonie Craven is a UK-based literary agent and can be found hanging around fymlog.tumblr.com
If it were anywhere else in the world, the city of Jesus’s birth would be teaming with throngs of tourists this time of year. But this is the West Bank under Israeli occupation and tourists are few and far between on the streets of Bethlehem while shopkeepers sit bored.
If it were anywhere else in the world, recognition of statehood at the United Nations right before the holiday season would add a layer jubilation. But this is the West Bank under Israeli occupation and Palestinians are reeling from the recent news that Israel will withhold tax revenue as a punishment for going to the United Nations.
Bethlehem, the ancient city so often recreated in nativity scenes the world over, has a forlorn feeling about it this Christmas. For one thing, the city has no physical space to grow. It is sandwiched and encircled by 22 Israeli settlements and there is an ominous concrete wall snaking through its holy streets. This Christmas most Bethlehemites can’t even obtain the necessary permits to make the short journey to Jerusalem.
Israel’s recently resigned foreign minister lives just down the road from Bethlehem and locals often complain that youth from his settlement (Can you think of another acting foreign minister that lives outside of the internationally recognized boundaries of the country he represents?) have made it a habit to uproot olive trees and carry out ‘price tag’ attacks—the name given to the sort of collective punishment reprisals settlers inflict on Palestinians or Israelis they don’t like—in the Shepherd’s Field.
To add insult to injury, Israel is preparing to build a section of its separation barrier through the village Battir and Beit Jala, home to the very olive groves where Jesus wept before crucifixion.
Yet, for all this doom and gloom, there is some hope. The city has a new mayor, the first female to hold the office. There are also plans to open two new hotels as part of a fresh branding campaign aimed at luring pilgrims with the possibility of a night in the holy city.
While officials take a sunny side up approach to the problems facing Bethlehem, they can’t conceal the depths of the problems they face. Israel’s colonial plans for the city are simply too large to adequately challenge. Even the roof of the Church of the Nativity—the oldest continuously operated Christian church in the world—is derelict and close to collapse.
And there is the famous tree. Due to the financial crisis, the Palestinian Authority was forced to cut its donation for the tree by half. The void was filled by a handful of rather shady businessmen with unclear interests. But the tree stands nonetheless in ornate glory in front of the small door which leads to the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square.
At the end of the day, hope prevails in Bethlehem, like it has for 2000 (give or take) Christmas celebrations before it. At least there’s this: Muslim-Christian relations are smooth and after UNESCO designated the Church of the Nativity, with its failing roof, a world heritage site, Bethlehem became a mark of pride for all Palestinians.
“We don’t know how many homes Santa Claus is going to visit this year,” local tour guide George Rishmawi told me in front of the Israeli barrier. “But we are going to throw a big party and spread a message of peace and hope as Bethlehemites and as Palestinians.”
Joseph Dana (@ibnezra) is Jerusalem/Ramallah correspondent for Monocle and has appeared in GQ and The Nation, among others
In 1930s Soviet Russia, as part of a forced separation from the church and St. Nick, began observing Christmas in conjunction with New Years for a generically secular celebration of winter. But even the Bolshevik Revolution couldn’t kill the craving for Santa Claus. As Soviet politics and infrastructure were exported to their satellite states, the Saint-free version of Father Christmas, “Ded Moroz” and his accompanying Snow Maiden made the rounds in Eurasia. The duo rode across the tundra in a sled pulled by reindeer, distributing gifts and winter cheer.
Mongolia welcomed the tradition, but their version rode in a horse-drawn sleigh. In Mongolia, the patriarch of Christmas is known as Ovliin Ovgon (Father Frost) and his helpful companions are the Tsasan Ohin (Snow Girls). Ovliin Ovgon sports a rugged white beard, wears a white silk Mongolian deel (traditional robe), a white fur hat, and a blue silk cape with white fur trim. The Tsasan Ohin wear white. The older the Tsasan Ohin, the shinier and shorter their dresses are.
The chimneys of Mongolian gers, the traditional home of nomadic herders, are a little too skinny for robust Ovliin Ovgon to shimmy down, and most apartments are have radiators, so home visits were not the norm for Ovliin Ovgon. Typically he and his attendants would visit Mongolian children at the state-run schools. Good students would receive gifts and bad students sat on the sidelines empty-handed. School administrators provided the “naughty or nice” list.
These days, for around $350 families can hire a fully costumed Ovliin Ovgon to make a private appearance, or you can rent a suit for a family member to wear. The for-hire Ovliin Ovgon and a Tsasan Ohin arrive to hand out the family’s gifts to the children and to pose for unlimited photographs. With the handing over of each gift comes a Mongolian kiss, a pressing of elder nose to each younger cheek with a deep inhale. It’s the blessing of an elder to a child. A less expensive, and less intimate “mall Santa” experience of Ovliin Ovgon is rising in popularity, but you’ll only find him in the bigger shopping centers in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Winter in Mongolia is a time of hardship, mostly due to the weather between -20° and -40°C. For those living in the countryside, their free-ranging livestock do daily battle against ever increasing snowfall hiding edible grasses, and hungry wolves. The holidays bring home far flung family, and are a time to hunker down, eat and share memories, just as they do in the West. The ubiquitous red and white Santa now appears in television commercials for holiday savings, and plastic trees made in China with fiber optic lights are setting a new standard for Christmas celebrations at home. The commercial face of Christmas looks the same everywhere, and while Ovliin Ovgon serves as a charming transitional character in the story of Mongolian Christmas, the end of the year push to move inventory and make sales is the driving force of the modern holiday. Any excuse to drink copious amounts of champagne instead of vodka is a good one though, and a welcome change to your average winter night in Mongolia.
Michelle Borok (@invictus) is a Darkhan-based writer for Giant Robot and others.
I’m staring with vertiginous dread two stories down the mall’s atrium. Below, a seven foot tall Hello Kitty is stalking the stage with half a dozen of her best friends. What appears to be a young European woman—imported from Son-of-God-knows-where – dances and lip syncs with them to treacly kiddie pop music.
The crowd of hundreds of Indonesian children and their parents appear to love it. I, on the other hand, am terrified. I had only been vaguely aware that this giant mall even existed.
If you want to feel like it’s Christmas in Jakarta, the city’s malls are the closest thing to being back in the West. Outside, the city’s population is under 15 percent Christian; the remainder is mostly Muslim, with a smattering of Buddhists and Hindus. The city grinds on as it usually does in the monsoon, only pausing for a brief public holiday around Jesus’ big day.
But the Christians in this town tend to be richer. And Christmas is not that godly anyway. So inside mall-world, Christmas is belligerently in season.
Each year of Indonesia’s economic boom brings on a new slew of malls in Jakarta. There is nothing in the way of urban renewal here, except for a couple of massive new overpasses that are being built, turning the streets below into shadowy caverns. Near my house, two malls with nearly identical contents have sprung up by one of these overpasses. I walked through one of them recently and found an almost deserted space. Near the lobby, a band on an elevated, saucer-shaped stage played Sade’s Smooth Operator.
Outside, Christmas and Christians live in a country of evolving pressures and threats. A decade ago, Islamic extremists were bombing churches. Now, that’s not so much of a problem. Many terrorists are dead or in jail; those who remain have for the time being shifted their focus to killing cops.
These days, the problem is a growing, stultifying air of intolerance. The country’s top body for Muslim clerics, the hardline but frequently ignored Indonesian Ulema Council, the other day instructed Muslims to refrain from wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. In Jakarta’s exurbs, populist local mayors have sided with Islamist vigilantes to block congregations from their churches. Many observant Christians will celebrate Christmas behind police cordons, on roadsides, in empty lots, in private homes or in the malls themselves.
But that’s the Indonesia outside, where corruption pervades everything and cities choke on their own rubbish and sewage. If you can afford lunch at one of the new Sushi places, or to buy a shirt at Marks & Spencer, you’ve earned yourself a temporary pass inside. Inside, everything is fine.
Inside, it’s Christmas.