It's Christmas, but not as you know it!
Tripping the light fantastic
In early December, more than a million people hit the streets of the Costa Rican capital San José when the Festival de la Luz (Light Festival) kicks off the festive season. And what a season it is—with the Fiesta Patronal Pavas, the Fiesta de la Yeguita and the Fiesta de los Negritos mixing indigenous culture, mythology and Christianity.
These enormous parties feature everything from street dancers dressed as sun gods to bullfights (where the bulls aren’t harmed); from lavish fireworks to traditional Boruca Indian flute and drum-playing. In the huge parades, it’s not unusual to see floats of Roman deities trundling alongside the nativity scenes.
Deck the boughs with holly
Every Christmas Day, at Washington Crossing on the banks of the Delaware, 100 re-enactors and thousands of spectators gather to celebrate the birth of America as well as the birth of Christ.
The annual recreation of George Washington’s journey across the river—after which he entered New Jersey and attacked the Hessians (German soldiers employed by the British)—commemorates a big turning point in the War of Independence.
On the big day, “Washington” delivers a stirring speech to his troops before embarking on the journey in the first of three replica Durham craft—a token number compared to the 1776 crossing, when 2,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 19 cannon were ferried across the river.
The actor playing the great man usually begins his career as a private on a boat before “rising up the ranks” and auditioning to play the lead, a role that requires both acting skill and expert historical knowledge of the period.
Jon Orchard Shopping Centre
People could actually walk inside the six storey tree that popped up in front of this large retail venue last year. It was decorated with one million light emitting diodes and baubles on the outside, and glitter balls on the inside.
North Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Forget chocolate Santas and plastic reindeer—this 35-foot tree is adorned with 150 real-life singers, who form the centrepiece of a huge annual Christmas concert. Perched on the various branches (which, mercifully, are solid platforms rather than flimsy twigs), the singers belt out the likes of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “Winter Wonderland” and the cleverly named grand finale: “Santa Claus is Coming to EdmunTown”.
Call that a Christmas tree? This is a Christmas tree
This little island is famous for its highly skilled glass-blowers, so it’s not surprising that it’s also home to the world’s tallest glass tree. Craftsman Simone Cenedese designed the 27-foot structure in 2006, blew each of the branches individually, then bolted them all together.
Away in a penalty area
For a little-known South American sect, the Messiah’s birth didn’t happen more than 2,000 years ago—it was in 1959.
The approximately 150,000 members of the Maradonian Church of the Hand of God worship Diego Maradona, the Argentine 1986 World Cup winner, widely regarded as one of the best footballers of all time.
Christmas for the group takes place on October 30—the birthday of the man they call “D10S” (a fusion of his shirt number and the Spanish word for God). Customs include singing Diego-themed carols, wearing Argentina shirts, decorating trees with his picture and, um, drinking beer and eating pizza.
The church’s other beliefs include considering Maradona’s autobiography I Am Diego a religious text, and requiring worshippers to name their first child after him.
Christmas with the Colonel
December 25 isn’t a national holiday for the largely Buddhist or atheist Japanese, but it’s become a finger-lickin’ cause for celebration thanks to the annual Kentucky Fried Chicken “Christmas party barrel” lunch.
The tradition started in 1974, when KFC executives decided it would be a good idea to give the Japanese a rough sample of what the festive season in America is like—with a Christmas chicken and wine deal for £6.50. A lack of turkeys in Japan meant that a truly traditional meal was out, but this deep-fried poultry alternative was deemed satisfactory.
The meal has since become so popular that customers make reservations as early as October. KFC‘s sales between December 23–25 equal half its normal monthly income.
Eat, drink and be very merry
Fortune-telling, animal costumes, dancing Tsars, vodka-quaffing…if this sounds to you more like a pagan ritual than a traditional Christmas, you’d be partly right.
The Belarussian Christmas celebration Kalyady has its origins in ancient winter solstice ceremonies that predate the Christian festival. But it’s now a combination of the two, beginning on January 7—the date of Orthodox Christmas in the old Julian calendar.
Aside from drinking, the main custom involves carol singers going from house to house wearing animal masks and playing instruments. Amateur fortune-tellers also try to predict future romances—in previous centuries, they were more concerned with the quality of the following year’s harvest.
The village of Semezhava takes things further with the Rite of the Kalyady Tsars, a torch-lit procession of 500 men who enter the homes of unmarried girls to perform the historical drama Tsar Maximilian and short comedy sketches, in return for good wishes and rewards. Russian soldiers stationed in the area started the practice in the 18th century, because they were bored and wanted to entertain themselves.
Satan's little helpers
While we Brits wait until March for our spring clean, Guatemalans clear clutter from their houses on December 6. Torn clothes, letters, bills and other flammable rubbish are dragged into the street and set alight, along with an effigy of the devil. The idea is to remove Satan from any dirty nooks and crannies he could hide in—the Christmas season can then be approached with a clean slate.
According to one theory, the celebration dates back to when the Spanish invaders placed lanterns outside their houses to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Not being able to afford anything quite so flash, locals made bonfires to mark the occasion instead.
A time for family, alive or dead
In many countries, the festive season is a whirlwind of presents, partying and crackers. But for the Finns it’s a time of quiet reflection.
On Christmas Eve, while most Westerners are cosying up in front of the television, the Finns trek to snowychurchyards to place candles on the graves of departed loved ones. The custom stems from the Middle Ages, when a 20-day period of peace—with no fighting or troublemaking allowed—was declared each December 24 from the old capital Turku.