Elves in Hawaiian shirts? Reindeer rodeo? Whale sashimi? From the Arctic Circle to the Aloha State, we celebrate the multicultural mania inspired by the president-elect to bring you global Christmas traditions. Yes, Virginia. It’s holiday party time around the world.
The Scandinavians have the perfect excuse for hard Christmas partying: It’s dark by 3 p.m. In December, our Nordic friends start distracting themselves from the never-ending twilight by placing candles in their windows and breaking out the Acquavit (a liquor so strong that it was once thought to raise the dead).
The Danish Christmas Eve is called “Julaften,” and the parties go on all night. Yuletide hospitality features roast goose, rice pudding, red cabbage, and our personal favorite: pickled tongue. Look for horse-drawn Carlsberg wagons delivering the year’s specially brewed Christmas beer, with staff in Santa hats giving away free samples. Danes also like their “glögg”—a potent variety of mulled wine jazzed up with raisins, nuts and cloves steeped in pure Aquavit. Travel advisory: A Danish elf named Nisse in gray trousers and a red cap likes to play pranks during Christmas. On Julaften, many families put out a bowl of rice pudding for him so that he doesn’t take his mischief too far.
In Sweden, the Christmas season launches with Santa Lucia Day, when young women wear white robes and candle wreaths to wake their family with songs and saffron buns. This charming ritual completed, the Swedes get down to drinking “snaps,” a flavored form of Aquavit. Across the country, revelers enjoy the splendid Christmas Smorgasbord, complete with ham, “lutfisk” (dried white fish), rice porridge, and succulent little jellied pig’s feet. Yum. Not to be outdone, the Finns kick things off at Christmas dinner with ice-cold vodka to accompany cold fish hors d’oeuvres.
A hefty shot of liquor at Christmas was once believed to bless the crops, and even the non-drinkers—i.e. children and domestic animals—took part in the ceremony. The most Fin-tabulous Christmas happens above the Arctic Circle in Lapland. Join the fun with reindeer sleigh-rides, or even try your hand at reindeer-lassoing, a favorite pastime of the Sami people. The Finns claim that Lapland is the original home of Santa Claus, but Greenlanders beg to differ.
Which brings us to our next stop. Greenland is the ultimate Christmas adventure, scoring high for both topography (most of the country is covered by an ice sheet) and gastronomical daring. Plus, the tourism board claims that Santa Claus has a vacation home near the town of Uummannaq. Greenlanders celebrate Christmas by placing red-orange stars in their windows, and giving each other nifty presents like tusks and sealskin mits. After Christmas Eve’s coffee, cake, and caroling, everyone receives a special delicacy: whale blubber. That’s right, “Mattak” is a piece of whale skin with a strip of blubber inside that is said to taste like coconut—only a hell of a lot harder to chew. Another favorite is “Kiviak,” made by burying a whole auk (a seabird) in sealskin for several months until it has reached a mouth-watering stage of decomposition. Bonus: Iceland’s economic meltdown means there Iceland/Greenland packages available on the cheap.
Moving on to the British Isles, we find those wacky Welsh celebrating Christmas in their inimitable way. In certain rural areas, the end of Christmas season is marked by a pre-Christian custom in which a villager is chosen to be the “Mari llwyd.” This lucky person travels from door to door draped in white and carrying a horse’s skull on a long pole. The Mari llwyd and his band of merry-makers demand entrance at each house and challenge the occupants to a sort of Welsh rap-contest known as a “pwnco.”
The Slavs are no slackers when it comes to Christmas celebrating. In Poland, the “Wigilia,” or traditional feast, begins when the first star appears. Everybody scans the evening sky, hoping to be the first to call out, “Gwiazdka!” or “the little star!” That moment, the Poles break their 24-hour fast. Celebrants wish upon paper-thin wafers with fellow guests to clear any bad vibes accumulated over the year.
In warmer climes, Santa has to make a few practical adjustments. He shows up in Hawaii in a bright red outrigger canoe, escorted by elves in aloha shirts. The Honolulu City Lights is a month-long extravaganza featuring a lighted 50-foot Christmas tree and eye-popping light displays throughout the city. At City Hall, you’ll see giant holiday characters, including a 20-foot-tall barefoot Santa who sits dipping his toes in the fountain. Down in the Caribbean, traditions dating back to slavery have produced a flavorful mélange of Christmas merriment. In the Bahamas, Santa joins the Mardis Gras-like street festival Junkanoo, said to originate in West Africa. On December 26, Bahamians parade through town in costumes made of cardboard and crepe paper, singing, chanting and dancing all the way.
No country on the planet out-celebrates the Puerto Ricans—who start the Christmas season in early December and continue on until Jan. 17. Christmas brings a boisterous traveling caroling party known as the Asalto. Friends show up unannounced at each other’s houses, singing and playing instruments. The hosts greet their visitors with food, including a special chicken and rice stew. Drinks are served, and then the hosts join the party, which moves along to the next house and continues this way until daybreak.
Many countries where Christianity is not the main religion still put on a more-than-respectable party. In Goa, India, a former Portuguese colony, the arrival of the Magi is celebrated each January with nine days of fireworks and partying. The fun culminates in The Feast of the Three Kings (Jan. 6), which is celebrated enthusiastically by both Christians and Hindus. Lucky young boys chosen to play the part of the kings dress in Technicolor costumes and arrive at the local church on white horses. The best celebrations are held at Church of Our Lady of the Mount in Old Goa.
We think world peace would be a swell idea for the holidays. Taking the party global is a step in the right direction.