How do you usually spend Christmas? Probably decorating a Christmas tree, sitting around a turkey or ham dinner (unless you're vegetarian, of course!), and opening presents on Christmas Day.
Some countries do things differently, and some don't celebrate Christmas at all.
Are you on the road this Christmas? If so, we'll have a peek at what your holiday season could look like.
Women on the Road NEWS: Contents for Issue #25
10 Christmas Celebrations on the Road
Like Brazil itself, Christmas is a mixture of cultures: nativity scenes from Portugal, German and Italian foods in the South, and Papai Noel, or Santa Claus, who brings presents on Christmas Day. It's a joyous time of parties, dancing, singing and fireworks. If you're from the Northern Hemisphere, the heat and the lack of snow might come as a bit of a shock but otherwise, you'll feel right at home: Santa Claus in every shopping mall, brightly lit and decorated Christmas trees, and plenty of turkey and ham for that "I can't move anymore" feeling.
Ethiopia may be in balmy Africa but be prepared for chilly night temperatures at Christmas. As a Christian Orthodox nation, Ethiopia celebrates Christmas, or Ganna, on 7 January. Celebrations are replete with candles and choirs, and if you haven't sat through three hours of Ethiopian mass you haven't experienced Christmas. You'll later be rewarded with ample servings of injera (a large, thin pancake used as bread) and doro wat (chicken stew). Feeling particularly traditional? Take the 'church walk' from church to church, especially if you're in Lalibela, where churches are carved out of stone right out of the ground. One more thing - Christmas is followed by another celebration called Timket, on Orthodox Epiphany in late January, during which a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is paraded around so if you time it right, Christmas can last for weeks.
If you're a foodie, you're in luck. As with many things French, Christmas revolves around eating. The centerpiece of the main Christmas family meal, the Réveillon, is often goose stuffed with chestnuts but if you're celebrating with a more hip urban crowd, you may be treated to oysters and foie gras. Dessert will be the inevitable Bûche de Noël - a creamy cake shaped like a bûche, or log. Christmas lights go up as early as November and shops and houses may compete for the most garish display. There's a pink and purple neon Santa Claus down my road which I would gladly nominate for Most Garish House Decoration if I were asked. The French also like their Christmas trees and Midnight Mass, though for many this may be the only time they go to mass all year. If you're here, take time to visit a few Christmas markets - Europe's largest is in Strasbourg.
Remember the piñata? Running around blindfolded in the dark with a stick trying to hit a brightly colored papier maché animal hanging from the ceiling so candy can rain down on you? And stuffing yourself silly with tamales (steamed, stuffed corn dumplings), pozole (meat and corn stew) and bacalao (cod) with mole sauce (chocolate and chili)? No? That's because you haven't spent Christmas in Mexico yet. This deeply Catholic country takes the season seriously and begins celebrating halfway through December with nine days of parades and processions. Expect to see everything from firecrackers to bullfights, a gesture towards the country's combined Spanish and Indian heritages. And don't forget the piñata!
Russians celebrate Christmas on 7 January, focusing on the new year, a holdover from the Communist era when religious holidays were less than popular. Those who do celebrate the Russian Orthodox Christmas will tend to fast on 6 January, at least until the first star is out - and then dive into dinner. Try the sweet kutya porridge, a mixture of grains and dried fruits, which symbolizes happiness and success. And don't expect your presents from Santa Claus because they'll be brought by Babushka, Grandmother Christmas. Feeling a little cold around Christmas? Head to the banya, or sauna, and get rid of those winter chills. And there's always the vodka.
Speaking of chilly, dress warmly because Scandinavia, which celebrates Christmas a day early on 24 December, means business when it comes to winter. A favorite pastime is visiting Christmas markets, the largest of which is in Gothenburg in Sweden. If you go, stroll through Liseberg amusement park (where the market is held): it's lit up by five million lights that will leave you blinking, as will the Schnapps at the Ice Bar. The bar, by the way, is made of... ice. Don't miss the smorgasbords in Sweden and Finland, where buffet tables sag under the weight of meat and fish dishes (it's usually polite to help yourself seven times.) Feeling stuffed? Wash dinner down with glog, or mulled wine. In Norway, you'll be dining on ribs while the Danes go for goose. If you're a winter wonderland lover, try ice skating on Tivoli Lake in Copenhagen, gazing up at the Northern Lights in Alta, or dogsledding anywhere.
Like in Brazil, Christmas is a summer holiday, when flowers bloom riotously and people head to the beach or the mountains. You'll hear familiar Christmas carols, but in shorts and swimsuits rather than parkas and scarves (this is beginning to sound tempting from my snow-covered perch in the foothills of the Alps!) Church and presents take place on Christmas Day, and you might end up at a braai, or BBQ, or sitting down for turkey, roast beef, mince pies and plum pudding, a reminder of the country's British colonial past. Either way, you'll probably be eating outdoors.
Don't expect to open your presents anytime soon if you're in Spain - you'll have to wait until 6 January, the Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men - Los Reyes Magos - drop them off. In some parts of the country, watch for people who leap over bonfires, or hogueras, in celebration of winter solstice, the year's shortest day. Spaniards love Christmas and its trees, markets, sweets and nativity scenes. Get ready for Midnight Mass because even if the country isn't as religious as it once was, this is one tradition that remains. You might as well go - you won't get fed until after Mass. And if you happen to be in Madrid on New Year's Eve, head down to Puerta del Sol with a dozen grapes: each time the bells ring, pop one into your mouth and make a wish. By the 12th grape you'll be wishing you were a faster eater.
Switzerland may be a tiny country but it's diverse. Traditions change not only between regions - French, German, Italian and Romansch - but even between villages. Some things are common to all: Christkind, or Baby Jesus, replaces Santa Claus on Christmas as dispenser of gifts; the Swiss put up Christmas trees, surrounded by a manger; and presents are usually shared after dinner on Christmas Eve (the Swiss dine early) - unless they're given out on Christmas Day, New Year's Day, the Epiphany, or on the all-important day of St Nicholas, 6 December, when Santa really visits. As in other parts of Europe Christmas markets are popular - try Zurich, Basel or Lucerne for particularly attractive ones. Hungry at Christmas? You'll get hot chocolate and ringli, a type of doughnut, after church - and mulled wine, of course. Now settle back, and watch a rerun of Heidi.
It may be a Buddhist country but Thais like a good party so Christmas doesn't go unnoticed here. There are also enough expats in the country to keep the tradition healthy. Thailand hosts plenty of Christmas celebrations, at which you might eat 'imported' Christmas turkey and cranberry sauce. If you know Bangkok, try to imagine the sounds of Jingle Bells drifting along the crowded, noisy side streets... It may not be very convincing but everyone tries hard so the spirit is there. And don't forget - there's often a rave this time of year somewhere in Thailand so just check for the full moon!
If you're on the road... enjoy your holiday season!
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Cause of the Month
Seal the Deal in Copenhagen
On 7 December, leaders from around the world will meet in Copenhagen to finish negotiating a global climate agreement.
Will they succeed? We don't know, and there are obstacles. Reversing climate change will cost plenty of money, and no one can agree who will pay. Corporations are concerned that as they spend money on reducing greenhouse gases, business will drift away and they'll lose their competitive edge.
Yet climate change affects us all. Already, 90% of all disasters in the world are due to climate change. We've lost more than a third of our forests. Population is growing - and so is consumption. We're headed in the wrong direction. Glaciers are melting, deserts advancing, people are going hungry and thirsty. Some countries will even disappear altogether if climate change continues.
If governments fail to agree on securing our future, it will be up to the people, people like you and I.
To get involved or for more information:
The UN's Seal the Deal
Time for Climate Justice
European Commission's You Control Climate Change
Christian Aid's Countdown to Copenhagen
Greenpeace's Stop Climate Change
Oxfam International Climate Change Campaign
Next Month in Women on the Road NEWS?
Staying Fit on the Road
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Happy travels! Leyla