December 23, 2010 10:00 pm

Christmas around the world

Madrid

By Victor Mallet

For the child of a traditional Spanish family, a letter to Santa Claus will go unanswered and Christmas day will pass without the hoped-for gifts. Forget December 25. The Spanish child should send assurances about angelic behaviour not to Father Christmas but to los Reyes Magos – the three kings or three wise men – and leave out shoes (not stockings) to receive presents on the morning of January 6. The night before, locals dressed as the magi, accompanied by camels or any other available livestock, parade through the streets, throwing sweets to children.

By this time, known elsewhere as twelfth night, the festivities have been going on for nearly two weeks. The big family meal in Spain is usually for la Nochebuena, the night of Christmas eve, shortly before la Misa de Gallo (literally the cock-crow, or midnight, mass). A lie-in the next day is often followed by a Christmas day lunch and by dinner among friends (rather than relatives) on New Year’s eve.

Father Christmas has made inroads in Europe’s Roman Catholic south but is still regarded as a northern or even American import. But feasting on turkey, that native American bird, is not uncommon, though pullet, lamb or partridge are widely eaten as well, often accompanied by fish and preceded by consommé or almond soup.

Then there are the desserts. Just as vegetables do not feature much in the earlier courses, so fruit is rarely prominent in the later stages. Christmas – it’s colder in most of Spain than foreigners tend to realise – is a time for heavy, rich, sticky pastries. The return to work in January is always a languid affair.

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Moscow

By Charles Clover

The main ingredients for a successful Christmas in Moscow are lots of friendly green bottles of Sovetskoye champagne. The brand is one of the holdovers from the Soviet era (the name is an important clue) and has yet to be overtaken by western competitors, due to a combination of nostalgia and its unbeatable cheapness. Some may find it a tad sweet but that is a problem solved by a few glasses.

But before you pop the cork (or in the case of Sovetskoye, the little plastic thingy) a word about dates. There is an important difference between Christmas in Russia and Christmas elsewhere – Christmas in Russia happens on January 7, which is December 25 according to the Julian calendar. But due to Bolshevik efforts to do away with the bourgeois vestiges of religion, Christmas actually really happens on New Year’s eve in Russia, which under communism became the day for parties, pine trees in your living room, presents and, yes, cheap champagne.

Celebrating New Year’s eve generally requires a fair bit of alcohol plus the obligatory viewing of The Irony of Fate, a 1975 film shown every New Year’s eve on state television about a man who gets so drunk one night in Moscow that he wakes up the following morning in Leningrad (nowadays St Petersburg) – and can’t tell the difference. Art critics see the film as a work of social criticism, about the monotony and soulless uniformity under Soviet communism. But by far the most resonant theme is easy to pick out – heavy drinking.

Watching this will put you in the right frame of mind for two weeks of holidays (yes, including Julian calendar Christmas) that bring Russia to a halt for the winter doldrums. Lay in a supply of your favourite champagne and enjoy.

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Lima

By Naomi Mapstone

Timing is everything in a Peruvian Christmas. Christmas eve is Nochebuena, the good night, and celebrations are geared to the stroke of midnight, when Peruvians light up the skies with fireworks displays.

In Lima, the sprawling desert capital overlooking the Pacific coast, offices shut at midday, giving the city’s 8m inhabitants time to make a last raid on shops and markets or to catch a bus for the provinces, high up in the Andes.

The city’s habitual creeping fog has evaporated by Christmas eve, lifting the spirits of last-minute shoppers but leaving mall Santas red-faced and flustered in their scratchy red wool suits.

The Santas are a relatively new addition to Christmas in Peru, along with Christmas trees and fairy lights, add-ons to the centuries-old tradition of nativity scenes depicting baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the odd llama under the star of Bethlehem.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Christmas menu in this nation of food lovers, where ceviche and pisco sour recipes are as popular talking points as football. The main family feast takes place on Christmas eve rather than Christmas day, and sees some unusual specialities brought to the table. Peruvian cuisine is a heady mix of pre-Colombian, Spanish, Arabic, African, Chinese and Japanese traditions. At Christmas, Peruvians throw Italian and north American influences into the mix.

Sales of panetónes, the Italian sweet bread, easily outstrip huahuas (pronounced “wawas”), baby Jesus-shaped breads and biscuits traditional in the sierra.

While roast baby pig and roast guinea pig stuffed with herbs might hold sway in the towns of the Andes, when it comes to the evening feast in Lima, turkey rules the roost. Shot through with pisco, a white brandy, basted with red Peruvian chilli, and stuffed with apple, it is often served with mashed sweet potato, salads and an Arabic-style rice cooked in Coca-Cola.

Some families serve dinner at 10pm and toast the arrival of Christ at midnight with champagne, hot chocolate and panetón; others pick at tamales, ground corn stuffed with chicken or cheese, and wait for the fireworks to start a night-long party. Either way, many Peruvians start Christmas day with a long lie-in.

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Sydney

By Peter Smith

Shark Beach in Sydney harbour may not sound like the most alluring spot to spend Christmas day but it’s the venue of choice for thousands of Australian sun worshippers.

From just after dawn, earlybirds clad in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops will arrive into adjacent Nielsen Park intent on carving out a shaded square of picnic space, preferably with a harbour view.

Rob Rubis, owner of Nielsen Park’s restaurant and café, says: “Space is always at a premium and down on the beach it’s shoulder to shoulder. People swim and, for anyone worried about the name Shark Beach, there is an area covered by nets.

“At the back of the park every family game possible is going on from cricket to volleyball.”

Nielsen Park’s popularity probably owes a little to the fact that unlike nearly every other national park along Sydney’s harbour, alcohol consumption is allowed. Ice boxes, colloquially known in Australia as “eskies”, are ubiquitous.

As the day wears on and the temperature cools after Christmas lunch, families relax and watch the boat traffic on the harbour.

“I love this place. It feels isolated but it’s only 15 minutes from the city,” says Mark Burns, a Sydney resident who often paddles his kayak to Nielsen Park.

Boxing day will see many Sydneysiders retreat indoors as they watch Australia take on England in the fourth Ashes cricket Test match in Melbourne. But there will be others at Nielsen Park wanting a glimpse of the boats heading out of the harbour in the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

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Harare

By Tony Hawkins

On December 3, Mayor Muchadeyi Masunda switched on the Christmas lights in Africa Unity Square, Harare. With luck there will be enough power to keep them illuminated through the festive season.

The annual Christmas rush began on Friday for those working in the cities and wanting to join families in rural areas. Absolute chaos usually ensues in the city bus terminals as commuters jostle to get seats, carrying their Christmas contributions – sugar, rice, nyimo beans, mealie meal, biscuits, sweets and possibly even a live chicken.

Christmas will be celebrated in diverse ways. In a country where three quarters of the population live in extreme poverty, many of the rural poor will be fortunate to have a meal of chicken and rice or sadza, cooked corn meal; the not so poor might slaughter a goat. After the meal, men will drink home-brewed beer or walk to the nearest beer hall to drink Chibuku and discuss politics. Women will remain at home and bemoan the fact that there will be little money left for food.

Urban, middle class families, both black and white, will celebrate much as their English counterparts do – they will have a roast dinner with all the trimmings despite the humidity and heat, along with a good South African wine. Those without gas or generators will have the braai (barbecue) ready. For some a braai around the pool with steak and boerewors and supplies of beer would be their preference in any case.

Our family escape to a lodge in Nyanga where we will climb the rock called Rupurara early on Christmas morning to watch the sun rise over the mountains. Others commune with nature in national and private parks throughout the country, from hill walking in Chimanimani to white water rafting at Victoria Falls.

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Miami

By Andres Schipani

For many locals, Christmas is the one time of the year that Miami’s infamous body-consciousness is cast aside for a few days of excess.

“Here Christmas is just about eating lechón [roasted pork], a lot of lechón,” says José Hernández, better known as Chef Pepín, Miami’s Hispanic celebrity caterer. “The roasted pork is equivalent to the roasted turkey the Americans eat but in Miami us Cubans have colonised the American traditions. Everyone eats pork here.”

The pork is usually accompanied by white rice, black beans and yucca. During the sacrosanct big family meal on Christmas eve, the streets of Little Havana, Coral Gables and other quintessentially Cuban neighbourhoods evoke the years before Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. The smell of garlic from the roasting ovens mingles with the smoke of thick cigars (made of Dominican or Puerto Rican tobacco because of the US embargo on Cuban goods). The revellers dance and drink Cuba libre, decorating Christmas trees and palm trees with small replicas of maracas, thatched hats and Cuban flags during their breaks from playing dominos.

When the clock strikes midnight, the more outspoken anti-Castroites will rise to sing Cuba’s national anthem (the republican one, sung before the revolution) and to raise toast with a glass of chilled Spanish cider. The younger generations will avoid politics, and drink fresh mojitos while eating Spanish soft almond turrón. If they wake up on Christmas day with a hangover, the traditional cure will be to eat montería, which is basically even more roasted pork.

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Islamabad

By Matthew Green

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan might not sound like the most promising destination for those in search of Christmas cheer. But Islamabad, the capital, can spring festive surprises. Take butterball turkeys. Qureshi’s Butcher in Kohsar market, a parade of shops popular with expatriates, takes orders two months before the big day. Mince pies and cranberry sauce are also on sale. As I write, word has it that the arrival of Brussels sprouts is imminent.

Many customers are not foreigners but wealthy Pakistanis celebrating with the same gusto seen in the west. Do not expect to see plastic reindeers cantering across rooftops, but step inside the homes of the Islamabad elite and you might come across a fairy-topped Christmas tree.

Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, so the enthusiasm for yuletide is more about globalised consumer culture than religion. Some also detect an echo of the days of the British Raj in the Christmas cakes served up in privileged households. Christmas day happens to be a public holiday because Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, was born on December 25 1876.

The city’s tiny Christian population celebrates in humbler style. Religious minorities tend not to advertise themselves in a country where extremists express their disdain with suicide bombings. Christmas day services will take place amid tight security. Last year, police deployed vans and barricades to try to deter attacks on the city’s sprinkling of churches.

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Tokyo

By Lindsay Whipp

An unlikely sounding combination of romance, chicken and sponge cake dominates Christmas in Japan. Though it’s not a religious celebration here, people are always ready to enjoy a good festival, so Christmas eve, especially, is big in Japan.

For romantic couples, preparations can start months in advance, poring over special editions of both men’s and women’s magazines featuring ideas for a Christmas plan that will involve booking an expensive restaurant and hotel room for Christmas eve night, and the exchange of expensive gifts such as jewellery. The ultimate extravagance is a Tokyo Disneyland package: a champagne dinner, night in a hotel in the complex and a day pass to see Mickey Mouse and friends.

While some single Japanese find Christmas eve frustrating, the celebration fortunately arrives snugly in the middle of the more traditional Japanese custom of bonenkai year-end parties, which keep the booze flowing through most of December. It is common to see businessmen staggering on train platforms or passed out on benches as the last train pulls out of the station. December 23 is Emperor Akihito’s birthday, a national holiday that also forms part of the festivities.

Chicken, rather than turkey, has become a key Christmas meal in Japan. Not just any chicken, but Kentucky Fried Chicken, thanks to the fast food chain’s hugely successful advertising campaign, which began in 1974 and proclaimed: “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!). Many customers order their buckets of chicken pieces in advance but queues still form outside KFCs around the country on Christmas eve.

The one thing that pulls Japan together at this time is the ubiquitous Christmas cake: a sponge cake with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries. Whether you buy it cheaply from your local convenience store or from the classy Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo’s Ginza, most Japanese insist on having one.

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