27 December 2022

Christmas Traditions: From Festivus fisticuffs to fried caterpillars

By Brad Smith

‘Tis the season to talk about Christmas traditions throughout the world.

For years, people have embraced the so-called fictional holiday, Festivus. The holiday was first mentioned in an episode of Seinfeld. Personally, I never liked the show – I found all of the characters highly annoying and unlikeable – but I did find the idea of Festivus somewhat amusing. Reportedly, a Seinfeld staff writer’s family had been celebrating Festivus since 1966; Dan O’Keefe’s father Daniel had the holiday as an anniversary celebration of his first date with his future wife and Dan’s mother, Deborah. As detailed in the December 23, 1997, episode, “The Strike,” there is the “airing of grievances,” that happens during dinner: Yes, each person present describes how others have disappointed them over the past year. After the meal, the “feats of strength” ensue, including wrestling with the head of the household to the floor . . . and if and when they’re pinned, the holiday concludes.

According to O’Keefe, there was never a Festivus Pole.

Since then, throughout the world, yes, Festivus has been celebrated on Dec. 23.

However, for many years, a similar holiday tradition has been celebrated in Chumbivilcas, a Peruvian province in the Cusco Region. It’s called Takanakuy – in the regional language Quechua, it means “when the blood is boiling” or “to hit each other,” depending on the source.

On Christmas Day, communities throughout Latin America typically hold large public celebrations, with people in colorful costumes, lots of food, drink, music and dancing. In communities throughout the Cusco Region, however, celebrants flock to the local sporting arenas or public squares for Takanakuy and watch as people of all ages, kids to the elderly, men and women alike, engage in fist fights.


Single combat.

Takanakuy is how grievances that people have had with one another over the past year are resolved. Be they personal matters or civil disputes, two people slug it out after calling one another out by name. The victor is decided by knockout or intervention by an official. According to tradition, Takanakuy is how people settle conflicts and resolve to spend the new year living peacefully with one another, strengthening community and even familial bonds.

Until more grievances arise.

The Philippines has the highest population of Catholics in the world. At midnight Sept. 1, radio stations start playing Christmas music, lights and decorations appear everywhere. The city of San Fernando, known as the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines,” hosts Ligligan Parul Sampernandu, the Giant Lantern Festival. Surrounding villages compete against one another as they build large, elaborate lanterns; Japanese origami paper was originally used but now more modern materials are used and the lanterns with their kaleidoscope patterns are lit up by lightbulbs rather than candles.

Some lanterns can be nearly 20 feet in diameter.

In Japan, Christmas isn’t a national holiday but some still observe it . . . by eating chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken in particular. Back in 1974, some savvy salaryman came up with a marketing campaign called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” or “Kentucky for Christmas.” Ever since then, Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii has proven to be very popular in Japan. How popular? Well, KFC restaurants start taking advance orders for holiday meals as far back as September or October or it’s a two or three-hour-long line of people wanting their Christmas chicken meal. Employees also dress as Santa Claus too.

Iceland has a number of Christmas traditions. A small nation yet one with one of the highest literacy rates, there’s the Jólabókaflóðið – the Christmas Book Flood. On Christmas Eve, books – the most popular holiday gift in Iceland – are exchanged and people stay up all night, reading their new books and drinking hot chocolate.

And while most countries observe the 12 Days of Christmas, Iceland has thirteen. Each night leading up to Christmas, the thirteen Yule Lads make their rounds as kids place one shoe in their bedroom window. Good kids get candy and the bad ones get rotten, stinking potatoes. The Yule Lads are elf-like creatures and were once depicted as being somewhat malevolent at times. Over the years, they’ve become more mischievous.

Their mother Grýla, however, is a horrific ogress living in the mountains. She’s always on the prowl around Christmas, searching for naughty children to throw in her cauldron of boiling hot water.

Icelandic folklore also has a large black cat that prowls the country on Christmas Eve – everyone must get new clothes and if not, the Christmas Cat will kill and eat them.

Be thankful for those new socks or ties, okay?

In Barbados at Christmastime, people eat Jug Jug: Influenced by Scottish immigrants, it’s a dish that combines salted meat, pigeon peas, guinea corn flour and herbs. Glazed ham and rum also round out holiday meals.

Going back to pagan beliefs, on Christmas Eve, Norwegians hide all of the household brooms in closets, in the fear that evil witches will take them and fly about all night.

That said, in parts of Italy, a good witch named Belfana travels about, leaving gifts and candy for kids.

Instead of candy, kids in South Africa snack on delicious fried caterpillars. Seriously.

If you’re ever in Caracas, Venezuela during Christmastime, be prepared to see people wearing rollerblades; skating to church services is so common that officials keep vehicles off the roads.

For years now, some people have Christmas dinner at Chinese restaurants. Over a century ago, Jewish immigrants could dine out on Christmas because everything was shut down. Save for Chinese restaurants. By the late 19th Century, Jewish and Chinese immigrants often lived close to one another, so, proximity was a factor. Another was that the Chinese didn’t adhere to antisemitic views held by other European immigrants or Americans. They felt safe there.

As New York restauranter Michael Tong said in a 2003 New York Times interview:

“Welcome to the conundrum that is Christmas New York style: While most restaurants close for the holiday, or in a few cases, stay open and serve a prix fixe meal laden with froufrou, thousands of diners, most of them Jewish, are faced with a dilemma. There's nothing to celebrate at home and no place to eat out, at least if they want a regular dinner. That leaves Chinese restaurants . . . .”

When the film A Christmas Story was released in November 1983, the practice of having Chinese food for a holiday meal gained more popularity.

Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings, Merry Christmas and a Blessed Yule.

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