By Joel Simler
Wouldn’t you know, it’s the holiday season again, and here we all are preparing to indulge ourselves with fine foods, sweet treats, fun gifts, and good company. Yes, soon we will be sitting around tables eating turkeys, beating a log under a blanket until it defecates gifts, and ringing in the new year. Wait a second, one of those things didn’t sound quite right…was a Christmas poop log really just mentioned? Yeah, ok, so that definitely doesn’t happen here in Bellingham (that I or most people I talk to have heard that is); but it does happen in Catalonia, Spain each year for Christmas. As it turns out, there is an infinite amount of ways to celebrate during the wintery months.
Growing up around customs and traditions can be a great way to bond with your family and your community, but it becomes very easy to get fully wrapped up in those traditions and become isolated from the world and places far away from our home in the PNW and North America at large. But that’s ok, because now I’m here to inform you, or at least remind you, that we share a large and diverse planet with so many unique people celebrating in different and interesting ways.
Before we continue, I’ve still got the Christmas poop log on my mind, and should probably elaborate a little more before we continue. Looking at any tradition, not just Christmas celebrations, but basically any, they all have at least a little craziness in them. A bunny laying eggs in a yard for kids to find? Carving a pumpkin to scare kids into knocking on strangers’ doors to ask for candy. Even Independence Day sounds odd when appropriately summed up by a L’il Valu-Mart clerk from the Simpsons: “celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it”. So in Catalonia, tradition goes that the “poop log” is placed in your home with a nice warm blanket and fed nuts, fruits, and water. Then come Christmas Eve or Christmas, children grab sticks and beat the little log. Whilst beating said log, the children sing a version of a song asking it to defecate presents for them. I for one think this is a great idea as we’ve grown up bringing live trees into houses and thoroughly enjoying finding presents under them. I’ve got to say, hitting a present pooping log and singing sounds three times more fun!
Another holiday uniquely different from most places is that of Krampus, St. Nicholas’ evil counterpart. The story goes that Krampus, a horned devil covered in dark hair, arrives on the 5th of December, sometimes accompanied by Ol’ Saint Nicholas. On this night, called Krampusnacht, Krampus prowls the streets in search of naughty children to terrify and haul away in a hand basket. Towns in that area of Europe celebrate in many diverse ways, including Krampus runs (much like Santa Claus runs, which mostly include bar hopping), and having Krampus costumed adults scare children door to door in small towns.
Perusing through European Christmas/winter time traditions and celebrations, I noticed a small trend. That trend is a direct or indirect tradition of scaring the crap out of children! Besides Krampus, there is another entity in town that maybe isn’t designed to, but definitely more than likely does, freak out the wee ones. It is the Wales tradition of Mari Lwyd; a custom that takes place between Christmas and New Years, where a group of men go around the neighborhood door to door caroling (or wassailing) to residents. I know, scary right? Oh, right, I left out the part where one of the men is dressed as a dead horse, and are singing to residents in an attempt to be let into the house. Once the group gets into the house, they proceed to run around drinking alcohol, eating food, and spooking the children. All in all it actually sounds like a very fun event with the singing and merrymaking. Unless of course you are a kid, then you just get freaked out by a stranger wearing a horse skull.
Celebrating Hanukkah seems to be much more kid friendly compared to the other noted traditions. Part of the celebrating includes spinning a dreidel as part of playing a traditional game. Plus you can expect to get your fill of fatty foods with the common latkes (fried potato cakes) and sufganiya (fried doughnuts). Sounds good to me!
How about Kwanzaa? A very important part of Kwanzaa is founded in the seven principles that span the seven days of this holiday. When greeting someone with the traditonal Swahili salutation “Habari Gani” (translated – what is the news) it is appropriate to respond with the principle that corresponds with the day. What if you aren’t African-American or don’t know the correct response? Not to worry! Wishing them a “Joyous Kwanzaa” is perfectly acceptable.
We also can’t forget celebrations of the Winter Solstice holiday called Yule, marking the shortest day of the year, indicating that the lengthening of the days will thereafter commence! Yes! I’ll celebrate that. Yule, one of the oldest recorded rituals, still shows up today with Yuletide greetings and the burning of Yule logs.
There is no shortage of bizarre holiday events transpiring all across our globe. Such as in Caracas, Venezuela, where streets are supposedly closed down so townsfolk can roller skate to church the week leading up to Christmas. Or hidden spider webs in Ukrainian Christmas trees, which upon finding bring good luck. There is also the three day radish carving festival of Oaxaca, Mexico, boasting some of the most impressive vegetable carving out there. Pumpkin/radish competition anyone?
While we may perceive these foreign traditions as, shall we say, odd… the rest of the world looks at us with one eyebrow raised in wonder. For example, what’s with the extravagant lights on everything? Why the craziness of Black Friday? What’s with the obsession of pumpkin flavored everything?
Traditions may seem strange to an outside eye, but whatever kooky way our ancestors conceived to celebrate, traditions are the rituals that help create bonds, memories and belief systems. Whether or not your tradition has great religious meaning for you or simply a family habit, without something exciting and interesting to look forward to, life would be as gray as the sky. I know I’ve come to enjoy my own family’s traditions, such as driving through the James St. Estates to see the show of lights, and my other favorite of walking the neighborhood with my moms (plus any other company) and a glass of wine on Christmas Eve to check out even more lights. Take time to embrace your heritage and family rituals or if need be, start some new ones. They spice up life and create more joy than you might imagine.
Raised by the clouds and trained by the trees, Joel is a native Pacific North Westerner. Often to be found with his ukulele on a mountain or by a shore, he’s usually listening to the surrounding soundscape and waiting patiently for interesting podcasts to come along. If you have any recommendations, you can find him at BellinghamMuse@gmail.com