Christmas in the tropics has its own steamy, sticky flavour … however the weirdest thing you’re likely to see around Darwin during the festive season is nothing more than the sudden appearance of a few hundred scantily clad and extremely intoxicated Santas doing the Twelve Pubs of Christmas pub crawl up Mitchell St.
But can you tell me which country you would have to visit during the silly season to find a pickle hidden in a tree? Or a feline hell beast stalking terrified farmhands? Perhaps an hors d’oeuvres carved straight from the belly of a whale or a raw, fermented sea bird? Christmas around the world is a mish mash of countless cultures, festivals and religions that have moulded together and drifted apart over time, so it goes without saying that many countries and regions preserve their own peculiar quirks of cuisine and custom. For your enjoyment, here are some of the stranger international xmas eats and events.
1. Catalonia – Tiо de nope
Strap yourselves in. Tió de Nadal is a hollowed-out log with stick legs, a smiley face, googly eyes and a small red hat. Think Pinocchio in the early stages of whittling, but if Giuseppe were whittling with an ice cream scoop in the dark. From December 8 it sits either on the dining room table or in a special spot by the fire covered with a little red blanket (for logs get cold). For two weeks Tió is fed and filled with nuts, fruit and sweets by the children of the household like a rustic, oversized Tamagotchi … until Christmas Eve when things get REALLY weird. The kids are given sticks with which to beat Tió de Nadal, singing a special song Caga Tio (or ‘Defecating Log’ to use the English translation) that demands it poop out its bounty before being piffed into the raging fire. “Caga tió — shit, Log! Caga torro — shit nougat!” A noble death indeed.
2. Japan – Finger lickin’ good
Christmas holds no special or religious significance in Japan, with only one to two per cent of the population identifying as practicing Christians. But thanks to the Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (‘Kentucky for Christmas’) campaign of 1974, KFC has been a popular end-of-year tradition for the past four decades. It was the brainchild of Takeshi Okawara, manager of the first Japanese KFC which opened in Nagoya in 1970. He recognised that the Japanese had a soft spot for appropriating western religious holidays as novelty food events, and identified a gap the size of, well, Christmas during the December holiday period. The pitch worked, and this month an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families will pre-order (some up to two months in advance) a Colonel Sanders Christmas Special known as a ‘party barrel’.
3. Austria – Bad Santa
If you have a few minutes to spare and easy access to YouTube, search ‘Lordi, Eurovision 2006’. This will give you a pretty good overview as to what young Austrians are subjected to every December. Krampus is the stanic ying to the Saint Nicholas’ benevolent yang. Krampus’ roots are in pagan and Norse mythology; he is usually depicted as half man, half goat with twisted horns, a demonic snarl and a long, black tongue that would make Gene Simmons blush. December 5 is known as Krampusnacht; only the pious children are spared, the best the naughty ones can hope for is a bundle of sticks instead of gifts. The worst are scooped into sacks, beaten and thrown into the nearest river to drown. Others are simply picked up and spirited away to hell. Come morning St Nick, or Nikolstaug, is spared the dreary task of judging the good from the bad as he simply leaves gifts for the kids that are left.
4. Greenland – No mince pies here
I think you’ve had enough Christmas ham and potatoes dear, so how about a nice piece of whale skin with a strip of blubber inside? Yes, you heard me. Mattak is said to taste of fresh coconut, but you can go first and tell me how it goes. The Inuit populations of Greenland have far more ice and snow to contend with than … er … green land, and so rely on what the ocean can provide and the ice can preserve. If you were feeling really adventurous, like Bear Grills lost on the tundra adventurous, you could also sample some kiviak. Kiviak is a seal carcass stuffed with a couple of hundred auks. An auk is a bird, and if you thought we might pluck them and remove the beaks and feet first, you’d be wrong.
Stuff them in whole, then seal the seal with seal grease (ha) and leave it all outside for a year or so to ferment. Next Christmas, crack open the seal and enjoy (HA) the contents raw. But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick with a nice warming suaasat, a traditional soup made from reindeer meat or sea birds, onions, potatoes and barley.
5. Holland – Never mind the blackface
Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is a sneaky, suspicious Moroccan fellow who rounds up naughty children, stuffs them in his sack and carries them off to Spain to be judged by Sinterklaas. The delicate part of this story is that, as per his name, Dutch folk dress up in rennaisance gear, their lips bright red and faces blackened with boot polish and participate in parades handing out gifts to the little ones. These days Zwarte Piet is often referred to as a chimney sweep, his face ‘blackened with soot’, which begs the question, at what point do we cross the line between harmless tradition and contencious cultural appropriation? And is changing the story to depict him as a chimney sweep rather than a Moor just another case of whitewashing? As this column is purely light entertainment and not a political podium, I’ll leave that one with you to mull over.
6. Venezuela – Jesus on wheels
From 16 to 24 December in Caracus it is custom for almost the entire populace to don a pair of skates for the daily journey to church. I’d love to tell you why but as far as I know the Three Wise Men did NOT arrive with their gold, frankincense and myrrh on rollerblades, nor did Joseph lead Mary into Bethlehem on the back of a fully sick longboard. What I can tell you is this fairly modern custom is now so popular that road blockages are in place from 8am to allow families safe passage. It is also said that children go to bed with a string tied to their toe, the other dangled out the window so that passing skaters can give it a tug when it’s time to rise the next morning for church. Where the sermon is preumably delivered by Olivia Newton-John while wearing her costume from Xanadu.
7. United States – Hide the pickle
No, it’s not a saucy euphemism (and shame on you for thinking it), but an American tradition that some say has its roots in Germany, but which Germans have never heard of. A pickle is hidden in the branches of the tree on Christmas Eve, and whichever child finds it first on Christmas morning has good luck for a year, or good health, or three wishes
or something in that vein. Stories vary from a starving soldier in the Civil War begging a guard for a pickle, to an evil innkeeper murdering two boys and stashing their bodies in a barrel of pickled cucumbers. In fact, the most likely origin comes from the original Woolies, merchant F.W. Woolworth first selling Christmas ornaments in the 1880s, some of which were imported from Germany and which may (or may not) have been pickle-shaped. Just hide the damn thing already.
8. Iceland – Grumpy cat
Since ancient times Icelandic employers have gifted the workers in their household new clothes at the end of the year to reward them for a job well done. This is taken extremely seriously. So seriously that, in what must be mythology’s most extreme case of fashion policing, those still wearing the rags of the past twelve months come Christmas time are in a world of trouble. And not in a fun, chaotic, Cat in the Hat “oooer-we-might-get-grounded” kind of way. Yule Cat, or JÓlakÖtturin, may sound like a cute and cuddly kitty purring before a merrily crackling fire, but the ferocious feline is said to be fifty feet tall and prowls the island in the dead of night, devouring those wearing last season’s Prada.
9. South Africa – Worm your way in
My dear friend Sexy George recalls that the Christmases of his boyhood were a fairly English-style affair with ham, roast potatoes and South African barbecue, or braai. From what I hear though he was missing out as apparently deep fried caterpillars are where the hip Christmas fare is at. Mopani worms come from the Emperor Moth and are considered a delicacy in rural areas. They contain three times the protein of beef, are now a multi-million dollar industry and are said to taste like char-grilled steak. Which makes me think I’ll take a handful of fried mopani over that scoop of raw kiviak thanks.
10. Sweden – Stubborn as
The Yule Goat is a 13m tall effigy built every November in Slottstorget square, Gävle. What makes it special is not only its impressive size, but that the fellow who first built it back in 1966 had the lack of foresight necessary to conclude a giant straw parade float was just begging for a juvenile delinquent with a box of matches to saunter past. Since it’s inaugural erection the Gävle Goat has been illicitly put to the torch an impressive 37 times, making the burning almost as regular a ritual as Christmas itself.
Britain – Gobble gobble gobble
While we tend to associate turkey with the United States, the truth is the Yanks are well sick of the big bird after Thanksgiving. The Brits, however, have long enjoyed fancy Christmas dinners (well, the rich ones have), but prior to turkey’s introduction to the country in the 16th century the wealthy dined on swan and peacock, while those below the stairs munched on boar’s head. Turkey’s popularity exploded a few centuries later after the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; Ebenezer Scrooge, having had both his wicked ways and the living crap scared out him by a few friendly neighbourhood ghosts (no doubt soiling his precious silk undergarments in the process), gifts his noble yet undervalued employee Bob Cratchit a massive bird on Christmas Day. And if that ain’t the spirit of Christmas, well you can just take a big ol’ lump of coal and shove it up ya jumper. Happy New Year folks!
HOT: ADVENT CALENDARS FOR ADULTS
There are not many things that make counting exciting, as my Year 2 teacher Mrs Jenkins – and even my end of financial year pseudo accountant Mr Dad – would happily attest to. This is even more apparent when it comes to the festive season and there is a whole lot of expectation and a whole lot more waiting around, so what is going to get you through those sweaty December days? Enter: The Advent Calendar, filled not with melty chocolate but sublime vessels of your favourite tipple. Available online, so you don’t even need to get your licence scanned by a bedraggled bottleshop attendee at the checkout.
NOT: ADVENT CALENDARS FOR CHILDREN
As the second last Easter egg is picked off the shelf in April, Woolies, Kmart and any multinational company designed specifically to send those with children into a spiral of financial despair will start stocking Elfs on Shelfs, Dancing Santas and advent calendars. If you thought chocolate advent calendars were inappropriate for the Territory, you should see what else is out there. How would YOU, yes YOU, like to spend your December days excitedly breaking your nails peeling back stickers to reveal the day’s super cool, inspirational and groundbreaking BIBLE VERSE? Booze it up folks, and have a merry one.