As Americans, we pride ourselves in "doing Christmas up right." Tons of gifts, big holiday feasts, huge trees, the whole deal. USA!
However, we sometimes forget that many non-American countries also celebrate Christmas, in their own adorable, misguided way. Is it wise for Americans to remain ignorant on the Christmas customs of our foreign neighbors? The answer, of course, is yes. And, here's why.
Belgium boasts not one, but two Santa Clauses, St. Nicholas and Pere Noel. St. Nicholas is the "bad cop" of the duo, and is all about reconnaissance. On Dec 4, he melts into the Belgian shadows to thoroughly investigate the backgrounds of unsuspecting children.
While American Santa conducts his "naughty/nice" tallies up at the North Pole through magic, St. Nick's Belgian operation seems less about enchantment and more about unsavory late-night stakeouts and countless anxiously smoked cigarettes. His methods, while morally disquieting, are effective. By Dec 6, St. Nick has all the dirt, which he passes along to Pere Noel in time for Christmas.
For the nice: presents; the naughty: twigs. Belgian Santa doesn't leave the naughty/nice debate open to interpretation. If you're bad, he takes the time to really rub your nose in it. Still, if he's tailed some poor Walloon kid around for the better part of a weekend, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that the little bastard deserved a handful of dirty sticks for Christmas.
At least the stick-receiving child might be able to join forces stateside with our naughty children, who get coal in their stockings. Between the two of them, they could get a warm fire going, the greatest gift of all.
The Brazilian Santa Claus is Papai Noel, who travels to Brazil every Christmas in breathable silks, (hey, cut him a break it's summer down there) and lives in Greenland for the rest of the year. The deviation speaks volumes, really. American Santa lives in a magic house in the remotest part of the world. Brazil Santa lives in Greenland; a country that, while cold and remote, is still little more than a few stopover flights away. It's unclear whether the change was made in an effort to make Santa Claus' ridiculous mythology a little more plausible, or if Brazilian children are just too poor to afford plane tickets, and Greenland might as well be on the goddamn moon for all the good it would do them.
Like America, Northern Brazil enjoys the tale of Jesus in a manger. In the Brazilian version, however, the shepherds are replaced by several shapely shepherdesses. Hoo damn, yes. Also, the manger animals talk, though they don't have a lot to say. Typical dialogue: "Christo nasceu (Christ is born)!" exclaims a rooster. "Onde (Where)?" asks a bull. Given that they're just animals, they can be forgiven for their clunky, expository dialogue, the purpose of which seems to be endlessly restating the obvious.
In the most radical departure, a renegade gypsy actually kidnaps the Christ child, and the three wise men have to get him back. It gives us a badly needed high octane third act to the entire enterprise, and also rinses out the aftertaste of all that dull business with the talking animals ("Eu estou em um celeiro (I am in a barn !," says a sheep). We can only assume that the whole kidnapping ordeal ends in a fight between the wise men and the gypsy on the top of a speeding train.
On Christmas Eve in Finland, the entire family puts on their coats and heads to the cemetery to pay respects to the dead with candles and singing, a tribute that doubles as both touching Christmas tradition and traumatizing nightmare for Finnish children. It's telling to think that a child's only wish on Christmas Eve might be to "not get lost in the graveyard at night like last year."
Adding more fuel to the Santa Claus geography debate, the Finnish have their Santa (Joulupukki) living in the northern part of Finland, to the frustration of Greenland purists. According to fact site Virtual.Finland.fi (a boon for those of us who'd prefer to think of Finland in a non-physical, implied sense), Father Christmas "uses whatever means of transportation is best suited to the weather conditions." He has a sleigh drawn by team of reindeer, natch, but also a team of dogs, a car, an airplane, a snowmobile and even a helicopter. It sucks a bit of the magic out of Christmas to envision Santa living 20 miles up north, tooling around the woods on a snowmobile.
Plus, without the magical aspect to the toy distribution, cracks appear in the myth pretty quickly: How does he keep the snowmobile topped up with gas? Why the need for an airplane and a helicopter, and how is he landing either of them in the backyards of Finnish children? What does "whatever means of transportation is best suited" imply? Does Father Christmas have access to, say, a submarine if the need arises? Who's funding this?
Estonia claims their Christmas (Joulud) has no connection with Christianity at all; nonetheless, their decorations and customs look suspiciously Jesus-like. One of the most important Estonian peasant traditions involves the bringing home of authentic "Christmas straw," which is supposed to symbolize the manger. Whose manger, Estonia? The children are encouraged to frolic around in this filthy horse food and, with no other options given to them, most likely do just that.
Christmas Eve and Night are considered sacred, and Estonians use the two-day window for the exclusive purpose of fortune telling, predicting next year's weather and harvest. Ancestors' spirits are said to visit families' houses during this time. How they get along with the strange fortune tellers already mingling about the premises is not elaborated upon, though one suspects it's no more awkward than an American Christmas with ample amounts of egg nog and beer available.
Another of the oldest holiday traditions in Estonia is the Christmas Eve sauna, which is exactly as unappealing as it sounds. After being required to see all of your immediate family sweaty and nude, one might welcome the opportunity for a heart-to-heart with a relative visiting from beyond the grave.
Latvian Santa Claus goes by the charming moniker of Ziemmassve'tku veci'tis, or "Big Zimmer" for short. Old Zimzy is required to bring presents on each of the 12 days of Christmas. They work their Santa like a mule, make no mistake. Latvia also apparently holds the honor of inventing the Christmas tree. The next time you want a peek into the thought processes of a Latvian, keep in mind that they were the first people to decide, apropos of nothing, to chop down a tree and cover it with sprinkles.
Like Estonia, J.C. is nowhere to be found among the Christmas festivities. Instead, Latvians commemorate the rebirth of the Sun Maiden, a shifty-sounding girl who goes by the names Saule, Saul, Motule, Saules, Mate and many others. If you think it sounds a little suspicious to need this many names for the relatively simple business of pulling the sun around the sky on a golden-wheeled fire chariot, you're not alone.
The best-known Latvian Christmas tradition is an odd custom called mumming. "Mummers" wear an assortment of masks, the most traditional bearing the likeness bears, horses, goats, haystacks, gypsies, and, delightfully, living corpses. A bear or a goat would be pretty easy to pull off, but you've got to hand it to any Latvian designer given the thankless task of coming up with a haystack costume. Getting instructions like "It has to look exactly like a haystack, but with arms and legs and eyes and a face" every year would dampen the spirit of someone who didn't live in Latvia.
Italian parents, presumably concerned over the pagan nature of modern-day Santa Claus, outlawed the practice of telling children that Santa delivered them their presents. Instead, the Vatican, unable to prove the existence of Santa but, for some reason certain about the existence of witches, decided to tell kids that a kindly old witch, La Befana, delivers them. Rock solid, Vatican.
According to legend, the Wise Men asked La Befana to accompany them to see the infant Jesus. She refused, saying she was too busy. Now there's a lady who doesn't want anyone to get the wrong impression about her.
WISEMAN No. 1
We're going to see the Baby Jesus be born this very eve.
I have a boyfriend.
WISEMAN No. 2
That's just fantastic. Would you like to come see the birth of Jesus?
He's as big as 10 wagons.
WISEMAN No. 3
That sounds nice. Would you like to watch the birth of God?
BELFANA sprays pepper spray in the Wisemen's faces, slams door.
After missing the wondrous sight of his birth, Belfana goes from house to house each year, leaving gifts and looking for the Christ child. Someone should tip her off that J.C. was last spotted in Brazil, being fought over like a fumbled football on top of a speeding train.