The end-of-year holidays do funny things to people. They can prompt bouts of deep introspection – analytical looks at the 12 months past, tough assessments of present positioning, hopeful gazes at the new seasons to come. They can also draw people outside of themselves – giddy at a party, proactive in the face of a turned-over new leaf. Sometimes the guiding force is spiritual, other times much more concrete. Whatever the case, we usually welcome the flip of the calendar page, the fall of another digit in our steady forward progress through time.
Over the past two weeks, in honour of this annual stock-taking, we’ve shared some of the fourth-quarter stirrings from a few places around the world: Sikh pilgrimages in Pakistan, Orthodox Christmas in Athens, Eid in the Maldives and a little bit of everything in multicultural Tanzania. We’ve offered our top five picks of other places where you can tap into a mystical vibe to help bring out your own if you’re not already adept at just finding the spiritual experience in all travel.
Even after all that, we still had a few items on our list that we wanted to share.
Some of what we learned about simply caught our silly fancy, like SantaCon, “where guys and girls of legal age dress up like Santa and go cavorting around town for no better reason than that it’s huge fun.” What better way to get ho-ho-ho jolly?!
Others had a hilarious edge of tradition gone amiss, as in when you’re sure that a present-day custom is based on some slight misunderstanding of past acts. Take, for instance, the Norwegian tradition of hiding brooms on Christmas Eve night (thus denying marauding evil spirits their means of transport).
Or ponder the practice in the Czech Republic of single women throwing a shoe over a shoulder on December 24 to determine if they will marry in the coming year. If you’re a single handsome prince, it might be the best time for a stroll and welcome risk of getting knocked unconscious by flying footwear (only to be awakened by a beautiful, penitent and eligible princess).
And how about the Christmas pastime in Latvia of ‘mumming’? This involves parading around in animal or corpse masks and costumes, and then visiting houses to help drive away evil spirits. There’s song and dance involved and an invitation to snack – a good gig for hungry bellies on Christmas Eve.
A Mixture of Mirth and Meaning
There was also some mirthful stuff underpinned by religion.
If you’re visiting Los Cabos, Mexico, during December, you are likely to hear a traditional song connected to the celebration of ‘Las Posadas,’ which lasts for nine days (December 16-24). ‘Posadas’ are reminders of the journey of Joseph and Mary just before the birth of Jesus as they moved from place to place in search of somewhere to stay. The practice today is for guests to gather in the main entrance of selected house (uniting family and friends), light small candles and then sing the traditional song (Entren santos peregrinos, peregrinos/Reciban este rincón/Que aunque es pobre la morada, la morada/Os la doy de corazón). When the song is over, the host opens the door and all the guests enter while singing the last part of the song. Guests then kneel and pray at the house’s nativity scene, after which a piñata filled with traditional candies makes its appearance. There are also public Posadas held usually on the main plaza of every town and open to visitors.
In Estonia, where pre-Christian traditions are still observed and the cycle of nature treated with due reverence, celebration of the winter solstice, called jõulud, is arguably just as important as commemoration of Christ’s birth. Different people give different weights to secular and religious significance, but many first celebrate nature in ways that involve water (a sauna) or a fire in a forest (see the video below), followed by conventional holiday meals taken in a family circle.
Of course, the season also comes with a serious message, one taken to heart in many places across the planet.
In the Seychelles, for over 200 year a British colony, most of the year-end practices follow British custom, although the local Seychellois place a greater emphasis on the New Year festivities than Yuletide pomp. Perhaps it has to do with the ritual significance of Christmas, a time for midnight mass, gift exchanges and family togetherness. By contrast, starting on the evening of December 31, everyone is out for street parties in Victoria, the capital. After midnight, everybody hits the discos until late in the morning of January 1st. January 2nd is then a time of family reunion, an occasion for brothers and sisters to gather at their parents’ house and get reacquainted. Note that fire crackers are illegal in the Seychelles.
Finally, in places around the world, like Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzegovina, people gather to remember miracles and apparitions. In Medjugorje, in the summer of 1981, six children saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Since then, regardless of age, nationality, color, education and even religious belief, millions of people have made the pilgrimage to this visit this small village to find peace and renewed sense of purpose in life. Each year, a special call goes out to young people to make the journey to Medjugorje on December 31. This year (2010), beginning at 7pm, children from the Cenacolo Community (former drug addicts) turn the area around the Church of St James into Bethlehem for a few hours. This is followed by prayer and Holy Mass.