The Ten Differences Of Christmas (Between the North and the South of this Earth)
I was in in New York, some years ago, walking up a snowbound Fifth Avenue and watching the holiday season in the USA in full bloom - the neck-twistingly tall tree in Rockefeller Center adorned with enough lights to replace the stars; the Toys R Us in Times Square so huge that it contains a three-story tall Ferris wheel inside; presents at Bloomingdale's and Saks that can fit in your pocket and still cost more than the price of all four cars that I have owned in my life - combined. It was all truly a grand sight.
Now I am in Turkey where the holiday season is a good deal more humble. I thought that you might enjoy this little summary of how the holidays are different here and other parts of the world, for example Turkey - The ten differences of Christmas and New year's Eve here and there.
1. The Heat
If Santa is smart, then the moment he finishes up his gift deliveries in the north he pauses for a change of wardrobe (perhaps some nice red shorts and a matching tank top and a wooden coat), because here in our part of the world it is high winter and Christmas can be brutal cold. As a transplant from the north (even the Netherlands, which is still not Antarctica this time of year) it is one weird experience to bring home a Christmas tree in weather that seems more like July than December, I am talking about Rio now. Its all about perception..
2. Baby Jesus is Way Bigger Than Santa
In the north, there are so many images of Santa, and actual Santas about, that as parents we start telling our kids that his elves disguise themselves as Santa because there are just too many shopping malls for him to be in at one time. But for example in Turkey, Santa's face is visible here and there and I have even spotted a live one or two, but Christmas in Chritmas is really about New Year' Eve. Nativity scenes have sprouted everywhere, in nearly every home you enter, on street corners and store windows.
3. Angels That Glow in the Dark
Some ancient readers may recall a Christmas article that I wrote years ago, about the surreptitious arrival of a nativity scene into my home. This led to a family battle over my suggestion that we should at least paint Baby Jesus so that he glowed in the dark (I lost). Turns out that when I was in Italy, last year, they sell lots of small angel figures that actually DO glow in the dark. We have one watching iridescently over a non-glowing Baby Jesus in the manger.
4. New Years Eve Over Christmas?
The big event here in Istanbul is Old Year's Eve (are you getting confused already), not Christmas day. Extended families (which, with cousins, ants and uncles can almost be large enough for statehood here) gather together at midnight on the 31th for a large, traditional dinner. Mainly in hotels. How boring! Hotels are there to sleep, or otherwise: a scenery for pimps and hookers. I don't tell you more...
5. Fireworks A Midnight
One of the spectacular things here about New Year is that at exactly midnight Istanbul area explodes into a popping blare of home-launched fireworks. Thousands of families simultaneously set off every imaginable kind of pyrotechnic -giant 4th of July style explosions of sparks, roman candles, and miniature sticks of dynamite known affectionately here as "Mata Suegras", Spanish for 'Kill Your Mother In-Law', please don't take this to seriously, it are only lost feelings...
As the sparkles and flashes light up the midnight sky, it is truly clear that something special is happening and that all the people of Istanbul are marking it together.
6. The Thirtheenth Paycheck
It is a matter of Dutch labor law that, just before Christmas, formal employees receive a thirteenth monthly paycheck called an "Aginaldo" in Spanish. Families depend on this to buy whatever gifts they will for their families and whatever food they will put on their Christmas Eve or New Year's eve table. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Dutch expiats actually have this kind of formal employment.
7. The Christmas Basket
The other traditional Christmas offering, from employers to their employees (this one not required by law but expected by custom) is the Christmas basket. This is composed of a straw basket filled with bags of flour, rice and sugar, a bottle of cooking oil, one chicken and a bottle of cheap alcoholic cider. We give one every year to Kubalya, the man who cuts our lawn, but since he doesn't drink we substitute Coke.
8. Real Sheep In Christmas Pagents
One of the things that my wife and I do here, as volunteers, is help run an 80-child orphanage. We've been involved there since 2003. Every year the children of the orphanage put on a Christmas pageant and tell the story of Jesus and Mary looking for room at the inn. The first year we did this we thought it would be cool to use a live baby lamb in the manger. Everything went very well until midway through, when one of the little boys lifted up the lamb's tail and little black pellets started to fire out. The little girl who would become our adopted daughter a few weeks later screamed with glee, "It is making poop!" and the Christmas pageant ended in toddler pandemonium even before Joseph and Mary got turned down for a room.
9. Buring Lama Fetuses
Last Friday, December 21st, was the solstice, the longest day of the year in the south and longest night in the north. And we were in Dubai. But at Christmas time, when material wealth and poverty splits these two worlds so clearly in two, that the two halves of the earth should also have their most exaggerated differences with respect to the sun. On these occasions our friend Mert, an indigenous medicine man (Sjaman) hosts elaborate rituals, which mark them in the traditional Sjaman manner. With not my favorite smell.
10. A Five Dollar Bill is a Fortune
It is a truism. What there seems like pocket change is here a treasure, but at no time it this clearer than at the holidays. The humble toys that in the north would be mere stocking stuffers or an afterthought, here would be a toy so grand that many children could not imagine it. The five-dollar bill that many in the north will spend on parking or for a Starbucks coffee drink, for many here would be a fortune. The streets of some parts of Istanbul are lined with indigenous families from small villages that come to the city at Christmas and Bayram in hopes of some small handout from people whose hearts might soften, if just a bit, this time of year. Five dollars is what many workers here earn for a hard day of labor. Some of the families on the street could easily feed themselves with it for days. I don't profess to be a Christian but, nevertheless, it does seem to me odd that the birth of a man who was poor all his life and who preached affinity for the poor, would have his birthday celebrated with a frenzy of material exchange and acquisition, while so many in the world have nothing. A thank you to everyone who is remembering the less fortunate as well in your holiday plans.
Happy Holidays to All!