Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Abroad

Last night I relaxed with the other international faculty playing "Christmas Jeopardy" and drinking German mulled wine while people opened the Secret Santa presents purchased for them in far-off places like Hungary and Turkey. We answered game show questions about the intricacies of Charlie Brown Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life and ate snickerdoodles, chocolates, and quesadillas. There may even have been a cheese ball, slightly squashed for that tasty rustic look.

Our friends will soon split off for the holidays - to Venice, Austria, Istanbul, London and the Ukraine. Many will go all the way home to the U.S. But all of us have somehow expanded our definition of Christmas traditions by spending advent abroad.

A sampling of the international traditions I've learned about lately:

La Befana
In Italy, children get their presents on January 5th. Tradition holds that an elderly woman called La Befana, who was once invited to go with the wise men to see the Baby Jesus and refused, now searches the world for the child. She leaves presents wherever she goes in hopes that one will reach the baby she missed.

Santa's Helpers?
In Holland, in what is perhaps a vestige of Colonial days, either 1 or 6-8 black men (depending on whose story you read) accompany Santa when he arrives in Holland from Spain. Rick Steves and David Sedaris both point out the strange nature of this tradition in their holiday writings. Strangest of all, children who don't behave just might get kidnapped by Santa's helpers, and carried off in burlap bags. Read more here.

German Food
It's hard to beat the German Christmas market for new ideas for the Christmas kitchen. Candied nuts, gluwein, fruitcake, frosted gingerbread, doughnuts - it's hard to get through a city square in December without some delightful snack or other. Two perennial favorites are lebkuchen and stollen. Click for the recipes.

Bulgarian Banitsa - with Luck
I would almost say Banitsa is the national dish of Bulgaria, though it's probably got competition from the shopska salad. Banitsa are pastries formed with sheets of dough and every filling imaginable (pumpkin, apple, cheese, turkish delight), though the most traditional hold a combination of cheese and egg. At Christmas, many families put fortunes or tiny coins in the banitsa for the table. One student told me her grandmother puts coins in three that only she can recognize, and then makes sure her grandchildren get them every year. Read more and see an unbelievable bad video of banitsa preparation here.

Venice Boat Parade
In Venice each year a group of boat-owners decorate their craft with Christmas lights and take to the canals. I was pretty excited to see this when we go to Italy in a week, but it turns out the joke is on me. It's Venice Beach, California. Click to see pictures.

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