JOHN’S JOURNEYS: Year-long Yuletide! John Burke stretches the festive (and liturgical) season.
Greeks in Jerusalem © JOHN BURKE
“Christmas comes but once a year” is the lyrical title in a Paramount movie from 1936, but it just ain’t true. Since those days of Depression, seasonal shopping – complete with street illuminations and window-displays – has been increasingly pushed upon us so that is now starts in November.
A better reason is that it is possible to enjoy Yuletide all 365 days of the year, but let us start with December and January. When it comes to getting presents, it is useful to have friends or relatives in some foreign countries. Dutch children get their presents as early as 5 December which is the eve of St Nicholas’ feast-day.
Sinterklaas rides into town, accompanied by his Moorish acolyte who is called
Zwarte Piet (black Pete) because either he is a Moor or else he gets sooty going down chimneys. The biggest parade is in Amsterdam where Santa Claus arrives by boat, and transfers to a white horse, distributing gingerbread.
The same feast day with giveaways is celebrated in Belgium, Luxemburg and
French Flanders as well as on the Dutch islands of Curaçao and Sint-Maarten. So, if you could hop round the the Caribbean islands for a month, you would be able to pick up further presents in the West Indies on Christmas Day, and still more in the Dominican Republic on 6 January.
This is the feast of the Epiphany that celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men
(los reyes magos) who have journeyed from the East to worship the infant Jesus. Since they brought gold, frankincense and myrhh, children in most of the Hispanic world (the Basque country is an exception) should also get presents then. Naughty ones, however, find that Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior have filled their shoes with coal instead.
I have now seen the parade of los reyes in four Hispanic towns on an eve of the Epiphany, and the simplest was enacted by schoolchildren in the Caribbean resort of Puerto Plata. Tenerife’s was more elaborate, and the most commercial was in Alicante, but the most colourful of all was in fish-and-chips Benidorm, complete with Moorish dancing-girls and the Three Kings riding camels and throwing sweets.
Camels in Spain © JOHN BURKE
Although the traditional parade enacts the New Testament story, it is not meant to be a religious ceremony. Even so, every Spanish-speaking town from Madrid to Montevideo and from Barcelona to Buenos Aires has an elaborate crib in the main square. Nor is it just the babe laid in a manger, but every scene from the Annunciation to the Finding in the Temple.
If you want to celebrate the incarnation as such and as much as possible, then take a trip to the wider Holy Land, encompassing at least Israel, Palestine and Jordan. It starts with the iconic Mass of Midnight in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, although tickets are required from the Christian Information Centre in Jerusalem.
Yet Catholics (and Protestants) anywhere are ahead of several other Christian denominations in celebrating Christmas on 25 December. This is because when
Gregory XIII adjusted the lagging calendar in 1582, there had long been schism with the Eastern Orthodox who held that the pope ruled only the western Church.
Although the whole world now uses the correct calendar, there are 16 countries in which local churches base their liturgical year on the old Julian calendar. These include Russia and other parts of eastern Europe as well as Egypt and Ethiopia.
Birthplace in Bethlehem © JOHN BURKE
Thus, in Bethlehem as also in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem one can hear Mass in their Catholic chapels on 25 December, then go to the Greek Orthodox spaces for a sonorously chanted liturgy on 7 January. No less than six Christian denominations share these historic churches, including some Ethiopian monks on the roof in Jerusalem, while the Russian Orthodox have only access, as they worship mainly beneath the golden cupolas of Mary Magdalene’s on the Mount of Olives.
Syriac Orthodox and Copts also celebrate the Nativity on the same day, which is past
our Twelfth Night, and yet there is a further Christmas worship as late as 18 January at the tiny Armenian altars as also in churches of that rite in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Obviously, the same goes for Armenia itself and neighbouring parts of Turkey where, by the way, St Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) is enjoying a commercial comeback. This patron saint of children could bring tourists flocking to Demre near Antalya where he really was a Greek bishop during the third century.
Christmas in Armenian © JOHN BURKE
Myths about Father Christmas are more modern, one origin being traced to Dutch colonists who imported Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam. And long after it became New York, he became the red-clad jovial fellow we now know, not least through advertisements for Coca-Cola, although it will be seen below that he prefers vodka.
If you still have a yearlong yearning for Yuletide, make for the Arctic Circle because Finland persuaded Father Christmas to move to Rovaniemi in 1984. You can even meet the affable fellow, whom the Finns call joulupukki, under the Midnight Sun, and if youngsters in your family scoff, they should write to Santa Claus Village. He has a team of red-clad elves who answer all his correspondence – UNICEF used to pay the postage.
Santa in June © JOHN BURKE
As for Christmassy purchases, they range from Finnish vodka and reindeer skins to Nordic glassware and Lapland’s gold nuggets. So canny is Santa Claus that is he is not voting for SCEXIT and back to the North Pole, since his whole enterprise is supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
By the way, Santa is available for 364 days of the year – guess the exception when he is far too busy.