Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 24: London Christmas crackers

Happy Christmas Eve to all! It’s Day 24 of our Advent Calendar which means that it is time for the final Holiday tradition. For this one we don’t have to travel far, as we are taking a look at the good old Christmas crackers. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

Photo credit: Saz B on Unsplash

LONDON CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

What is Christmas without Christmas crackers with the paper crowns, riddles and silly jokes? But, did you know that Christmas crackers have only been around for less than 200 years? In 1847, a Londoner, Tom Smith, was trying to figure out a way to promote the sales of his bonbons. He first experimented with the adding of messages into the wrappers, small “love messages.” According to a tale, still trying to improve his sales numbers, Mr Smith was lighting a fire and when he heard the logs crackle, he found the inspiration to create a bonbon that would crack when pulled open. Mr Smith called his new cracking bonbon “the Cosaque” but – to Mr Smith’s dismay – the term “cracker,” invented by his competitors, was the one that stuck. The explosive popularity of the crackers was a bit of a double-edged sword for Mr Smith, and for his son, Walter Smith. Eventually competition was popping up everywhere and Mr Smith the younger had to find a way to distinguish their crackers from those sold by everyone else. This is when he decided to abandon the sweets entirely and the crackers we know today were truly born, with the paper crown, the riddle and the trinket.

Will you be pulling crackers this Christmas?

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 23: Sicily Christmas bonfires

It’s Day 23 of our Advent Calendar and Christmas is almost here! Today we are headed to Sicily, to discover how Sicilians – and other parts of Italy – keep warm on Christmas Eve. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

 

SICILY CHRISTMAS BONFIRES

We have already featured one Italian Christmas tradition, but there are so many lovely traditions that we could do a whole Advent Calendar of Italian traditions alone. However, we will do just one more: the Christmas bonfires in Sicily, and other parts of Italy. For Italians Christmas is still very much a religious celebration, and the Christmas bonfires have a religious background as well. Traditionally, the bonfires would be a part of large Nativity plays, meant to keep everyone – and most importantly the baby Jesus – warm. Nowadays most villages, towns and cities have a large bonfire on the main square on the evening of Christmas Eve, kicking off the festive period.

And really, is there anything nicer than a roaring bonfire in the darkest and coldest period of the year?

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 22: Krakow Szopka cribs

Happy Friday! It’s Day 22 of our Advent Calendar which means that Christmas is less than two days away. Today we are headed to Krakow, Poland to check out another lovely local Holiday tradition. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

 

 

KRAKOW SZOPKA CRIBS

Cribs, crèches, nativity scenes – whatever you want to call them – are a common sight around Christmas time in Christian homes, but in Krakow, the tradition has a unique local variation. In Poland it has been a long standing tradition for local woodworkers to create elaborate scenes as sets for the nativity plays, Jaselka in Polish. The plays would be acted out with puppets on the streets, sometimes involving legendary figures from Polish folklore, though straying too far away from the source material was strongly opposed by the Catholic church. The tradition goes back all the way to the Middle Ages. During the 19th century woodworkers started creating slightly smaller versions of their elaborate cribs, szopka, as seasonal decorations to be sold to the wealthy. In 1918 when Poland gained its independence, miniature szopkas were sold as souvenirs in Krakow. It is unclear when the tradition of setting the nativity scene in famous Krakow landmarks started, but the most popular source of inspiration is the St. Mary’s Basilica, though the Sukiennice trade hall and the Wavel castle are also often depicted in the szopkas.

Every year on the first Thursday of December a competition is held to find the most beautiful szopkas from different categories. The best works are displayed in the Historical Museum of Krakow or sold. The first time the competition was held was in 1937 and it has been held every year since, with the exception of the war years.

In which landmark would you place the Nativity scene?

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 21: Christmas in Australia

It’s Day 21 of our Advent Calendar and Christmas is right around the corner. Christmas isn’t celebrated in the darkest of midwinter everywhere however, which is why today we are headed Down Under, to see how Australians celebrate Christmas. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

White Kangaroo by BrisVegan Street, on Flickr
White Kangaroo” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by BrisVegan Street

CHRISTMAS IN AUSTRALIA

In the southern hemisphere Christmas lands right in the middle of the summer season, so in Australia you can forget about a white Christmas or sitting by the fire – unless you are thinking of a roaring BBQ on one of the countless white beaches! Switch your Christmas jumper for shorts and a pair of flip-flops and grab an ice-cold drink, because Australian Christmas is a mash-up of all your favourite summer activities. Think camping, water fights, swimming, and naturally, BBQs. Seafood is a popular choice, and you won’t see a turkey anywhere other than on a platter of cold cuts, right next to the salad bar. Pavlova is the traditional dessert, and it wouldn’t be an Australian Christmas without a platter or four of cherries.

Even Father Christmas does things a little different in Australia. Rather than rely on his flying reindeer he arrives by helicopter, or if you can believe the Aussies, in a sleigh pulled by six white kangaroos – boomers as our Australian friends would say. There is even a very popular Christmas song about Santa’s six white boomers. Under the scorching Australian sun it does make sense to give the reindeer a rest, after all, they are better suited for colder climates.

BBQ, beaches and kangaroos, who else would love to spend Christmas Down Under?

 

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 20: Christmas in Cuba

It’s Day 20 of our Advent Calendar and Christmas is only five days away. For many of us, Christmas is the best time of the year, but there are also those who are already sick and tired of the season, which is why today we are headed to Cuba, to see how Christmas is celebrated – or rather, not celebrated – in Cuba. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

CHRISTMAS IN CUBA

Cuba is the ideal Christmas holiday destination for those of us who couldn’t care less about Christmas, because Christmas isn’t really celebrated at all. From 1969 until 1998, Christmas was outlawed by the communist regime, and even today Cuban families still hardly celebrate Christmas. Christmas Day is a regular working day and children go to school as usual. Christmas is generally visible only at hotels and restaurants catering to tourists, though some shops and homes are slowly starting to pick up the habit of decorating for Christmas.

Christmas Day in Cuba may be business as usual, but Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, as it is called in Spanish, is still a big family celebration for Cubans, despite the three decade ban on Christmas. Families get together and feast on roast pig, fried plantains and rice, topping it off with traditional buñuelos, cassava fritter shaped like the number eight and served with anise syrup, though rum cakes are popular as well. A similar dinner is also served for New Year’s celebrations. If you can get yourself an invite to a Cuban Nochebuena fiesta, you’re certainly in for a treat.

So, if escaping Christmas is your plan and you want to enjoy good weather and sunshine, Cuba is an excellent choice!

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 19: Greek Christmas Boat

It’s Day 19 of our Advent Calendar and it’s time to head over to Greece to find an alternative for the Christmas tree. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

 

GREEK CHRISTMAS BOAT

If you are spending Christmas in Greece, and you take a walk in a harbour, you may see sailboats decorated with lights. Greece is a country of seafarers so it is hardly surprising that this  Christmas tradition revolves around boats. Especially on the Greek islands, such as Crete, this age old tradition is still going strong, and many people choose to even put up a decorated miniature boat in their home instead of a Christmas tree.

There are many variations to how the tradition supposedly came to be. Allegedly, it was customary for the wives of the homecoming sailors to decorate boats and place them by the fire to welcome their husbands home, and to symbolise the safe return of the ships.

Other sources link the tradition to the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas, and indeed, the boats are traditionally decorated on December 6th, the feast of Saint Nicholas. Sometimes, the boats are also filled with gold coins – or these days, with chocolate coins – which are also a symbol of Saint Nicholas.

The tradition somewhat dwindled in popularity in the 19th century when the German kings of Greece started decorating Christmas trees instead, but in the islands the Christmas boats maintained their place in people’s homes. These days the boats are making a comeback on the mainland as well, and many cities display a large decorated vessel for all to admire.

Would you switch your Christmas tree for a more nautical centrepiece?

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 18: Japan Christmas KFC

Marco Polo Japan Pocket Guide

Marco Polo Japan Pocket Guide coming out in January 2018!

It’s Day 18 of our Advent Calendar and the countdown to Christmas has really begun. Today we are headed to a brand-new Marco Polo guide destination… Japan! We are launching our brand-new updated Pocket Guide series in January, with a sleek new design and a bunch of new destinations… but for now we will find out why all of Japan is going crazy for fried chicken on Christmas day. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

JAPAN KFC CHRISTMAS

Christmas isn’t traditionally celebrated in Japan, and those that do, tend to treat it more as a romantic holiday, treating their partners to romantic getaways and dinners as one would on Valentine’s Day. However, there is also a rough estimate of 3.6 million Japanese people who celebrate Christmas with their families and loved ones by getting a bucket or two of KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

December is the busiest month of the year for the KFC in Japan, and you have to order the special KFC Christmas dinner weeks early or you will find yourself waiting in line for hours.

The tradition is almost fifty years old already. The first KFC restaurants arrived in Japan in the 1970s, and in 1974 the company ran a national marketing campaign Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, Kentucky for Christmas. The Christmas party bucket was an immediate success, possibly because Japan did not have any other Christmas traditions at the time, so people were eager to fill the void. The company also branded their own smiling Colonel Sanders as sort of Santa Claus figure with the traditional Santa outfit and similar jolly white-bearded appearance.

So if you are travelling in Japan during Christmas, don’t be surprised to see long lines outside the KFC. And though we are not likely to pick up the tradition here at Marco Polo, the idea of no Christmas cooking but having a good time with family and friends does sound pretty appealing.

 

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 17: Czech Christmas Carp

Happy 3rd Advent Sunday! It’s Day 17 of our Advent Calendar and that means that Christmas is only 7 days away! Today we are headed to the Czech Republic to find out why some Czech citizens avoid taking relaxing baths at home a few days before December 24th. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

carp by andrijbulba, on Flickr
carp” (CC BY 2.0) by andrijbulba

 

CZECH CHRISTMAS CARP

In the Czech Republic, and also in Slovakia, it is customary to eat fish on December 24th, and the fish of choice is usually carp. In fact, the local superstition is that eating carp on Christmas Eve will bring good fortune for the next year, and if you keep a scale from the Christmas carp in your wallet, it will help to keep money (and presumably to attract more of it) in your wallet. What makes the tradition particularly peculiar, however, is that many Czechs opt to buy a live carp a few days before Christmas Eve, presumably to make sure their Christmas carp is as fresh as it can be. Of course, the carp splashing and swimming around in the bathtub usually turns into a source of fun and fascination for children and cats. Some families even name their carp, and perhaps unsurprisingly, end up releasing the fish instead of cooking it to perfection.

Fortunately, it is also possible to buy your carp from the fishmonger ready to cook, without having it occupy the bathtub.

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 16: Ireland Wren Day

Day 16 of our Advent Calendar and today we are headed to the Emerald Isle, Ireland,  to look at the tradition of the Wren Day. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

IRELAND WREN DAY

When many of us are celebrating Boxing Day on December 26th, in Ireland the day is traditionally known as the Wren Day, or Hunt of the Wren Day, Lá an Dreoilín in Gaelic. Up until the 21st century, it was customary to hold a bird hunt, to hunt a wren, and then hang the hunted bird in a net from a pitchfork and walk it through the town in a parade. Nowadays the hunt is usually skipped, or a fake bird is used instead. The parade consists of mummers, dressed up in masks, straw suits and colourful clothing, playing music and singing songs. The parades are sometimes called wrenboys and often at the end of the day, special parties, or ‘Wren balls’ are held.

There are several theories on the origins of the tradition. Some say it’s a Celtic tradition, the others claim a Norse origin, and there is also a claim that it is a Christian tradition. Whatever the true origin, the tradition is fundamentally Irish. A good, lively way to burn calories off after Christmas dinner.

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Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 15: Denmark Mandelgave

Happy Friday! It’s Day 15 of our Advent Calendar and today we are headed to Copenhagen to find out why almost every Danish person is on the lookout for almonds on Christmas Eve. Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here!

DENMARK MANDELGAVE

Risalamande, from the French riz à l’amande, is a traditional Danish Christmas dish. It is a rice pudding made with vanilla, chopped almonds and whipped cream, and it is usually served cold with cherry sauce in Danish homes on Christmas Eve. A lovely, sweet – and heavy – dessert, but what really has the Danes excited, is the tradition of mandelgave, ‘the almond prize’ in Danish. The host of the Christmas dinner hides one (or more) whole almonds in the rice pudding, and everyone will try to find it. Traditionally, one must keep on eating until the almond has been found, which can be quite the task after the lavish Danish Christmas dinner. The happy finder of the whole almond will receive a prize and a year’s worth of good luck. Not a bad deal.

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