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Counter-Christmas: Mapping a Very Different Holiday Season 16

To millions around the globe, Christmas is hands-down the best time of year. December rolls around, trees are garishly decorated and metric tons of rich food are gorged upon as The Snowman, Die Hard and The Polar Express play on television screens the world over. For Christmas lovers, it probably comes as a surprise that not everyone shares their festive enthusiasm, and countless numbers of people search for other ways of marking the holiday season. If advent calendars on supermarket shelves in October, mince pie meltdown or the idea of turkey sandwiches until the end of December begins to test your sanity, options seem limited. Instead, why not embrace the Christmas spirit by shaking things up with some Santa-spotting around Beijing's Forbidden City, hailing the Inca sun god in Cusco or appeasing the Voodoo spirits with sugar candy in Haiti? Strap yourself in for a global journey and put a refreshing twist on the festive season by adding your own images and helping us map the quirkier sides of Christmas around the world.

Pétionville, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Dec 8 2016

Haitian children can expect a visit from either Papa Nwel and Papa Fwedad at Christmas, the former acting as Haiti's version of Santa Claus and the latter being a kind of Voodoo-inspired Christmas boogeyman. On Christmas Eve, children all over Haiti clean their shoes before filling them with straw and miniature sugar eggs as a treat for Papa Nwel when he arrives during his house-to-house journey. In much the same way as in Europe and North America, Haitian children who have behaved themselves over the course of the year can expect presents and gifts from Papa Nwel, but the Voodoo influence is felt by children who have been bad as they can expect a visit from the dreaded Papa Fwedad, who brings lumps of coal or worse, Voodoo hexes, bad luck and black magic curses. Image Date: 12/21/2012

Pétionville, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Dec 7 2016

In Haiti, Christmas traditions are fused together with a Voodoo celebration in which devotees of both faiths come together to honour Erzulie Danto, a Haitian Voodoo spirit. In Pétionville, just inland from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the occasion usually falls annually on December 21st and sees a Voodoo priestess draw an eight-sided star on the ground and surround it with Voodoo symbols known as Veve. Each Voodoo spirit, or Loa, has their own selection of Veve symbols and those etched onto the ground by the priestess in anticipation of her astral communion with Erzulie Danto during the celebration include symbols representing love, art, passion, sugar and magic. Oranges, traditionally used as stocking fillers to represent nuggets of gold, also find their way into Haitian Voodoo Christmases as the skins of the fruit are placed at each of the eight point of the star as an offering to Erzulie Danto, who is also honoured with rum, sweet citrus-flavoured water and crème de cacao, said to be her favourite offerings. Image Date: 12/21/2012

Cusco, Peru

Dec 4 2016

The Inca, along with the other famous civilisations of pre-Columbian America, are usually the last cultures associated with the idea of Christmas. In recent years, however, scholars and archaeologists have made the connection between the idea of a celebration marking either the birth of a king a god during the season in which the sun is at its lowest point - both of which happen in European Christmas traditions - and the ancient Inca tradition of Inti Raymi. The Inca festival, whose name literally means 'Sun Festival' in the ancient Andean Quechua language, marked the winter solstice, the return of the sun in the form of the Inca god, Inti, as well as the beginning of the corn harvesting season. Despite occurring in June, the opposite of December due to being in the southern hemisphere, scholars agree that the Inti Raymi festival is the closest thing to the idea of an 'Inca Christmas'. Today, Inti Raymi is still celebrated in the ancient Inca capital of Cusco in Peru as the sun god sitting in his mythical throne of solid gold is paraded along the Plaza de Armas, or 'Weapons Square', right in front of Cusco Cathedral in the city's northwest. Image Date: 06/24/2010

Cusco, Peru

Dec 5 2016

The more traditional Christmas celebrations also take place in and around Cusco's Plaza de Armas during December and a nativity scene and the golden haze of Christmas lights can be seen on the city's historic centre from December 10th onward. On Christmas Eve, the Plaza de Armas plays host to a market known as ‘Santurantikuy', which literally translates to 'Buying for the Saints', and as Cusco's locals descend on the plaza for their Christmas decorations, hundreds of Quechua people living in the surrounding mountain communities also travel to the market selling plants and herbs which only grow in the snow-capped Andes and are also used by the city's locals to flavour their Christmas meals. Among the more unique of the city's Christmas customs, and one completely in keeping with the spirit of giving during the holiday season, is the 'Chocolatadas', during which city dwellers come together to brew vast quantities of hot chocolate and bake huge Panettone sweet bread studded with chocolate chips to give the homeless and less fortunate of Cusco. Image Credit: ApusPeru Image Date: 12/22/2009

Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

Dec 11 2016

In India, 'mela' is a Sanskrit word used to describe a market, gathering or fair and in the city of Allahabad, the fourth biggest in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh after Kanpur, Lucknow and Varanasi, Indian Catholics have organised a 'Christmas Mela' in the grounds of the city's St Joseph's College since 2013. Christians make up a tiny two percent of India's overwhelmingly Hindu population and Allahabad's Christmas Mela, the brain child of the city's Catholic Bishop, Reverend Raphy Manjaly, was originally attended to only run for three days starting on Christmas Eve but has since been lengthened and now begins on December 20th. With Allahabad's standard mid and upper twenties temperatures, the city's Christians purchase their gifts and decorations from the mela while their children ride on disco wheels, dragon rides and on camelback. Allahabad also puts its own exotic twist on the western Christmas cake, creating its own festive desert which is made with ginger, nutmeg, javitri, fennel, cinnamon and uses ghee instead of western butter and is also encrusted with almonds, cashews, chunks of coconut as well as a crystal-coloured north Indian soft candy known as 'petha'. Image Date: 12/21/2013

Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

Dec 12 2016

Just east of the centre of Allahabad, Triveni Sangam is the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati rivers and is deeply revered and auspicious in Hinduism. The Ganges and the Yamuna rivers are physical, but the Sarasvati is a purely mythical concept and the spiritual river is said to be the river of the heavens as well as a waterway leading to immortality and the heavenly afterlife. Additionally, the Sangam River is considered an earthly representation of the cosmic milky way and in recent years a Christmas Eve tradition has also crept into one of the most important spiritual practices in the entire of India. On December 24th, Allahabadi Hindus can be seen wearing Santa Claus masks while ritually bathing in the Triveni Sangam to wash away their sins and free themselves from the endless Hindu cycle of rebirth. Allahabad's 'Hindu Santas' also ceremonially set fire to the branches of a banana, coconut or mango tree, positioned in a ritual kapala bowl to resemble a Christmas tree, on the banks of the confluence of the three river as the fragrant smoke floats up toward the heavens. Image Date: 12/24/2011

Ganjuran, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

Dec 14 2016

In the Javanese town of Bantul, Ganjuran Church is a Roman Catholic church which dates back to 1924, when it was established by a group of Dutch sugarcane growers known as the Schmutzer family. Eleven miles south of the city of Yogyakarta, the church's design is uniquely based on those of a traditional Javanese Hindu temple known as a candi and the building also bears a striking resemblance to some of the stupas seen at Prambanan, one of Java's best known Hindu temples which lies thirty kilometres to the northeast. On Christmas day every year, Ganjuran Church puts on a service commemorating the birth of Jesus, as can be seen a thousands of other Christian churches and chapels around the world, but what makes the festivities at Ganjuran Church so unique is that the effigies of Jesus used during the Christmas Day celebration, as well as those which can be seen inside the church, depict him in the style of a Javanese king. Image Date: 12/24/2015

Jembrana, Bali, Indonesia

Dec 15 2016

In Bali, the next Indonesian island over from Java to the east, the village of Palasari was set up by Dutch missionaries in the nineteenth century as a kind of Christian enclave in the town of Jembrana. Palasari is one of Bali's oldest Christian villages, originally established for Catholics along with the village of Blimbingsari, five kilometres to the east, which was intended for western Bali's Protestants and both villages have churches based on the design of a Balinese Hindu temple, or 'Pura'. In a place as exotic and deeply entrenched in its own brand of Hinduism as Bali, witnessing Santa Claus handing out gifts to children dressed in traditional Balinese Hindu garb may seem like complete fantasy but this is one of traditions which is followed every year in Palasari, where Christianity fused with Javanese Buddhism after Indonesia declared its independence from Holland in 1949. Image Date: 12/25/2013

Qianmen Street, Beijing, China

Dec 17 2016

Much to the chagrin and displeasure of the country's older generations, Chinese businesses and money magnates see Christmas as a huge commercial opportunity. In the coastal areas of Shandong, Jiangsu, Fujian and Guangdong, however, and especially in the modern Chinese megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, stores and malls take mind-boggling sums of money for gifts, decorations and festive food. Online shopping explodes in China at Christmas and in the main shopping and pedestrian streets of the larger eastern cities, such as Beijing's Qianmen Street, a curious mix of west and east is on full show as neon lights adorn the traditional Chinese paifang ornamental gates and gigantic electrical Christmas trees are also installed. As with all over the western hemisphere, China's youngsters also regard Christmas as a time to throw huge parties and bars, restaurants as well as western fast food joints are often packed to capacity. Interestingly, apples have become a Christmas fad in China as the Mandarin word for apple, 'píngguǒ, sounds phonetically identical to the word for peace. Image Date: 12/19/2011

Jingshan, Beijing, China

Dec 18 2016

With less than one percent of Chinese identifying as Christians, not everywhere in the country embraces the western festivities and in the traditionally rural centre of the country as well as the Islamic Uighur populations of China's far west, Christmas is a mystery. Santa Claus is known as 'Shèngdàn Lǎorén' in China and in recent years has found himself increasingly positioned in the doorways of homes and shop windows. As something which likely irks the older Chinese generations even more, Santa's status as a holy figure in the rapidly westernising areas of eastern China has seen him temporarily elevated every year during the festive period to the same level as Confucius, Buddha and the mythical Jade Emperor and he can even be seen alongside the legendary azure dragons, red phoenix, black turtles and white tigers in some of the Buddhist and Taoist temples in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Image Credit: Michael Coghlan (Flickr) Image Date: 12/15/2014

San Fernando, Pampanga, The Philippines

Dec 17 2010

Known as the 'Christmas Capital of The Philippines, the city of San Fernando in central Luzon's Pampanga Province hosts its annual 'Ligligan Parul', or 'Giant Lantern Festival' from December 17th until January 1st. Giant lanterns averaging 20 feet in height and lit with at least 3,000 light bulbs compete for the top prize in the competition, which has a tradition dating back to the mid 1920's.

San Fernando, Pampanga, The Philippines

Dec 12 2014

Thousands of people grace the opening of the annual Giant Lantern Festival in San Fernando Pampanga, in which twenty feet lanterns are lighted with around ten thousand light bulbs and manually powered by a rotor system, that creates kaleidoscope of lights interplay that matches with the beat of different Christmas songs. Nine barangays of San Fernando, Pampanga showcased their unique craft making of giant lanterns that started in 1908.

Shimo-Kitazawa, Tokyo, Japan

Dec 21 2016

In a typically quirky and eccentric modern Japanese twist on a time-honoured tradition, the turkey and stuffing of western Christmas dinners are substituted by the younger generations living in the nation's capital with a trip to one of Tokyo's hundreds of KFC branches. In addition to statues of Colonel Sanders becoming Santa Claus, an estimated 3.6 million people across the country feasted on KFC and reports even surfaced of people waiting all night outside a branch at Shimo-Kitazawa metro station, southwest of Shinjuku in Tokyo, simply to ensure a table the following day. Western fast food is hugely popular year-round in Japan and the tradition began at a Nagoya branch of KFC in December, 1974. Since then, 'Kurisumasu ni wa kentaki!', or 'KFC for Christmas!', is a phrase heard all over the country during the festive period and Tokyo branches begin taking bookings for Christmas Day months in advance. Variety buckets come with a whole chocolate cake and champagne or sparkling wine is even served as part of Japanese KFC's 'Christmas Dinner', which goes at roughly 3,350 Yen, or forty US Dollars, per head. Image Credit: Jessie Thompson (Flickr) Image Date: 12/25/2015

Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Dec 20 2016

During Japan's period of Sakoku isolationism from 1633 to 1866, Christianity was officially banned throughout the country. An underground group known as 'Kakure Kirishitan', or 'Hidden Christians', continued to practice their faith which had been introduced by Spanish missionaries and it is thought that Christmas was one of the traditions observed by the outlaw group. Today, Christmas in Japan sees some Shinto shrines as well as the downtown areas of the biggest cities decked out in neon lights. Christmas became much more familiar to the Japanese, especially the younger generations, after the Allied occupation at the end of World War II and since then the country has seen its own set of festive traditions develop. Gift giving is the most recognisable aspect of a Japanese Christmas and presents are exchanged between friends and family members. These winter gifts are known as Oseibo and, along with their summer counterpart 'Chugen', originate from a Japanese tradition in which people exchanged gifts with those who had done them favours and vice-versa throughout the year. Japan also has its own take on the Christmas cake, made from whipped cream and showered with strawberries which was developed from the Kasutera Japanese sponge cakes. Image Credit: Aranjya Stites Image Date: 12/19/2013

Coral Coast, Vitu Levu, Fiji

Dec 23 2016

Christmas lunch in Fiji is an all-Melanesian affair and islanders prepare their festive meals in an underground stone oven known as a lovo. Garlic-infused fish, chicken, pork and beef are all popular during Christmas in Fiji, all served with the traditional cassava and taro side dishes, but the most famous and widespread seasonal food tradition is a dish known as 'Palusami'. The dish is made by marinating fresh lamb meat with dozens of different spices before wrapping it in a dalo or mango leaves and cooking it in coconut cream in one of the underground lovo ovens. A drink known as 'kava' is also widely enjoyed in Fiji at Christmas and is made in the traditional way during the festive season by using a piece of coral to grind the root of a plant native to the western areas of the South Pacific by hand before adding it to ice-cold water and consuming immediately. Image Credit: João Leitão Image Date: 12/25/2011

Coral Coast, Vitu Levu, Fiji

Dec 22 2016

Tropical islands and southern hemisphere summer sun have long been the destinations of choice for those looking to get away during the Christmas and New Year period, and the South Pacific islands of Fiji are one of the most popular. Christmas in Fiji sees traditional Melanesian traditions of ancestor worship fused together with Christian mainstays such as midnight mass and carol singing. On Christmas Day, some Fijians also gather at the largest house in their village or community, with males performing a spear dance known as 'Meke Wasi to greet the arrival of Christ and to honour Dakuwaqa, the Fijian shark god. South Pacific plant species are used as Christmas trees and Fiji's proximity to the international dateline means that children on the islands can expect to be some of the first on Santa's list. Image Credit: ArtsVillageFiji Image Date: 12/25/2011

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