The Magic of the Holidays!

Grap, Ernie and magical elves from Portugal at the Obidos Castle

Christmas is celebrated in almost every corner of the Earth. However, traditions, customs, and even celebration dates vary.  Dec 24th came from the 3 days after the winter solstice.  This date was chosen by Constantine, the first Christian, Roman Emperor who ruled in the 4thcentury.   His effort was to unite the three primary religions at this time of year (Jewish, Pagan and Christian.  The Jews refused to move Hanukkah and kept their traditions, Pagans were happy because of no real change and for some reasons the Christians moved Jesus’ birthday to that time.

Habits, which traditions are, have a slow way of evolving.  Occasionally it happens quickly with an act of government such as Constantine uniting of the religions or a cataclysmic event such as war.  Two hundred and sixty plus million Orthodox Christians still celebrate on January 6th.  I read recently that many of the Ukrainians have abandoned the date this year due to the war and are adopting December 24/25.

Just over 2.3 billion people  (32% of earths population) are Christians. Though Christians are a minority about 45% of earths population celebrate some form of Christmas.  It’s a blend of Christianity (religion), Pagan (friends gathering, trees, feasting, singing, dancing and fires), St. Nicolas (family food and gatherings of friends with small gifts) and Wall street (shop, shop and more shop). Black Friday is the day that many Wall street investments start making a profit for the year and Gallup polls find that 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas even though most don´t do it for religious purposes and many are not Christian.

From mid November through January there are 20 international holidays celebrated besides Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Most holidays are also filled with music, food and gatherings of friends and family especially in the winter.  The winter solstice falls on December 21 which is the shortest, darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

I found it interesting that the major glob of holidays all happen during this cold dark time of the year and after harvest is completed.  People seem to have a need for connection and are more available to gather and share.  The new year seems to be a time to reflect on the upcoming year for health and prosperity.  The Chinese new year, a 15 day celebration falls between January 21 and Feb 20and is a celebration of the coming of Spring.  2023 starts on January 22 and is the sign of the Rabbit which is a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity in the Chinese culture.  I think we could all use a bit more of that in 2023, Thank you.

An interesting observation is that 9 months after this time are the 8 weeks of the most births.  Yes August through September.  Go figure….

My diverse family traditions:   Growing up, I was bounced around between family members as well as foster homes and I had the blessing of observing numerous traditions and sometimes no traditions.  I survived all of these and had to decide as an adult which I would incorporate.  We started with a traditional American Christmas model.  When my oldest son was 13, he started in September, making long written lists of demands for things we could ill afford.  Yes the Wall street machine had conquered his brain.   I finally put my foot down and made it clear that these pressures would not dictate our family traditions at this season.  Needless to say, Tao was not pleased but the younger ones fell into line and we found ways to enjoy the season.  As my children moved out of the home, we scaled back our Christmas tradition as we filled those extra rooms with international students which ended up going on for 30 years.

I had to decide what part of the holidays I would share with them to give a snap shot of this part of America.  We made the shift and started new traditions with each year finding out about how the students with us each year celebrated and how we could incorporate it.  We quickly shifted away from the Wall street Christmas into more times with friends, music and fun.  I guess it was a blend of St. Nicolas and Pagan.  It worked for us and we learned a lot about the rest of the world.  Because of so many Asian students, we we ended up spending more time focusing on New Years.  Japanese food and playing music was at the core of our new tradition.

yoshi monkey who now lives at the sock monkey museum in Illinois
Yoshi monkey who now lives in Illinois at the sock monkey musuem

We would usually find a local Christmas parade.  The students found this very different from their experience but often asked about why we go two hours early and stand in the cold and ice on the side walk to wait for the parade.  They also would ask why there are so many commercials on the trucks and vehicles.   Explaining turf wars on the side walk and Wall Street Christmas was not always easy.   So I would answer,  “It is tradition”.  

My birthday is December 17 so it falls in the middle of so many winter holidays.  My family of origin chose to ignore this special day of mine for a variety of reasons.  Thus a tradition of ignore was set. When I was in my mid 30´s I decided to change that tradition and start celebrating on Dec 1 through the 17 doing something small but special each day to make up for lost years and acknowledge that it was a good thing I was born.  Christmas, I then celebrated for the next week and the following was for reflecting into the new year and planning a Sushi feast and music.

Music students who joined us on new years for celebration

Living in Portugal with a blend of many international cultures, I am learning there are as many ways to celebrate Christmas as there are people.  Upon moving here, I decided I would drop all traditions that I didn't enjoy and pick off the buffet of options in our new country that I did.  Freezing parades, with side walk turf wars, endless big trucks with commercials of what I should buy were not on the top of my list.  The good news for me is that these were not popular here.

I really didn't know what to expect.  On Dec 1st,  we left our little apartment and walked up to the town center to the Praça da Fruta (363 day a year farmers market) to get some fresh things and find a great coffee shop to start my birthday celebration with my husband Mark.  

I had no idea that it was a holiday in Portugal.  There are no shortages of holidays in a country with a written culture as old as Portugal.  It was conquered and then taken back numerous times thus multiple days of the year are celebrated as independence day. December 1 1668 was when the Portuguese took back their country from Spanish rule.

I quickly noticed our bank was closed at the town square as were several other shops.  Then I heard the sound of a small brass band playing Christmas music in a Jazz fashion.  This small group was weaving through the booths at the Praça da Fruta. There were elves on stilts, bicycles with Santas of all sizes  and jugglers.   It was a magical “flash mob” parade that people were organically joining in with.

Flash Mob

Wow, I said,  this is better than a stop at the coffee shop and was swept into the crowd.  As we followed along down a cobbled streets, other bands of all genre joined in from side streets including Scottish pipers with drummers, a troop of small ballerinas with a little nut cracker boy,  Santas on bicycles and what seemed to be an endless number of elves dancing. It engulfed the crowd so gracefully while appearing to be organic as it was just coming out of the cobbled streets everywhere along with the people.  There was no staking out your spot on the side walk to watch and No turf management and No commercial sponsors.

Tiny ballerinas

The Portuguese are a fun loving, easy going people who know how to put the fun and magic into a holiday celebration.  I was part of a old tradition I could embrace.  Next year I plan to be an elf and play my flute in a Jazzy Christmas troupe getting lost and caught up in the Organic Flash mobs of Caldas da Rainha Portugal.  One of my daughters, Tomomi, who lives in Canada is thinking about joining us.  My husband Mark says he will play the trumpet.  Yes, I will be 71 and starting new traditions that can evolve as I do.

You can never have enough elves!!!

The winter holidays can be a joy or a drudge depending on how locked into our traditions we are.

Old rules:  I have to do what I have always done.

New rules: If it doesn´t make sense and I don’t enjoy it,  I have permission to rewrite my traditions at any age.