Which Holiday Facts Are Informative, Which Are Completely Untrue? Maybe Only I Will Ever Really Know.
Christmas was once a moveable feast celebrated during many different times throughout the year. The decision to celebrate Christmas only once a year, on 25 December, was made by Pope Julius I in the fourth century A.D., because this coincided with his annual Winter Solstice, or Return of the Sun, beer bust and orgy. The Pope's intent was to replace the pagan celebration of beer drinking with the Christian one: drinking even larger quantities of wine and rum-laden eggnog until passing out.
Many of the traditions associated with Christmas (giving gifts, singing carols, decorating a pine-needle wreath, setting it on fire, and throwing it into your least favorite neighbor's thatched roof) hark back to religions predating Christ.
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During the first millennium in what today is known as Scotland, or the Land of Men who wear Skirts, Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) was celebrated by the Druids — fat, old ladies, wearing twenty-year-old Japanese kimonos — in honor of their Sun God, Fabio, and rejoicing in the longer days, signaling the coming of Spring.
Winter Solstice is also often called Yule. A huge log — the Yule Log — is brought into an outdoor clearing and becomes part of a great bonfire. Everyone sings and dances around the fire (with the leftover wine and rum from Christmas). All of the noise and great excitement is said to awaken the Sun from its long winter sleep — every time it had come up during the Winter it had merely been sleepwalking, or as the scientists called it, sleeporbiting — hurrying Spring on its way.
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Dosmoche — Tibetan Celebration of the Dying Year
For five days, dancers dress up in hideous masks to frighten away the evil spirits of the coming year. Feasting and prayers fill the days, and the finale comes when the magical pole (covered with stars, crosses, and pentagrams made of string, upon which this festival is centered), is torn down by the townsfolk and used to beat the old Druids from Scotland.
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Feast of the Ass — Middle Ages Christian Festival
At one time this was a solemn celebration reenacting the flight of the holy family into Egypt and ending with Mass in the church. The festival became very popular as it transformed into a humorous parody in which the ass was led into the church and treated as an honored guest while the priest and the congregation all brayed like asses. The Church suppressed it in the fifteenth century, although it remained popular and did not die out until years later — though it's still an underground favorite in the parishes and convents. If you plan on approaching your local priest about this year's reenacting, the code word is blasphemy.
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La Befana — Italy's Santa Claus
La Befana, the kindly witch, rides a broomstick down the chimney to put toys into the stockings of Italian children. As the legend goes, Befana was "sweeping her steps" (code for "paying off the Mafia") when the three Wise Men stopped and asked her to come to see the Baby Jesus. "No," she said, "I am too busy." She later changed her mind, but it was too late. So, to this day, she goes out on Christmas Eve searching for the Holy Child, leaving gifts for Him in each household. Why it is that she is a witch should be obvious to those of you familiar with Christmas and brooms.
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Butter Sculpture Festival — Buddhist New Year
To celebrate the New Year in Tibet, Buddhist monks create elaborate yak-butter sculptures depicting a different story or fable. The sculptures reach thirty feet in the air and are lit with special butter lamps. Awards are given for the best butter sculptures, and free hot bread and a small, blunt knife are given to all who attend.
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Night of the Radishes
Each year since the mid-nineteenth century in Oaxaca, Mexico, on 23 December, the introduction of the radish by the Spanish colonists is commemorated. Radishes in this region grow to the size of yams and are twisted and distorted (morally) from growing in the rocky soil. These unusual shapes are exploited, as local artisans carve them into elaborate depictions of Biblical scenes, Aztec legends, and episodes of I Love Lucy (and often, We Love Lucy). Cash prizes are awarded and the evening culminates with a spectacular fireworks display and a slice of radish pie. Yum.
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Hari-Kuyo — Japanese Festival of the Broken Needles
This Buddhist celebration, held every 8 December since 400 A.D., was once only observed by tailors and dressmakers, but today anyone who will admit to knowing how to sew can participate. A special shrine is made for the needles, which contains offerings of food, scissors, a lock of hair from a Scottish Druid, and thimbles. A pan of tofu (soybean curd) at the center of the shrine has all of the broken and bent needles saved throughout the year inserted into it. As the needles go into the tofu, the sewer recites a special prayer in thanks for its fine service over the year. Finally, devotees and participators wrap their tofu in paper and launch them out to sea, and the needles find their final resting place at sea. The ACLU is investigating this practice and its potential harmful effects on the environment, as many fish have been washed ashore with serious cases of tetanus or lockjaw. The needles are held suspect.
At no time should a person observing Hari-Kuyo stick themselves with a needle — this special practice is reserved for the next day when the Japanese festival Hari-Kari is celebrated.