Every year in early December, our mother's annual threats would fill my siblings and me with terror: "This year, your father and I are going to keep Christmas simple." Inevitably, this threat, to shave off some of the holiday excesses—parties, presents, rich food—would fail miserably. To her children's relief, the inexorable tide of the season swept over Mom, and the Christmas orgy continued unabated. As everyone knows, the holiday season gets longer every year, now starting in early November while the Halloween pumpkin still rots on the porch.
Whether or not you intend to celebrate Christmas, it is currently launching an all-out attack on your life and your bank account. This is exacerbated this year in particular, by the overwhelming pressure to mark the millennium in some memorable and expensive fashion. For most of the world, however, Christmas and (gasp!) even the millennium will pass largely unnoticed. For some of us, this is a mighty welcome thought. Many Americans, of course, will be celebrating Hanukkah, Kwaanza, or modern versions of the pagan winter solstice. But escape the Christmas blitzkrieg they will not. To do that, you'd have to travel to one of the many places not on Santa's regular flight path.
In India, the main event each winter is Diwali, a Hindu holiday that was already celebrated around the country on November 7. Indians call Diwali the "Festival of Lights," which means that young boys spend a lot of time blowing things up with firecrackers. During a college semester spent in India, I found that lobbing small explosives at Westerners was considered great holiday sport for the youth of New Delhi. More seriously, Diwali celebrates the return of the god Rama to his capital, Ayodhya, after defeating the evil demon Ravan.
"Light is the most important thing about Diwali," my Indian friend Anjali tells me. "The holiday symbolizes the triumph of good over evil." Most families place small clay lamps fueled by mustard oil around their houses and in flickering rows along the walls that surround many Indian homes. Friends visit, bearing intensely sweet treats like barfi (not like it sounds, it's actually quite tasty), made from almonds or pistachios. For religious Hindus, Diwali is a time to make pujas (ceremonies honoring a particular god) to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Others, like my friend, honor Lakshmi in a different way. "We gamble," she says. "You're supposed to bring in the dawn gambling for good fortune." Her family plays a fast-paced card game called teen pattha ("three cards") that involves a lot of bluffing and drinking. Diwali also marks the time that old account books are closed and new ones are opened. Many businesspeople perform a chopda pujan, or "puja of account books," to ensure a profitable year.
As the festivities continue in India, Japan's quieter holiday of Hari Kuyo dawns on December 8, with a memorial service held in honor of old needles. Yes, needles. "Hari" means sewing needle, and Kuyo is a service for a departed soul. Tailors and others who benefit from these fine implements honor them on this day. Bent or broken needles are thanked for their service and inserted into tofu on a shrine that might also contain offerings of food, scissors, and thimbles. Those paying respects also hope for improvements in their sewing skills.
For more than one billion Muslims around the world, this winter will be dominated by Ramadan, the holiest time of year. To honor the month when the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad, Muslims are expected to totally abstain from food, drink, smoking, and sex from dawn to sunset. The Koran says that one may eat "until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight, and then keep the fast until night." Because the Islamic lunar calendar is shorter than the Western calendar, Ramadan migrates through the seasons. A winter Ramadan is relatively easy on Muslims in the northern hemisphere, with shorter, cooler days to be endured without life's indulgences. This year Ramadan begins around December 9, but the exact date depends on sightings of the new moon. The end of the month is celebrated at Id-al-Fitr, "the feast of the fast-breaking," a three-day party spent eating well and exchanging gifts with family members.
On December 23 in Oaxaca, Mexico, a more light-hearted holiday takes place. The Noche de Rabanos, or Night of the Radishes, celebrates—believe it or not—the introduction of the radish into the New World by Spanish colonists. Radishes grown in this region are lumpy and distorted by the rocky soil. Farmers and artists carve them into elaborate scenes, often depicting the nativity, and display them at the annual festival. Competition among the radish carvers is fierce, with prizes awarded to the best creations.
Skipping over Christmas, we come to Boxing Day. You know this one. It's on the calendar every year: "Boxing Day (Canada)." I always imagine Canadian families huddled around television sets, cheering on their favorites in the annual blood sport the day after Christmas. In fact, it turns out to be a British holiday dating back to medieval times, when the lords and ladies of the manor would box up the leftovers from their Christmas feasting and give them to servants and other lowlies. Still an official holiday in most of the British Commonwealth, it doesn't seem to have much significance now, except as an extra day off to digest the Christmas feast and shop for those after-Christmas bargains.
In China and much of east Asia, the main event of the season will come later. The lunar New Year in early February will be the biggest celebration of the year. Trains and buses will be packed on the final days of 1999, as a good portion of China's one billion inhabitants attempt to make it home for the annual family reunion. Last year, I planned a trip to the Middle Kingdom to coincide with the festivities. My Chinese friend, Yan Jun, had warned me that spending Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, with her family in Inner Mongolia was likely to be very re nao. This literally means "hot noisy," but generally refers to a boisterous good time. It was. Scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins crammed into the tiny apartment of Yan Jun's ancient grandmother. We spent the evening wrapping jiaozi, or dumplings, a crucial activity for any Chinese New Year celebration, in which much of the family takes part.
A merry group of uncles plied me with mao tai jiu, China's version of furniture polish packaged for human consumption. Toasts were countless, as it's rude to take a gulp alone. I also noticed that the uncles were enjoying many cans of a less traditional beverage: Pabst Blue Ribbon. As in many places during major holidays, China during the New Year is a good time to be a kid. The young and the unmarried are eligible for hong bao, red envelopes filled with money, given by older family members. As midnight approached, the arsenal of firecrackers exploding around the city increased to a deafening pitch. The traditional belief is that the noise will frighten off bad spirits, clearing the way for a year of good things. Yan Jun's young male cousins were pleased to do their part, leaning out the high-rise window to light long strings of explosions.
On the first full moon of the new year, the monasteries at Labrang and Rongwo Gonchen in Tibet are good places to celebrate the Tibetan Butter Sculpture Festival. Here artists carve huge sculptures, some reaching 30 feet high, depicting Buddhist stories and fables entirely out of colored yak butter.
And now, a message from The Millennium Scrooge: One might think that in Asia, where the New Year celebration dominates the holiday calendar, it would be the place to really party into the new millennium. But as Americans plot and fret over how to mark the passing of the millennium in a profoundly moving or a profoundly debauched way, much of the world will wonder what all the fuss is about. While most countries use the Western calendar for business and official purposes, other calendars still hold greater spiritual and emotional weight. Since these calendars don't recognize the birth of Jesus as the beginning of time, the millennium preoccupation is confined to a handful of Western countries. According to the Muslim calendar, we are entering the year 1420, a far less riveting number for the purveyors of millennial doomsday prophesies. (If the world is going to end, after all, it will surely be on a nice, round number like 2000.) For Hindus, it will be 1921. The Chinese lunar calendar says we are entering 4697, and the really significant thing about 2000 is that it will be the year of the dragon, a particularly auspicious sign. The traditional Jewish calendar puts us in 5760. With relatively little fuss about Santa or preparations for the end of time, the rest of the world might be just the place you were looking for to spend the holidays.
Sarah McCormic is a Seattle-based freelance writer.