Celebrations: We Gather Together, Again

The signs are everywhere this time of year. Family members gather together to feast and imbibe ceremonial beverages; youthful faces glow with anticipation; there's that special electricity in the air that only comes about when people shove all differences aside, and turn their attentions to the one thing that unites us all. I speak, of course, of Bowl Day, the annual explosion of football mania. What better way to ring in the New Year than to huddle around the glowing cathode tube, partake of a 10,000-calorie snack, and watch as teams of helmeted behemoths pile on top of each other? True, it may not possess the spiritual depth of the official holidays, but it is a good excuse for loved ones to get together and bond. One creative way to celebrate is to prepare dishes indigenous to the regions hosting the games. The Orange Bowl, held in Miami, calls for something with a Cuban accent; the Sugar Bowl, in New Orleans, makes a perfect excuse to throw some crawdaddies in the pot and load up on gumbo. The Bowl marathon is only one of the many overlooked events in December and January that give cause for celebration. If you can't take care of all your social obligations on Christmas and New Year's, you might consider making merry on one of the following, lesser-known holidays. Although St. Nicholas is inextricably associated with Christmas, he has a day all to himself on December 6. St. Nick was originally the Bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey. His claim to fame is that he left a bag of gold for three village girls on three successive nights, thus keeping them from being sold into slavery. Centuries later he emerged in popular myth as Santa Claus, but St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated (especially in Europe) by those who wish to honor the original model. Children leave straw and carrots in their shoes for St. Nick's horses; they awake to find said shoes filled with goodies (or with switches, if their behavior has not been up to scratch). For most Western countries, one Santa is sufficient. But in Iceland there are 13, known collectively as the Yuletide Lads. Descended from an ogre named Gryla, each Lad is named after whatever brand of mischief he happens to delight in. Door Slammer, for example, slams doors. Candle Beggar makes off with candles; Meat Hooker fishes for holiday roasts by dangling a hook down the chimney. The Yuletide Lads visit one home per day, beginning on December 12; by Christmas, each has had the chance to leave a gift and perform his characteristic bit of naughtiness. This tradition enables a family to stretch the gift-giving out over a couple of weeks instead of doing it all in one massive, orgiastic revel. What with Christmas caroling, trick-or-treating, and Fourth of July fireworks, holidays represent the only officially sanctioned opportunities we have to annoy the neighbors. Anyone wanting to start a new version of this noble tradition may wish to ape the Netherlandish custom known as Midwinter Horn Blowing (December 15, or any time during Advent). Celebrants blow horns made of year-old elder saplings, in order to announce the birth of Jesus and chase away evil spirits. Winter solstice (December 21) is among the more important holidays for the born-again pagan, symbolizing the eternal, cyclical patterns of nature. The day when the sun is at its most southerly position, the winter solstice is both the shortest day of year and the official beginning of winter. One doesn't have to do anything very exotic to celebrate it properly; the burning of the yule log originated in solstice festivities, and such items as holly, mistletoe, and Christmas trees began as pagan symbols of nature's persistence. Similarly, the foods served at a solstice celebration are usually simple and earthy, symbolizing our connection to the soil. Hearty breads, smoked turkey, or stew made from winter roots (onions, turnips, parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.) are especially appropriate. Depending on the depth of one's pagan proclivities, celebrations may range from small, intimate parties to ritual dancing in the moonlight. If you yearn for something even more esoteric, bear in mind that December 23 is the Night of the Radishes. No, that's not a grade-Z mutant vegetable movie from the '50s, but an actual festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, a town famed for the size of its edible roots. Participants carve them into mini-replicas of historic landmarks, public figures, and Nativity scenes, then enter them in contests in the public square. Be the first on your block to explore the possibilities of radish art. The day after Christmas, a low-key affair in most households, is actually a minor holiday in the Christian calendar. It commemorates St. Stephen, the church's first martyr, whose duty it was to serve the growing Christian community in Jerusalem. (The saint-to-be was promptly denounced as a blasphemer and stoned to death for his troubles.) In England, December 26 is the traditional servants' day off; employers commemorate it by giving their workers a Christmas box. Hence, St. Stephen's Day has also come to be known as Boxing Day. It's a good day to present the mailman, trash collector, or any other underappreciated public functionary with a token of thanks; it may also serve as a simple winding-down period, a chance to visit with loved ones without all the stress and activity that accompanies Christmas. African-Americans can fill up the gap between Christmas and New Year's by celebrating Kwanzaa, a weeklong, Westernized version of a traditional African harvest festival. (The name is a Swahili word meaning "first fruits.") Developed in 1966 by professor M. Ron Karenga, Kwanzaa centers on the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles of black culture: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Celebrants dedicate each day of Kwanzaa to one of these principles by lighting one candle of the kinara (a seven-prong candleholder) and discussing the principle of the day with family and friends. Gifts can be exchanged, if desired. On the final day, the entire community gathers together for a feast, or karamu, usually featuring traditional African dishes. The last religious holiday of the season is Epiphany, on January 6 (the day after Twelfth Night). It commemorates three events said to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus: the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Guys; the baptism in the River Jordan, when a voice was heard proclaiming his divinity; and the performance of the water-into-wine miracle. As for ways to celebrate, the custom in Latin countries closely replicates the St. Nicholas Day festivities. The kiddies leave hay in their shoes for the king's camels; they wake up next morning to find small gifts in place of the hay. In regions where families with camels are increasingly scarce, it may be best to follow the French custom. Simply bake a cake with a coin in it; whoever gets the piece with the coin is king or queen for a day. Another option, appropriate for any day during the winter months, is to throw a Polar Bear party--either on your own or through one of the pre-existing Polar Bear Clubs. All you need is a deep emotional yearning to plunge into unbelievably icy water. The sport is somewhat akin to fire-walking in its mental and physical effects; enthusiasts claim to find the experience exhilarating, and a true test of human mettle.

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