It’s not an exaggeration to say that this Christmas will be like no other. Around the world, celebrations are temporarily curtailed or adjusted for this strange, paused world we’re occupying until the pandemic is over and we’re free to mingle again. It’s a strange time.
Except - about that word, “strange”.
One of the great joys of travel is the discovery that what you consider to be normal is somebody else’s “that’s so weird, why on earth would you do that?” - as I can confirm after trying to explain blue cheese to a friend from China - and its sister-experience, where you find other people doing things in an entirely different way to what you’re used to. (Looking at you, those oddly amazing cottage cheese & strawberry jam pancakes I had in Latvia.)
If you’re thinking that Christmas is pretty much the same everywhere - well, you’re more right every year, thanks to the march of globalised commercialism. But in all of the places we’re visiting in 2021 and beyond, what they call “traditional” may be very different to your definition of it - and their yuletide celebrations (or lack of them) are a perfect example. Let’s check a few of them out.
The plan was be touring the country in May next year, so we’ll be missing the quintessential Japanese Christmas - but if you want to emulate it at home, place an order for delivery from your local KFC.
Since just 1% of Japan is Christian, Christmas isn’t officially a national holiday (Japan only takes New Year’s Day off work). Those that do celebrate it tend to be younger generations in search of a bit of romantic novelty - and in the early 1970s, this caught the attention of fast-food marketing executives.
Their logic was sound: since the Yule feast isn’t really a thing, nobody would want to spend the day preparing a feast that would generally be met with bemusement, so for those wanting to celebrate, why not get take-out?
Thus “Kentucky for Christmas” was born - which has now cornered a small but significant part of the Japanese convenience food market. It’s now possible to buy an entire Christmas dinner in this way: that’s fried chicken (obviously, because, Christmas), plus cake for dessert, and a bottle of wine, all in one super-easy delivery.
Regarding the cake, it’s not the stodgy, fruity variety that’s so popular in the West: kurisumasu keki is a super-light sponge cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries that doubles as a celebratory treat at other parts of the year.
We were hoping to be there when the legendary Mediterranean summer is on full display - but at the other end of the year, the big difference with a Greek Christmas is who’s in charge. Thanks to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Greeks celebrate the work of Aghios Vailis, Saint Basil (or “Basil The Great”), who dates from the 4th Century and is associated with caring for the weak and building hospitals. He’s formally celebrated on New Year’s Day, with Christmas-style presents and a cake with a hidden coin in it.
However, Saint Nick (aka. Santa) does make an appearance as a lesser figure...and he’s all at sea. In Greece, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, and it’s not unusual to see decorated boats - even the full-sized variety, dragged onto land for the occasion - alongside Christmas trees in town squares at this time.
But for some, this is a distraction from the real point of the season: stuffing your face with cookies. Either you’re a fan of Kourabiedes (buttery, shortbread-like almond biscuits) or Melomakarona (softer, stickier, honey-based cookies topped with walnuts, a little similar to gingerbread). You’re either in one camp or the other, and amiable bickering over which is best is another staple of the season.
We’re still planning on cruising the Adriatic coast in October of 2021, enjoying the residual warmth of summer mixed with spectacular autumnal sunsets. It’ll be too early to see the Croatian Christmas get into gear - but then, you might not see much even if you’re around a few days before the 25th of December.
Croatians start and finish Christmas really late by our standards - and the day of maximum celebration is Christmas Eve. That’s the day that family members take it in turn to tend to the Christmas Log, making sure it burns steadily for the 48 hours ending at midnight on Christmas Day.
In the meantime, light an advent wreath (with four candles representing hope, peace, joy and love) and sit yourself at the dinner table and tuck into a festive feast of bakalar: dried cod served in a red sauce with cabbages, potatoes and a salad. (If you’re in the islands, things may vary here according to local seafood preferences.)
So how does a Muslim country like Turkey - our yachting destination in late 2021 - celebrate Christmas?
Technically and for obvious reasons, it doesn’t. But the reality is that adopting this foreign festival is good for local commerce, so a lot of shops and restaurants are happy to cater for visitors and curious locals alike. (There is a deeper irony here: Saint Nicholas was a 4th-Century bishop from Myra in Lycia, which now forms part of the south coast of Turkey).
Nevertheless, things will be pretty muted over Christmas, right until you get to New Year - which is when everything goes delightfully nuts in that enjoyably festive way we all look forward to. Turks put up New Year’s trees and do New-Yearsy things like throwing salt on their doorsteps, wearing red underwear (discreetly, we hope) and smashing pomegranates on the ground, all to attract good luck for the coming year.
Our three planned tours of the UK - to Cornwall, to Scotland and around the gardens of England - are supposed to take place in the Spring and Summer, so you’ll miss the most absurd things we get up to when we let our hair down for Christmas.
But I am here to tell you that yes, it’s all true. It’s a fact that we attempt to bribe Santa into leaving us nice presents by leaving a glass of brandy and a plate of mice pies above the fireplace. It is a fact that we still engage in the distinctly Harry-Potter-like tradition of writing a letter to Santa, ripping it up and throwing the pieces into the fire, in the hope they magically float up the chimney and reassemble at the North Pole in a legible form…
And it is absolutely true that until we become grownups, we put all our Christmas hopes into one enormous sock - more correctly, a woollen stocking, which we hang on the end of our beds so Santa can sneak in and stuff it full of presents.
(The moment you reach adulthood is when you discover your mum and dad on the stairs in the dead of night, sneaking a just-filled stocking up to your bedroom.)
Wherever you are right now - and wherever you’re planning to be next Christmas, when the world will once again have opened up to us all - I wish you the merriest of Christmasses and a very happy New Year.
See you in 2021!