Poor Santa. He sometimes shows up on the street corners of Buenos Aires at this time of year. But in Buenos Aires, this time of year is midsummer -- hot and humid -- and the old gentleman is apt to be perspiring heavily under his long, white beard. Wisely, he usually wears a lightweight red suit.
In the French countryside, you might sit down for a Christmas meal at the rather numbing hour of 1 a.m., hungry and eager to feast on wild suckling boar after attending midnight mass in a nearby monastery or cathedral.
In Japan, Christmas is little noted, for the people are preparing for the really big holiday, New Year's Day. Tokyo shuts down almost completely, and there's so little traffic on the streets that the normally hazy air clears and residents get a good view of Mount Fuji.
"Home for the holidays," we say, and given the typical year-end crush in airports and on trains, it seems many of us take that goal seriously. But others may find themselves abroad at this time of year, and they are treated to a look at how other cultures celebrate the season.
Washington Post foreign correspondents and special contributors provide these glimpses of holiday traditions worldwide.
Bethlehem The line begins forming at around 3 p.m. Tickets clutched tightly, Japanese tourists, French nuns, American students and German backpackers -- all mingle with solemn Christian pilgrims as they queue up for the first of several security checks. The atmosphere in Bethlehem is more like a tour of the United Nations than a religious celebration.
Christmas in Bethlehem begins with that incongruous scene outside Manger Square on Christmas Eve and gets more bizarre as the evening wears on. Tourists often are disappointed at the tawdriness and commercialization of what they expect to be a solemn religious experience. To avoid disappointment, come expecting the merriment of Mardi Gras rather than the piety of a papal audience.
Manger Square is jam-packed from corner to corner, and enterprising salesmen hawk everything from sandwiches of falafel (fried chickpea paste) to framed portraits of Jesus, from shiny Christmas cards shedding glitter to strings of multicolored lights in dubious working order, from wooden cre`ches to hollow camels.
A din of multilingual babble makes conversation impossible. At one end of the square, a platform is erected where choirs from around the world exercise their vocal cords in the proverbial repertoire of "Silent Night" and "O, Christmas Tree," as well as some local variations not yet on the Top 10. The dressing room is, of course, at the other end of the square, and long lines of white-clad angels wend their way through a crowd that includes beer-drinking American teen-agers and tense, gun-toting Israeli soldiers. The soldiers are there in large numbers to guard against acts of terrorism.
The best place to observe the scene is from the balcony of the Bethlehem municipal building on one side of the square, where Mayor Elias Freij presides over an open house of local Arab notables sprinkled with a few westerners. Guests are welcomed with the ubiquitous Arab coffee, closely followed by a small glass of wine or whiskey.
For the common folk down in the square, however, the drink of the evening is beer. Despite the guns, the greatest danger seems to be having beer poured on one's head or clothing. Soldiers may spirit away the worst offenders, but usually not before they have spread their own version of Christmas cheer on unwary fellow celebrants.
After nightfall, the decibel level rises appreciably, fueled by both anticipation and increased alcohol consumption. Around 10 p.m., the Church of the Nativity opens its doors and another round of security checks begins. The church is quickly filled to capacity, then to overcapacity. Voices are subdued, as the sounds of the revelry outside begin to dissipate. Children begin to fall asleep on parents' shoulders, and exactly at midnight, the 90-minute mass begins. Conducted primarily in Latin, the haunting chants echo in the high vaulted ceilings.
Behind me last year a woman cried softly as she said, "This is the happiest moment of my life." As the line forms for communion, celebrants follow each other up the aisle. The noise of Manger Square seems very far away. -- Linda Gradstein Australia On Christmas Eve on the beach at Gnarrabup, on the southwestern tip of Australia, a dozen surfers were working the point as a statuesque young woman sunbathed, topless.
All this was gloriously visible from the concession stand, where a fellow could order cappuccino and sip it while watching the waves roll in across the Indian Ocean from Antarctica.
In Margaret River, the little town five miles down the road, the big event that evening was the annual Christmas Eve skateboarding contest down the main street, just before dusk. If there was any frantic, last-minute shopping, it was happening somewhere else, perhaps in another hemisphere.
As a lifelong resident of the Northern Hemisphere, I'd always wondered if Christmas was the same in the southern half of the Earth, where instead of introducing winter the big holiday shepherds in summer.
The answer? No comparison, at least not in Australia.
Oh, the Aussies, great copiers of American foibles, give it a go. They drape a few silver icicles around the stores, which droop in the noon heat, and they pipe in a few Christmas carols.
But somehow, shop-till-you-drop fever never takes hold without the impetus of a nip in the air.
"It's probably a bit more frenetic around Melbourne and in Sydney, where Father Christmas rides into the beach on a surfboard every year," said Ian Dawes of the Australian Embassy in Washington. But in most of laid-back Australia, he said, Christmas rates as just one more day to relax, followed by Boxing Day on Dec. 26, another official holiday traditionally celebrated on the beach.
On Christmas Day last year, stuck 12,000 miles from home in a world reversed, we went native. It meant packing a Christmas picnic and heading for a remarkable stretch of undisturbed shore on Cape Naturaliste, 100 miles south of Perth.
There, the crystal water came crashing in on a white sand beach, the sun bore down hot and welcome, and the only other people were some teen-agers cavorting merrily a half mile away.
"Merry Christmas!" we shouted. But the greeting was lost in the roar of the surf. -- Angus Phillips France The French are famous for knowing how to enjoy themselves, and they particularly deserve that reputation at Christmas time. But for some of us, French and foreigner alike, the holidays in France are enjoyable in proportion to the distance we get away from Paris to celebrate.
The city is, of course, beautiful during this season. Particularly lovely are the lights strung on trees along the Champs-Elyse'es. On a cold, wet night -- this is the weather we get at Christmas time -- they sparkle and reflect into a million little stars. Food shops add cheer in display windows stuffed with opulent delicacies such as foie gras for the traditional reveillon, or midnight supper.
The sweetest traditions, however, remain in villages and towns of rural France. Just as in the United States, much of what makes Christmas fun is associated with small towns and grandmothers back on the farm. Big-city tinsel on the Champs-Elyse'es or fine champagne in a Paris restaurant have a hard time replacing the authenticity and down-home warmth of Christmas in the French countryside.
I still recall a Christmas Eve spent more than 20 years ago at an inn in the central French hills. Snow began to fall as night closed in and we drove up to the door. Once settled in, and properly warmed with a welcome drink from the innkeeper, we walked through white-blanketed fields to hear monks in a nearby monastery sing midnight mass in stately Gregorian chant. By about 1 a.m., we were more than ready for the local reveillon of wild suckling boar. And after the long mass in a frigid stone chapel, we felt we had earned it.
Every rural area has its own customs, some better preserved than others. In the Camargue region, just south of Arles in the Rhone River delta, Regine de Lesty and Arlette Martin are making sure their traditions are among the survivors. The two women have organized orientation sessions for Parisians, or anyone else who might be interested, to come and learn how to make a proper Camargue Christmas.
The manger scene in that part of the Provence region is one of the most important customs. Little clay figures called santons represent the baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and shepherds. But in the Provenc al tradition, Martin explained, santons of local characters also stand around the manger. There could be a contemporary fishwife, for example, or a peasant woman in Middle Ages dress, introduced for reasons nobody can remember into a tableau almost 2,000 years old.
The stable is made from plants that grow wild in the Camargue marshes. A Christmas Eve meal, the gros souper, also is made by throwing local plants and seafood into a giant pot for a meatless stew. Although each housewife has her own recipe, a proper stew probably will contain at least artichokes, chard and chunks of codfish. Then come the "13 desserts," principally different kinds of dried nuts.
In case the menu sounds a little frugal, it should be remembered that this is only the preliminary meal, eaten early in the evening to stave off hunger until after midnight mass, when the real eating begins.
-- Edward Cody Korea Late December is always a time of celebration in South Korea, but it is likely to be especially so this year, after the nation's first free election in 16 years last week.
The nation is obsessed with politics these days, and you can expect to hear plenty of political talk if you visit in December. But South Koreans also take their holidays seriously, and they have adopted and reshaped both Christmas and the Western New Year.
About one-quarter of South Koreans are Christian, and you can find churches on almost every corner -- often marked by red neon crosses. But non-Christian Koreans celebrate Christmas too, treating it as a time to drink, eat and unwind.
Christmas in Korea, in fact, in some ways resembles the American New Year's, while New Year's is more of a quiet, family holiday. New Year's Day is the time you are more likely to see uniquely Korean traditions, especially if you are invited into someone's home.
Traditionally, Koreans celebrate the lunar New Year in February, but these days, especially in the big cities, many Koreans celebrate on Jan. 1 -- or on both days.
Young Koreans visit their parents and other older relatives and show their respect with three deep bows, forehead to the ground. The older relatives are expected to reciprocate with cash.
This custom is known as saebae, and you may see young people carrying their colorful saebae pocketbooks, used one day each year to store the bounty.
Families also eat a traditional soup with meat dumplings and sliced rice cake. Koreans traditionally count their age by how many New Year's Days they have passed, not by actual birthdays, but it is said one cannot turn a year older unless one eats this soup.
Rarer these days are traditional New Year's Day games such as the special kinds of swings and seesaws used by girls, who can thus fling themselves high into the air. Legend has it that both originate from the days when girls lived in seclusion behind the walls of their homes and used these games to get a peek over the walls -- or to be seen by those outside.
Korea can be extremely cold around Christmas time. But you can turn that to your advantage by visiting one of the nation's hot springs (such as Onyang, Ich'on or Suanbo south of Seoul or Pugok near Pusan) or ski resorts. Bears Town, Yong-in and Ch'onmasan are ski resorts within easy driving range of Seoul, while Taegwallyong and Yongp'yong are in the more spectacular mountains of the east coast. -- Fred Hiatt England In the early 1930s, when Britain's newly-created nationwide broadcasting system was still trying to get off the ground, its energetic chairman, John Reith, hit upon an ingenious scheme to quickly establish its respectability and popularity. King George V was persuaded to deliver a Christmas message to the Empire over the radio.
"Through one of the marvels of science," the king told his loyal subjects, "I am enabled this Christmas Day to speak to all my people throughout the Empire ... "
The words were written for the king by Rudyard Kipling. But, as John Pearson wrote in his 1986 book on the monarchy, "The Ultimate Family," what the king said was not important. "What mattered was that an entire population -- instead of just a handful of courtiers and servants -- was hearing the royal voice addressing it in person."
Since that Christmas Day in 1932, the monarch's annually broadcast message has become one of the most enduring and revered of British Christmas customs, enhancing the prestige of the British Broadcasting Corp. and solidifying the national fondness for the Royal Family. The message traditionally focuses on the year that has passed and the one to come, carefully eschewing politics for calm homilies on the English-speaking ties that bind.
George VI found the broadcasts a trial, and the nation's heart went out to him as he valiantly worked to conquer his stutter on the air. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, made her first live broadcast to the nation with her own Christmas Day message in 1957.
"As with everything she did," Pearson writes, "she took the task extremely seriously, making a number of television tests and recordings in advance, only to reject them later ... 'I am not an actress,' she remarked impatiently, and it would be many years before she felt able simply to be herself before the cameras. Her TV producer ... found that try as he might to put her at her ease, her whole expression 'froze' throughout the actual broadcast."
Although the empire began to disintegrate soon after the initial royal radio message, the monarch's Christmas broadcast still is heard throughout the English-speaking Commonwealth. From Canada to Australia and India, families gather around their radios to listen to the BBC World Service's broadcast of the queen's greetings, inevitably beginning "My husband and I ... "
This year, the Commonwealth will be able to listen simultaneously at 9:30 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, where it will be televised at 6 p.m. local time.
In Britain itself, much of the day shapes itself around the television broadcast at 3 p.m. Presents opened and carols sung, the family sits down at midday for goose and Christmas pudding, each place at the table marked by a Christmas "cracker." Small tubes wrapped in festive tissue paper, the crackers are filled with small favors and wise sayings that pop out with a bang when the two ends are pulled apart.
Crackers also contain colored paper hats. Most families wear them through the meal, leaving them on to gather around the television as the Christmas message begins. -- Karen DeYoung Kerala, India The gaily decorated lawn was echoing to traditional Christmas songs and the sounds of children playing games when, suddenly, the excitement began to build. Word spread among the youngsters: Santa is coming.
Across the palm-fringed lagoon, a motorboat approached and in it, fully decked out in red suit and a white beard, was Kerala's version of jolly old St. Nick, bringing his Christmas surprises to the southwestern tip of India.
Kerala is an anomaly in India, a state with about 6 million Christians -- more than 20 percent of its population -- in a predominantly Hindu country where there are only about 16 million Christians nationwide (about 2 percent of the population). It is a lush, tropical place that centuries ago drew Europeans in search of the pepper and cardamom and other spices that abound there. With the traders came the priests, and the Malabar Coast became an area with a distinctly Christian atmosphere.
Today a boat ride on the canals and lagoons that stretch out from the town of Cochin brings visual delights as gleaming white churches suddenly appear across the green waters, etched against the backdrop of coconut palms. At Christmas time, the sounds of carols also echo across the waters, and other Christmas festivities abound -- albeit with a boat for Santa, instead of a sleigh.
Last year, another, much smaller segment of Cochin's population was celebrating a holiday not often seen in this South Asian land: Hanukah. Cochin's ancient sephardic synagogue was full of voices singing the traditional Jewish songs of the season, some with Indian accents, some with American.
There used to be many more Cochin Jews; the congregation traces its roots in India to the year 72. The Cochin synagogue was built in 1568.
Today only a handful of families are left, but Cochin's synagogue, with beautiful blue Chinese floor tiles and the traditional sephardic design, still functions.
A day after the Christmas lawn party last year, we wandered through the ancient quarter of Cochin to visit the synagogue. It is tucked away at the end of a street full of the marvelous smells of the spice merchants' warehouses.
Just as certain Christmas music is the same everywhere, so are many of the songs of the Jewish liturgy. And after a little hesitation, a small mixed congregation of Cochin Jews and American visitors sang the traditional prayers and songs and an ancient oil-filled menorah was lit.
Then it was out into the warm tropical breezes that carried the fragrant smells of spices that had greeted other visitors many centuries before. -- Richard M. Weintraub Jerusalem The round, sticky, crusty things begin appearing in shops in early November. Just as Santa Claus and Christmas lights herald the beginning of the holiday season in the United States, jelly doughnuts are the precursor of Hanukah in Israel. And although there is very little of the pomp and circumstance accorded the holidays in the United States, a diligent searcher can find some interesting corners of holiday spirit.
Hanukah -- the word means "rededication" -- is the commemoration of a historical event of 2,000 years ago, when the Maccabee family recaptured and purified the Temple in Jerusalem after the Greeks had ransacked it. The Hanukah miracle -- commemorated today by eating foods cooked in oil -- refers to the enduring power of the single flask of pure oil used to rekindle the Temple's eternal light. Although the flask held enough oil for only one day, it lasted eight days, until new oil was available.
In the United States, the traditional food cooked in oil is potato pancakes. In Israel, it is jelly doughnuts. (The only problem is that kiosk owners often forbid a trial squeeze for freshness, and unwary tourists are as likely to bite into a cold, stale doughnut as a hot, fresh one.)
For the gourmet, there is another variety of doughnut, filled with butterscotch. But these have become increasingly hard to find over the years, and their price can be as high as 90 cents -- double that of the plebeian, jelly-filled variety.
In Jerusalem at this time of year, there are several formal ceremonies in which the eight-branched menorah is lit nightly for eight nights, with a candle or light added each night. The best-attended rite is at the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall), the only remnant of the Temple and the holiest site to Jews today. Army induction ceremonies are often held here, and during Hanukah a large blazing menorah serves as an impressive background to the ritual. A large menorah is also lighted on the roof of the Israeli parliament building, the Knesset.
The lack of public festivities may obscure the fact that Hanukah, as both a religious and a national event, is one of the few holidays that bridge Israel's secular-religious divide. Families celebrate primarily at home by lighting the menorah together, playing games of chance with a spinning top called a dreidl and consuming large quantities of foods fried in oil to ward off winter's cold.
The adventurous tourist seeking a special Hanukah might consider a stroll through the ultraorthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, a throwback to the isolated Jewish communities of prewar Eastern Europe. In the narrow alleyways, men clad austerely in black rush between synagogue and study hall, while modestly dressed women with their hair and shoulders covered, trailed by large broods of children, keep close to home.
Yet on Hanukah, these Orthodox Jews -- the haredim, Hebrew for "those filled with awe" -- take the time to celebrate quietly an event they still consider a literal miracle. Menorahs shine in every window, and the severe blackness of Mea Shearim is pierced by thousands of tiny lights. -- Linda Gradstein Japan For the first three days of the New Year, everything in this country known for its unrelenting workaholism comes to a virtual halt, as people stay at home for what is primarily a quiet family holiday of special foods and shrine visits.
Businesses, factories, restaurants, stores and offices all shut down, and Tokyo, known for its polluted air and habitual noise, becomes eerily quiet. Even the smog clears enough to allow easy views of Mount Fuji, which is normally obscured by brownish-gray haze.
While Christmas has begun to creep into the culture of late, with department store sales and the occasional Santa Claus, the end of December remains for most Japanese a time of preparation for the sacrosanct New Year's holiday.
Offices and homes are thoroughly cleaned, cards of thanks to old friends and associates written, and debts repaid in preparation for the symbolic fresh start of the year.
At the stroke of midnight when the old year ends, bells at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout Japan begin to peal, solemnly ringing in the new year a total of 108 times (based on the Buddhist belief that individuals have 108 cares). As the bells toll, Japanese, many clad in traditional kimono, flock to nearby temples and shrines for the hatsu-mode, or first visit, when they ask for good luck for the coming year (or, in more mundane cases, on the university entrance exams.) The major shrines and temples in every city are swarming with people all night long, but a few attract especially huge numbers. In Tokyo, for instance, 2.6 million people last year visited Meiji shrine in the first 24 hours of the New Year.
Other well-attended places for the midnight hatsu-mode are Zojo-ji temple, also in Tokyo; Narita temple near Tokyo-Narita International Airport; the Hachiman shrine, in the center of Kamakura; Atsuta shrine in Nagoya; and a number of temples and shrines in Kyoto, including Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu temple.
Those who don't want to venture outdoors at midnight -- though Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world -- can watch the pealing of the bells live on Japanese television. Usually a few remote, snow-covered locales are selected for television coverage.
Hatsu-mode visits continue throughout the early part of January, though the largest number of people go before Jan. 4, when most must return to work.
Many Japanese also make a pilgrimage of sorts to the moat-encircled Imperial Palace in the heart of downtown Tokyo, where, on Jan. 2, the emperor and his family traditionally have appeared on the balcony of the palace to offer a New Year's greeting to the crowds. The inner palace grounds are open to the public only on this occasion and on April 29, Emperor Hirohito's birthday.
Whether 86-year-old Emperor Hirohito will appear before the crowds this year is a much-discussed question in Japan. Hirohito, who has occupied the Chrysanthemum throne for 62 years and began the New Year's appearance in 1948, recently underwent intestinal surgery and is said to be quite frail. -- Margaret Shapiro Venice Anyone looking for a Christmas with a difference ought to give serious consideration to spending it in Venice, that floating Byzantine city of ancient fable and modern fantasy. For Christmas in Venice is something uniquely special.
It isn't that the Venetians celebrate the birth of Christ in any special way, because in fact they don't. Indeed, Venetians seem to pride themselves on their anticlericalism; the only Christian rite they get excited about is their bachanalian Lenten carnival in February.
No, the reason one chooses Venice for Christmas -- as I did last year -- is that it is deserted, by tourists as well as many of the Venetians themselves, who choose to head off to ski vacations in the nearby Dolomites. To visit Venice at Christmas time is to have this marvelous city virtually to yourself, to explore, enjoy and truly get to know.
At almost all other times of the year, Venice, alas, has become something of a Renaissance Disneyland. Jostling Germans, Austrians, French, Americans and other tourists crowd its narrow streets, museums and jewel-like churches. They sleep and eat in public parks, pack the city's normally pleasant restaurants, and make travel along its magnificent canals as unpleasant as riding the New York IRT at rush hour.
But Christmas time in Venice is magical. The city belongs to the visitor. The weather can be foggy, rainy, sunny, or even freezingly cold, as I found it last winter. The magic of Venice is that it is fascinating in every kind of weather, each of which gives it a different, but equally seductive, cloak.
What you want to do at Christmas time in Venice is to check into one of the city's well-appointed hotels along the Grand Canal, or along the Riva degli Schiavoni, which gives onto the boat-crowded Canale di San Marco. Then go out to a Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant such as Arrigo Cipriani's famous -- but pricey -- Harry's Bar.
The magic begins after dinner, say around midnight, when those who venture outside will find this fabulous city nearly devoid of people. Strolling along the narrow streets, over the arched bridges, while ghostly gondolas appear and disappear silently out of the night mists, is like walking in a dream. St. Mark's Square, that magnificent grand piazza with its rampant bronze horses, will appear as a phantom set of some great historical play.
Christmas Day dawns as tranquilly. There are no grand displays of Christmas trees or Santas (a postwar innovation in Italy). For the devout, there is a Christmas mass in St. Mark's Cathedral (although no midnight mass, as you might expect).
Celebrating Christmas Day is merely a matter of feasting in one's home, hotel or in one of the city's great restaurants, at least half of which remain open for the occasion in the nearly deserted city.
As is the custom in Italy, gifts are not exchanged on Christmas Day. This is done instead on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany.
If you are lucky enough to have a few more days in Venice, spend the rest of the holidays poking around the magnificent art collections to be found in the city's churches, medieval guild halls or grand museums, such as the Gallerie dell'Accademia and the recently opened Palazzo Grassi. -- Loren Jenkins Argentina In Argentina, the weather is usually so hot and humid in late December -- it is, after all, the start of summer in the southern hemisphere -- that most people spend Christmas as quietly and coolly as possible, going swimming and drinking refreshing liquids.
Many also leave town to pass the holiday season in countryside estates or at one of two major resorts: Mar del Plata, south of Buenos Aires, or Punta del Este in neighboring Uruguay.
Christmas celebrations in this predominately Roman Catholic country peak at midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
Families gather beforehand around dinner tables where gifts are exchanged. Custom calls for families to dine on Christmas Eve with the wife's side of the family and on Christmas night with the husband's side.
Two foods are a Christmas must: a cider called sidra and a sweet bread with raisins and nuts called pan dulce. The legendary Evita Peron, wife of Argentina's three-time president Juan Peron, used to hand out thousands of bottles of sidra and pieces of pan dulce to the poor, who queued for hours in the hot sun for the presents.
Generally speaking, Argentines do not shop for Christmas gifts amid the same commercial fanfare shown in the United States. Christmas decorations tend to adorn only the principal shopping avenues. A number of shops put up decorations as well, but few do so lavishly.
Santa Claus might appear in an occasional store or on a street corner. He wears not a heavy red snowsuit but lightweight dress, and perspires so heavily that his false beard more often than not is slipping across his face.
Christmas trees can be seen in many houses, covered with lots of white cotton to represent snow -- which never falls in Buenos Aires, or much of the rest of the country. As in the United States, children hang out their stockings for Santa Claus to fill, and hope that their wishes come true. -- Bradley Graham