12 Days of Christmas #11: The Night of the Radishes

I’m writing this from the half-way stop on our epic trek home to my parents house for the Christmas holiday.  In the morning we’ll have to drive north for another four hours or so, depending on the wind and snow, and whether roads stay open.

Welcome to Oaxaca! Image from mexconnect.com

Before we all get overwhelmed by Christmas celebrations, I have to mention a fantastic festival I discovered that takes place every 23rd of December, in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Tonight is the Night of the Radishes, Noche de Rábanos, (not the title of a low budget horror film) a festival which attracts thousands of people each year, often spilling over onto Christmas eve and Christmas day.

Celebrations often include a float parade, street parties, firework displays and musical performances. The centrepiece of the event is an exhibition of sculptures crafted from specially-grown radishes.

You might be forgiven for thinking that a radish is far too tiny to carve, but these giants are left in the ground for months after the harvest, continuing to grow until they reach sizes of up to half a metre long and up to 3kg in weight, contorted into weird and wonderful shapes. Sculptors carve the vegetables into human figures, nativity scenes, dioramas of folktales, and scale models of real buildings and compete for a grand prize worth thousands of Pesos

Christmas isn’t Christmas without some skeletons carved from root vegetables. Image from soiledandseeded.com

12 Days of Christmas #10: Christmas Feasting

Sprouts. Spoiling Christmas since 1700 or something. Image from goodtoknow.co.uk

There’s less than 3 days left to Christmas, I hope you’ve got the brussel sprouts on to boil.  No?  Never mind, leave it a day or so and you can get them started for next year, so the old festive joke about soggy, bitter sprouts goes.

But love them or loathe them, are brussel sprouts really an essential part of a Christmas dinner?  Or are they punishment for being naughty over the rest of the year?  I’m a definite believer in the latter, so tonight’s post is all about some tasty alternatives from around the world; things that I’d much rather see served up on the table than soggy sprouts and dry, bland turkey, followed by stodgy Christmas pudding with sickly-sweet brandy sauce. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas #9: Solstice

Today is the darkest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere; the winter solstice.  Also known as the longest night or the shortest day, this is the day on which the sun has its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky, the point where the sun stands still (solstice is derived from the Latin sol, sun, and sistere, to stand still).  From tomorrow morning we’ll start to see the gradual lengthening of days and shortening of nights, a reversal of the pattern seen up until now.

This seasonal pattern of decline, death, rebirth and growth was extremely important to ancient peoples and midwinter was an important turning point in the year; a time for family gatherings, celebration and feasting, often with fires or candles lit during the hours of darkness.  Many of these ancient rituals inspired and informed the familiar traditions surrounding Christmas and other winter festivals celebrated today.

The movements of the sun are traced in a number of ancient buildings and structures around the world.  Here are 5 of the most well-known places to observe the winter solstice.

5.  Karnak temple complex, Luxor, Egypt.  On the solstice, the sun rises between the uprights of the gate of Nectanebo, illuminating the sanctuary of Amoun-Re and the obelisk of Hatchepsut.

Sunrise at Karnak. Image from wilderness-ventures-egypt.com

4.  Mnajdra temple complex, Malta.  One of the most ancient known religious sites on Earth, the lowest temple at Mnajdra is aligned so that light from sunrises at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes passes through the main doorway and along the main axis of the site.  On the solstices sunlight illuminates the megaliths at either side of the doorway.

Winter solstice at Mnajdra, Malta. Image from gozonews.com

3.  Maeshowe, Orkney, Scotland.  At more than 5000 years old, the Maeshowe chambered cairn is at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering several neolithic sites on the mainland of Orkney.  An image of the rising sun is projected on to the back wall of the tomb.

Maeshowe, Orkney. Image from Orkneyjar.com

2.  Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne), County Meath, Ireland.  Visitors to the prehistoric tomb at Newgrange can apply to a lottery for tickets to witness the solstice sunrise as it illuminates the inside of the chamber.  More than 25,000 people apply each year, but only 10 tickets are allocated.

Sunlight floods the chamber in Newgrange. Image from irishcentral.com

1.  Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England.  Despite heavy rain last night, more than 3,500 people are reported to have gathered at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise this morning.

Druids celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge, England. Image from nationalgeographic.co.uk

12 Days of Christmas #8: The Sausage Swiper

I started this series of posts after reading about a Santa Claus-like figure found in Tajikistan, and discovered that the tradition of mysterious Christmas visitors is quite widespread.  Some are animals, most bring gifts, but some are just out to cause trouble.  For instance, tonight homes in Iceland are due to be visited by Bjúgnakrækir, the Sausage Swiper, who hides in the rafters of homes and steals sausages hung for smoking over the next 13 nights.

Two of the Yule Lads, making mischief.  Image from metro.co.uk

Bjúgnakrækir is one of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads (jólasveinarnir), who leave their rocky mountain home from the 13th of December and creep down into the towns and villages.  Each night a new lad arrives, playing pranks and causing trouble for homeowners, until they return to the mountains.  Icelandic children put a shoe on their bedroom window-ledge for each of the 13days leading up to Christmas day, hoping for a treat.  Depending on their behaviour through the year, they might be rewarded with sweets and cakes or tricked with a rotten potato.

Apparently the Yule Lads were once a lot less benign, but they have been mellowed over the years to become harmless tricksters.  Each Lad has his own distinctive character, inspired by the types of pranks he likes to play.  The Sausage Swiper is my favourite, and there is also Hurðaskellir, the Door Slammer, who wakes people on 18th December with slamming doors and stomping feet, and Þvörusleikir, the Spoon Licker, who pinches food from mixing bowls.

12 Days of Christmas #7: Christmas Cake

Yesterday I baked my Christmas cake; a dark, rich cake full of rum-soaked dried fruits.  A traditional type of cake.  Today I poked a few holes in it, and fed it some more rum, then covered it in a thick layer of marzipan.  Tomorrow I’ll ice and decorate it.  I haven’t really considered decorating ideas yet, but it will not be a complicated design.  I might have to browse through Pinterest for some inspiration first.

Making special cakes, pastries, cookies and breads is a Christmas tradition shared by many cultures.  Well-known treats include panettone from Italy, lebkuchen and stollen from Germany, Yule logs (bûche de Noël) from France and St. Lucia buns from Sweden.  But I’ve also discovered that Japan has it’s own version of a Christmas cake, using very different ingredients to the traditional fruit and spice flavours common in European baking.

I know it’s just a cake, but how cute? image from justapinch.com

Japanese Christmas cake (Kurisumasu keki) is a light vanilla flavoured sponge cake smothered in fresh, whipped cream and decorated with fresh strawberries.  Traditionally these are bought and eaten on Christmas Eve.  It sounds delicious, however for us here in the UK, strawberries and cream are flavours that will always be associated with the summer (in particular, watching the tennis at Wimbledon).

Christmas cake also has another meaning for the Japanese.  The freshness of the cake’s ingredients means that they don’t keep very well, and are no good  after the 25th.  Leftover cakes are unwanted, and this analogy has often been applied to women that remain unmarried after their 25th birthday.  Basically, the Japanese term “Christmas cake” means spinster or old maid!

12 Days of Christmas #6: Reindeer

I love reindeer.  I’ve been to visit the reindeer herd that live on the Cairngorm plateau in Scotland, and I’ve seen some grazing in fields next to the Hringvegur (ring road) in the Eastfjords of Iceland.  I’ve been to Finnish Lapland and watched families take rides in reindeer-drawn sleds, and seen the Sami round-up pens in Kautokeino and Karasjok.

IMG_0491v2Skiing on the empty fells above Båtsfjord  a small herd of reindeer crossed over the crest of the hill to our front.  They continued down towards us, the only sound in the still* air was the soft crunch of snow under their feet.

*A tenuous link to Ailsa’s weekly travel theme of still.

12 Days of Christmas #5: Oh Christmas Tree!

IMG_2204Things are becoming considerably more festive at home now.  This afternoon I picked up a Christmas tree from a nearby Country Park, then dug out the fairy lights and decorations from the loft.  Now I’m sitting next to a twinkling, sparkly masterpiece (albeit sitting in a wastepaper bin held down with my diving weight belt), and picking pine needles out of my socks. Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas #4: The Christmas Star Scandal

This morning I read a report about a very festive extortion scam happening in Italy.  Four alleged mafiosi have been arrested in Naples, charged with forcing shop owners to buy poinsettias for more than 100times the wholesale price.

The gangsters had been demanding as much as 100 Euros (£85) per plant for the past few years.  Police said that business owners refusing the “special offer” had their shops vandalised and stock stolen or damaged.

Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas #3: Have you met the Yule Goat?

Thinking about animals associated with this time of year, and there’s a few contenders that might pop into your head.  Reindeer most likely, red noses or not; a donkey, the stable (hohoho!) of a school nativity play, not to mention the camels of the Wise Men; sometimes even penguins and polar bears appear in festive displays.  And who can resist this compilation of cute creatures wearing Santa hats from the Top 10 of Everything?

Too cute to even quantify.

But did you know about the Yule Goat?  Continue reading