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Different Ways to celebrate Christmas-Comparing Christmas Traditions Across the Globe

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Christmas caroling, gingerbread houses, eggnog and candy canes are an indication that the holiday season is upon us. In the U.S. and certain other countries, we have traditions like setting out milk and cookies for Santa, lining our mantels with stockings, and hanging wreaths and bright lights outside. But many other countries around the world have their own unique traditions to celebrate this most wonderful time of the year. Let’s take a look at some of the different ways other cultures embrace the magic of Christmas. 

Region of Puerto Rico 

In Puerto Rico, Christmas is an extravagant, go-all-out type of holiday. Christmas celebrations start the day after Thanksgiving and last until the beginning of January. An important holiday tradition is caroling, referred to as a parranda, meaning the gift of music. The parranda isn’t your average Christmas caroling excursion; there are maracas, guitars and tamboras involved, making it all the more festive. In many cities, fireworks are set off each night in celebration. Some special holiday foods in Puerto Rico include lechón asado (a pork dish), tembleque (coconut pudding), and coquito (a coconut-rum drink).

Australia

Christmas is a holiday that is typically associated with winter. But in Australia, Christmas takes place in the summer season, swapping snowmen for sandmen. The beach is a very popular destination on Christmas day, filled with live music, barbeques, and decorated trees in the sand. If you’re lucky, you may even see Santa Claus, better known as Father Christmas in Australia, surfing the waves. Australians also celebrate the holiday season by gathering in large groups to sing Christmas carols with candles in hand. This tradition is known as ‘Carols by Candlelight.’

Finland

Rovaniemi, located in Lapland, Finland, is a city noted for its holiday spirit. In fact, Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus. Santa’s post office (it’s a real post office) is open year-round, collecting letters from thousands of children. The subpolar climate of Rovaniemi makes the city a winter wonderland for several months. Christmas theme parks filled with reindeer sleigh rides and Santa and his elves make for a wonderful holiday experience.

Mexico

In Mexico, the Las Posadas celebration begins on December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. Communities dress up and reenact Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem in search of shelter. There’s music, parties, and holiday foods such as buñuelos, a dessert made of fried dough and topped with cinnamon sugar or syrup. On Christmas Eve, the party culminates with the breaking of piñatas.

A tree ornament in the form of a globe.
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Germany

Germany has a rich history of Christmas traditions, some more terrifying than others. In Germany and some other European countries, the Krampus, an evil demon-goat creature, is rumored to be Santa’s evil relative. Krampus punishes children who misbehave, and if you’re in Germany, you may see people dressed up as Krampus wandering through the streets and scaring bystanders. On a happier note, Christmas markets and holiday shopping are all the rage in Germany. In the city of Nuremberg, Christkindlesmarkt is a famously large Christmas market, attracting millions of visitors each year. Famous holiday foods at this market include gingerbread, bratwursts, and fruitcake. 

Japan

Although only a small fraction of the population of Japan is Christian, the spirit of Christmas is still in the air. In Japan, millions of families celebrate Christmas with a special tradition: a chicken dinner, typically from KFC. Santa Claus has been traded in for Colonel Sanders. In some ways, Christmas in Japan is celebrated in the same way that we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Rather than spending Christmas day with family, couples go out for romantic dinners. 

Netherlands

In Amsterdam, Santa Claus is not the only one to deliver presents — Sinterklaas, a Santa-like Nordic figure, also distributes gifts to children. Sinterklass sails from Spain over to the Netherlands to deliver presents on December 5. Santa then arrives on Christmas day to fill childrens’ shoes with gifts. Another important Christmas tradition in the Netherlands is gourmetten, a big dinner where meats and vegetables are grilled at the table, and underneath the grill or hot plate, tiny pans filled with sauces and cheeses are broiled. These dinners somewhat resemble an indoor barbeque.

Iceland

In Iceland, the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous troll-like figures, deliver gifts to children or give them potatoes if they have been naughty that year. Starting on December 12th, a different lad visits each night leading up to Christmas. Children leave their shoes out on windowsills in anticipation of the Yule Lads’ visits. Grýla, the mother of the Yule Lads, is a scary troll rumored to eat misbehaving children. 

While many Christmas celebrations and family traditions are on hold due to Covid, it’s always nice to reminisce on the pre-Covid holiday seasons, as we hope to resume the celebrations next year.

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A New Home for Asian American Representation in Film

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After the onslaught of negative reactions to Mulan (2020), Disney’s recent film announcements offer new hope for Asian representation in the entertainment industry. From Raya and the Last Dragon to Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings, Disney has opened up a larger space for Asian Americans to shine, but can they do it right this time? Here are a few movies that offer a new home for Asian American representation in film. 

Mulan in Crisis 

Over quarantine, Disney+ users dreamed about the promise of greater authenticity and Chinese representation in the live-action of Mulan. The film had an aggressive campaign of staying true to the original ballad of Mulan, and established a more serious approach than its animated companion. 

Soon after its release, however, audiences were sorely met with lackluster characterization and collapsing themes of Asian female empowerment. In addition to the outrage concerning main actress Yifei Liu’s support of Hong Kong police, Mulan (2020) suffered from its generalization of Chinese history and glorification of outdated values. 

An overwhelming backlash, in this case, was inevitable. The Asian American community responded with a plethora of media criticizing Disney’s failures with Mulan

As Disney enters a new era in the streaming industry, however, there has been some hope for growth in its relationship with Asian representation. 

Raya the First 

Though some have pointed out its stylistic similarity to Avatar: The Last Airbender, many others have applauded Raya and the Last Dragon for its introduction of Southeast Asian representation into the animated sphere. The new film portrays Raya, a fictional Southeast Asian warrior princess, who must search for the last dragon in order to save her world. 

Throughout its trailer, Raya and the Last Dragon hints at a variety of Southeast Asian cultures. Producers have claimed inspiration from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and others, but many viewers have recognized the film’s direct representation of Filipino design and culture.

While the ability to openly point out such specific cultural moments paves an optimistic path, another question arises in Disney’s choice for a film that works to “blend Southeast Asian cultures” rather a distinct country. This particularly speaks to the ways in which Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities are too often consolidated as one culture. Whereas films like Mulan enjoy the cultural specificity of being Chinese, Moana and now Raya and the Last Dragon must settle for a more generic representation of being “Southeast Asian” or “Pacific Islander”, as opposed to Filipino or Tongan. 

This also comes with the replacement of half-Filipina Cassie Steele with Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran. While Raya and the Last Dragon has been largely recognized for its distinctive Filipino references, the film continues to largely err on the side of mixing (and potentially confusing) a variety of Southeast Asian creatives. 

In the midst of such a struggle, however, Raya and the Last Dragon nevertheless represents the beginning of Southeast Asian involvement in the film industry, with hopes for more to come. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of Yellow Peril 

Marvel’s latest Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings also provides a new avenue for Asian representation, especially in the superhero realm. 

Simu Liu, set to play Shang-Chi, has been a longtime favorite in the Asian American film industry. From acting in short films with Wong Fu Productions to playing the sweet but arrogant Jung on Kim’s Convenience, Liu is a familiar face in the Asian American community and reflects their desire for diversity on camera. 

However, there is hesitation about rehashing the damaging Asian stereotypes from the original Shang-Chi comics. Inspired by the age of martial arts films, Shang-Chi echoes the era of Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril, when Asians were essentially characterized as purely evil

Fu Manchu represented the culmination of America’s anti-Asian, anti-immigrant anxieties and fears. In the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu and equips his martial arts to destroy his father. Such a relationship spoke to the utilization of the “best” parts of Asian culture (a.k.a martial arts) to take down the “worst” parts (acting or looking “too Asian”). This divisiveness ultimately denounces an Asian identity, uplifting only that which is “best” in the eyes of others. 

Knowing this history, Shang-Chi holds the potential to backslide in the same ways that Mulan (2020) did, by focusing too much on a presumed perspective of “authenticity”. In the making of Shang-Chi, Disney must pull from contemporary Asian America, rather than its past.

As Simu Liu has pointed out, however, there is hope! Both Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings and Raya and the Last Dragon have released their massive inclusion of a largely Asian and Asian American cast and creative team. This means that, in contrast to Mulan’s implementation of solely Asian actors, these two new films will be written and creatively produced by the same people it seeks to represent. In this way, Disney is truly learning from its failure with the live-action Mulan (2020). Though there has been some early criticism for the next two films, a positive anticipation flourishes in Disney’s changes for greater Asian representation in film and media.

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Grammy Nominations for 2020 Miss the Mark For Rap Album of the Year

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Rap has recently become the most populars genre of music in America, but despite this, the Grammys continue to nominate rap albums that are not representative of the genre as a whole. The Grammy nominations for 2020’s Rap Album of The Year were swept under the rug by the ongoing pandemic, but nevertheless, hip-hop fans across the country were taken aback by the albums that the Academy chose to nominate, as well as leave out. In a year where trap music swept hip-hop, with artists like Lil Baby and Lil Uzi Vert dominating the charts, not one nominated album falls into this subgenre. Hip-hop fans across the country simply want to know: why?   

The Grammy’s controversy with Rap Music

To answer this question we must first look at the history of the Grammys, an organization that has been making faux pas in their rap nominations since the inception of the category. In 1996, the year the Grammy’s created the Rap Album of The Year Award, 2-Pac’s Me Against The World, lost to Naughty By Nature’s Poverty’s Paradise, which was, to put it bluntly, a horrible decision. Many believe 2-Pac, who died later the same year, was one of the GOAT’s (Greatest  of All Time) in Hip-Hop, and to lose in this manner, with debatably his strongest work, is emblematic of the way the Grammy’s make their decisions.

Don’t just take my word for it, though; in 2008, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included Me Against the World in the Definitive 200 Albums of All Time list, and Pac’s first #1 single Dear Mama, which appeared on the album, went platinum, just five months after its release.

Naughty By Nature, which was extremely popular in the early 90’s, were by no means a bad rap group, but their Grammy win in 1996 set a precedent for the Academy that showed how out of touch they were with the hip-hop community.

Graffiti on a wall that reads 'Hip Hop.'
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To give a more recent example, Kendrick Lamar(another rapper understood as one of the GOAT’s), was nominated in 2014 for his album Good Kid Maad City, which is universally respected as one of the best rap albums of this decade. Nevertheless, Macklemore, whose hit song Thrift Shop went viral that same year, won the award with his debut album The Heist. This name was ironically fitting for the album, with Macklemore himself texting Kendrick after his win, stating, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you.”

With rappers themselves feeling like their wins were unwarranted, and albums of the highest tier getting snubbed for the award, we start to get a picture of where the Grammys have gone awry in the past. This year, we see a similar phenomenon, with a list of nominees that ranges from Freddie Gibbs “Alfredo”, which critics ranked as one of the top albums of the year, top Royce Da 5’9’s “The Allegory” which was described by as “(featuring) as many showy passages as clunky stumbling blocks.”

This Years Nominations 

Two of the five albums nominated this year were, in my opinion, deserving of this honor. As I mentioned previously Alfredo, a collaborative project between rapper Freddie Gibbs, and producer The Alchemist, is a dynamic piece of music. The alchemist’s style complements Gibbs’ rough but melodic flow perfectly, and “on Alfredo, that style is vintage luxury, bathed in elegant piano with faded textures colored by time that sound even more beautiful now than when they were new.” Additionally, Jay Electronica’s long-awaited A Written Testimony is a mystical, distinctive work that nearly lives up to all the lore surrounding the rapper.”

Also described as “a prayerful offering that expresses the many spiritual and communal virtues he has internalized”, A Written Testimony, is one of those rap albums that you may not listen to in the club, but you have to respect for its intricate lyricism and complex themes throughout.

Both Alfredo and A Written Testimony received rave reviews from critics, with an 8/10 and 8.5/10 respectively, and were some of the best lyrical rap albums of the year. The issue with this year’s nominations arises with the rest of the nominees. All three were poorer versions of the lyrical subgenre in rap, showing a lack of variety or holistic taste from the Academy, while also taking up the space of more deserving albums. D Smoke’s Black Habits was definitely the best of the three, as it “(weaved) soulful, jazz, gospel, spoken word with a dose of Spanish, acoustic vibes, and a touch of synth to explore the central theme.”

This album simply didn’t deserve a Grammy nod because of D Smokes’ lack of experience in the rap game. The Winner of the hip-hop reality TV competition Rhythm and Flow in 2019, Smoke absolutely deserves his nomination in the Best New Artist category. Unfortunately, other rappers with equally good, if not better, albums, a solid fanbase, and extensive history in the genre are more deserving of the Album of The Year nomination.

The other two nominees are where it starts to get worse, with Nas’ Kings Disease getting a Grammy nod despite its description as (marking) a retreat into a nostalgia-act comfort zone, one that suits him even as it yields diminishing returns.” Nas’ has the inverse problem of D Smoke with this album; he is too far towards the end of his career, as opposed to too close to the beginning. With a rating of 6.3/10, this is one of Nas’ least exciting albums, and it just feels like a strange nomination, with no clear justification by the Academy. The final Album of the Year nominee is Royce Da 5’9’s The Allegory. With a 5.8/10, The Allegory does not live up to the weaker competition in this list by the critics’ standards and was not impressively popular on the charts. Unlike the wise knowledge dropped by Jay Electronica on A Written Testimony, this album“features as many showy passages as clunky stumbling blocks”, as Royce conveys “a heavy-handed attempt at converting his listeners to woke enlightenment.”

A closeup of a microphone.
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The 3 Albums the Grammys Missed…Badly

  1. Lil Baby’s My Turn was one of the most popular albums of the year with 197K first week sales/streams, making up for its less than phenomenal 6.6/10 critic rating. Despite criticism, the album still features some of the year’s biggest songs including Woah and Grace Ft.42 Dugg, and in a year so big for Baby, the album definitely deserved recognition over some of the others that were chosen. 
  1. Polo G’s The Goat was a great follow up to his debut, being extremely popular and well-reviewed by critics. One article stated “The Chicago rapper’s follow-up to his riveting debut LP argues for him as an adaptable and unmissable talent, an unlikely star in a new major-label system…Polo G raps with a sing-song lilt, but his songs are shaded with murders, heartbreak, and incredible pain.” With a 7.7/10 rating and 99,00 first week sales/streams, The Goat has both the popularity and respect to deserve a nomination, in a year where Polo G cemented himself as one one of the largest up and coming faces in Hip Hop
  1. Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake was one of the biggest rap albums of 2020, and with 288,00 first week sales/streams, it is a shock that it was left off the nominee listing. Matching Jay Electronica’s critical review of 8.4/10, and with incredible sales, Eternal Atake has an even better argument than The Goat for having both critical acclaim and chart-topping numbers. In the album, “The Philly rapper has evolved into an untouchable pop artist in sound and style. With deliriously good rapping and immaculate production, Uzi makes an event album live up to its name.”
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Hanukkah: 8 Things You Might Not Know About the Eight Nights

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A closeup of candles burning.

It’s finally the holiday season here in the US, and all the signs are upon us. Christmas music is playing in most public spaces on the rare occasions we leave our homes, decorations and Christmas trees are going up in private and public spaces, and anticipation of that one magical night is high. Or, it is if you’re Christian.

Jewish people living in the United States, while the world around them gears up for Christmas, celebrate Hanukkah while simultaneously weathering the yearly bombardment of questions and assumptions about what the holiday is like.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what Hanukkah is actually like from people outside the Jewish community, so to help with that confusion, here’s a list of common mistakes people make about how to celebrate Hanukkah, and some general fun facts about a common Jewish holiday.

1. It’s Not “Jewish Christmas”

This is likely self-explanatory, but it’s important to cover. Because of its closeness to Christmas during the year, Hanukkah has become perceived as the “Jewish Christmas”, a holiday with equivalent importance to Christmas, which is not true at all. Christmas is one of the most important holidays in the Christian tradition, commemorating the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is not on par with that importance.

2. It’s Actually a Minor Holiday

This is the big one that trips non-Jewish people up a lot: Hanukkah is not a big deal at all for Jewish people. For Jews, all the important holidays are tied directly to holy or important days, like Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, which is a day of mourning and remembrance. Hanukkah has no associated holiness to it, making it a very minor event in the Jewish Calendar.

A menorah with two candles burning, one in the middle and one on the far right.
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3. Hanukkah is About a Rebellion and a Miracle

Part of the reason why Hanukkah is actually not very important is that the story it commemorates is not part of important Jewish traditions like The Torah. Hanukkah celebrates the rebellion and reclamation of Jewish land and temples by a band of rebels known as the Maccabees. Once the rebellion succeeded and the temple was reclaimed, the Jewish people wanted to relight the menorah (that branching candle holder that’s associated with Hanukkah) inside to reconsecrate the temple, but all the special oil they burned in the menorah was destroyed. They only found a tiny jar which held barely enough oil to last a night. Amazingly though, the small amount of oil burned for eight days and eight nights, giving the Jewish people time to make more oil. This is the miracle of Hanukkah, and why Jews celebrate by lighting Hanukkiah for eight nights. Pretty interesting, huh?

4. There Aren’t Christmas Levels of Gifts

This isn’t true for all families, but for the most part, Hanukkah is a more low-key affair than Christmas. Most Jewish people give smaller gifts across the whole of the eight nights, with maybe a few larger items in there, but not an overflow of gifts every night.

5. Shockingly Enough, Gift Giving Isn’t Even Traditional

This might be surprising even to Jewish-Americans, but gift giving during Hanukkah is not actually traditional! There is no significance to gift giving like there is to other parts of the Hanukkah tradition, and in fact, it’s almost entirely a Jewish-American behavior. Why? Because of Christmas. Sometime around the 1920s, American Jews began buying gifts for their children to celebrate Hanukkah so they wouldn’t feel left out when all their peers got Christmas gifts, so it’s largely an American invention.

6. But Eating Fried Food is Traditional

Everyone always focuses on gifts and lighting candles, but it’s interesting to note that another tradition in Hanukkah is eating fried food. “Latkes”, a kind of fried potato pancake, are associated closely with the holiday, but they’re actually important because they’re fried. The tradition relates back to the story of Hanukkah and the oil that burned for eight nights. To honor this, Jews eat fried food like latkes and “sufganiyot”, fried donuts that are often jelly-filled. That’s one thing Christmas and Hanukkah do have in common: they’re both incredibly healthy holidays. 

A large sculpture of a menorah outside in the snow.
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7. Blue and White Decorations Aren’t, Though

If you’ve ever seen any decorations for Hanukkah you’ve likely seen strings of blue and white lights or decorations, as opposed to the normal red and green of Christmas. Surprisingly, though, there’s actually no association between Hanukkah and blue and white. Blue and white are important colors for Jews, as the traditional prayer shawl called a “tallit” is usually white with stripes of blue on the ends. Hanukkah decorations in blue and white are another tradition that started in America because of Christmas. To not feel left out of the Christmas spirit, some Jews began decorating with blue and white, but outside the US, this isn’t a common behavior at all.

8. Hanukkah is “The Festival of Lights,” but ‘Hanukkah’ Means Something Different

Finally, it’s important to think about the most important part of Hanukkah. The lighting of the menorah is the most crucial tradition of Hanukkah and the main way Jewish people the world over celebrate the holiday, which is why the holiday is affectionately called The Festival of Lights. The word ‘Hanukkah’, however, actually means ‘rededication’ or ‘consecration’, to commemorate the consecration of the temple by the lighting of the menorah in the Hanukkah story.

In 2020, Hanukkah runs from December 10th to 18th, so if you know anyone Jewish who observes the holiday, wish them a happy holiday and a good new year to come. Hopefully, you understand at least one Jewish tradition a little bit better now.

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