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

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Four girls holding candles, singing Christmas carols.
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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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Culture

A New Home for Asian American Representation in Hollywood

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Kelly Marie Tran on MTV International.

 

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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. 

Disney Plus on all platforms.

 

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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. 

2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition law protest with an ambulance driving through a crowd of people.

 

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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.

Simu Liu speaking at Comic Con San Diego.

 

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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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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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Culture

A Korean American’s Take on BTS

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BTS, the South Korean boy band
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From landing first place on Billboard Hot 100 to receiving a Grammy nomination, BTS, the South Korean boy band, is making history for South Korea and collectively, for Asians. The outbreak of the coronavirus has sparked an increase in racist behavior towards Asian ethnicities. A finding reports that one in four Asian Americans experiences racist bullying. BTS is becoming an icon of inspiration for many Korean Americans, including myself. 

Racism in Los Angeles 

As a second-generation Korean American born in Los Angeles, California, I was always close to my culture and I was never afraid to embrace it. I was lucky enough to live in an area that was known for diversity.  

Looking back, I still faced racism even though I was in a city that is considered one of America’s largest melting pots. I was teased for the size of my eyes with some people blatantly asking me if I could see through them. I was asked if I had ever eaten dog meat before and I was asked if I was any good at math. To answer, I can see perfectly fine with my eyes, I have never eaten dog meat, and I am absolutely horrible at math.

With my straight black hair and brown hooded eyes, it was common for a stranger to mistake me as Chinese or Japanese. I remember a stranger walking up to me and insisting that I was Japanese because I had “Japanese looking eyes.” 

I didn’t really mind being mistaken for another race. I’d politely correct them and go about my own business. But I always felt as though Korea, China and Japan were constantly lumped together. Sure, we are culturally similar in some ways but we each have a separate identity and a rich history that is uniquely our own. 

Identity Crisis

After moving to Columbus, Georgia, and entering a college with a predominantly white population, I realized how difficult it was to truly embrace one’s culture. 

I learned through my friends that many second-generation Asian Americans who were not as fortunate enough to live in an environment rich with diversity, dealt with an identity crisis when they were younger. Some were split between wanting to be accepted by their peers, who were predominantly white, and wanting to embrace their cultural roots. Wanting blonde hair and blue eyes wasn’t unheard of and scarfing down a pungent meal for lunch in order to get rid of the fish smell or other scents as soon as possible was a daily task. 

As I tried to adapt to my new Columbus home, I too began to feel painfully aware of my differences. I was no longer in an area where the minority was the majority. 

COVID-19 and the Confederate Flag 

When COVID-19 hit the United States, I got a taste of what it felt like to fear for my physical safety for the way I looked. I remember reading news reports of hate crimes against Asians in America while I waited to board the plane with a mask on. As I rushed through the airport, I couldn’t help but feel as though people were staring at me with anger and malice in their eyes. My anxiety heightened when I saw countless Trump 2020 banners and confederate flags hung around where I lived.

A few months ago, I went to CVS with my mom and spotted a car displaying a confederate flag in the parking lot. Because the flag can connote white supremacy and with all the anti-Asian sentiments going on along with the Black Lives Matter movement, we were both disheartened and riddled with anxiety as we entered the store. 

I approached the checkout area after I was done shopping and next to the cash register, I saw seven familiar boys smiling radiantly at me on a magazine cover. At that moment, the anxiety I felt crumbled away, and instead, I felt a surge of relief. Look at us, they seemed to be saying, “You and I are of the same race. We share the same culture and history. Look how far we have come in America.”

BTS and Cultural Awareness

The seven boys with humble beginnings debuted together as BTS in 2013 and now are dubbed as a “national treasure” in South Korea. Their contribution to South Korean culture is historic, leaving the very lawmakers of the country debating if the boys should be excused from the mandatory two-year military service. 

The seven boys are treading through uncharted waters as they are becoming globally recognized. They have accomplished feats for the Asian communities from receiving a Grammy nomination to becoming the first Asian act to sell out Wembley Stadium. 

On October 2, a performance by BTS was aired on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The performance was rich with cultural significance. The members wore a modern twist to traditional clothing and performed at Geunjeongjeon Hall and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion in Gyeongbok Palace. The palace is located in the heart of Seoul right in front of the Blue House where the president resides. Built in 1395, Gyeonbgok palace has served as the home to many Joseon Dynasty kings and it was also where the last Korean queen was assassinated.

BTS performing on stage wearing traditional South Korean outfits.
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Watching BTS perform at a location of historic importance on an American show made me proud of my heritage. I couldn’t help but think, “Are my fellow Americans seeing this? Are they appreciating how beautiful my culture is?” At that moment, I was proud of my hair color and the way my eyes looked. I was glad that I was fluent in Korean. I was elated that South Korea was gaining recognition worldwide.

Redefining Standards

Korean pop music was and still continues to be stigmatized. This is particularly true for male groups in terms of appearances. The beauty standards of Korea and America differ greatly. While Americans favor men exhibiting masculine features such as muscles and beards, Koreans favor a delicate and slim look. Body hair is seen as something undesirable and some agencies require male K-pop idols to shave their leg hair. The delicate features that are preferred in Korea were scorned repeatedly in the United States, with famous American TV hosts ridiculing Asian men. But now, K-pop idols are redefining beauty standards. Many media outlets have named V from BTS as the most handsome man of 2020. 

Not only is BTS changing the scheme of beauty standards, but they’re also changing the very image of K-pop. In 2012, PSY released Gangnam Style and the song quickly gained popularity in the West. This wasn’t because the music was particularly artistic in any way, but because it was humorous and alien to Westerners. Now BTS is gaining popularity for the multiple layers of meaning and art in their songs and music videos. Each album seems to contain a unique message, ranging from providing comfort and solace to criticizing society. 

Even as the most beloved boy group in the world, BTS is not immune to the racist and xenophobic sentiments in America. 

“Since we’re aliens to the music industry for America, we don’t know if there’s a place for us or not,” leader RM said.

Regardless, BTS is providing much-needed representation for Asians in the American entertainment scheme like no other person or group has done before. They are a beacon of hope in Asian American communities, especially during the plight of COVID-19. 

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