Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas in Kyoto did not sound promising but the flight was cheap. Having spent the last several Christmases huddled around the small wooden tables of the German Weihnachtsmarken, hands wrapped tightly around steaming ceramic mugs of glühwein, we expected Japan to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of holiday spirit.

There would be no Christmas markets selling roasted sausages or over-sized steins of altbier. There would be no outdoor festival tables to provide the inevitable camaraderie that accompanies the mass consumption of mulled wine in freezing temperatures. Communication would be near impossible as both my wife Lauren and I spoke very little Japanese and could not read kanji or katakana.  

Nonetheless, one evening as we approached the bottom of our second bottle of wine, we decided Kyoto would make for a fine introduction to Japanese culture, with the added bonus of seeing drunken Japanese “salary men” stumbling around in Santa hats.

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WORLD FESTIVALS: Celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi In India

A Partner Post by contributor, Anitha Aravind. 

In Chennai, where I live, there may not be a park or shop for every street in the city, but there definitely will be a temple for Lord Ganesha, the elephant-faced God. Under a tree, outside big houses, in apartment complexes or even right in the middle of the road, these temples are small but revered. Most people begin their day or any venture with a visit to their neighborhood Ganesha temple for a glimpse of their lucky mascot.

Ganesh Chathurthi in Chennai. Photo by Elizabeth Shilpa Abraham via Flickr CCL 

When it’s time to celebrate the birthday of this charming God, usually in the last week of August or the first couple of weeks in September, the entire country bursts into festivities. This festival, called Ganesh Chathurthi or Vinayaka Chathurthi, is a community affair celebrated throughout India, but nowhere is it as grand as it is in Maharashtra, specifically in Mumbai. For thousands of people in Mumbai, this festival is a main source of income.

The Story Behind Ganesh Chathurthi

There are plenty of myths associated with Ganesha, but the most interesting one is the story of his birth and how he got his elephant head. It is said that Goddess Parvathi lovingly carved out a boy out of turmeric paste that she had applied on her body. She instructed the boy to stand guard outside while she took a bath. When her husband Lord Shiva came to meet her, this boy refused to let him in. Known for his temper, Shiva ordered his force to attack the boy, but they failed in their attempt. Then Shiva himself attacked and beheaded this boy.

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Have a Happy Crappy Christmas Catalonia-Style

by Elyn Aviva


Bon Nadal and Feliç Any Nou! That’s Catalan for Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

It’s the holiday season in my home town, Girona, Catalonia, and things aren’t quite what you might expect. Yes, there are the familiar ho-ho-ho Santa Claus figures dangling from buildings, and three-foot-high Christmas trees with matching pink and purple ribbon decorations are lined up outside stores on the main shopping streets.

There are brilliant-colored lights strung across the avenues, and a glittering conical abstraction of a Christmas tree pulses on and off in the Plaza de Catalunya. Christmas carols (sometimes in English) echo through the halls, the beauty salons, and the restaurants, and carolers emote as they stroll down the pedestrian Rambla, songbooks in hand. Flame-red poinsettias are for sale in the market, and school-club fundraisers hawk chocolate bars and handmade knickknacks. And there’s the cheery Firanadal (Christmas Fair) offering artisanal goods, felt slippers, jewelry, plastic toys, and boxwood spoons.

Yes, all of this is vaguely familiar, even if gigantes (giant dancing king and queen figures), a marathon Nativity play (Els Pastorets), xuixus (pronounced “choochoos”: sugar dusted, cream-filled pastry rolls), and turrón (a kind of nougat) aren’t usual Christmas fare.

But you really know you’re in a foreign land when you seen the rows of squatting miniature figures—including SpongeBob SquarePants, flamenco dancers, Obama, Barça soccer star Messi, Queen Elizabeth II, and Death—their pants pulled down, a brown plop of poop deposited behind them, for sale for inclusion in Nativity scenes. Correction: the plop of poop behind Death is white, not brown. 

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Santa Claus is Coming to School

by B.J. Stolbov 

As the only (old) white man with a (long) white beard in my rural Filipino community of Northern Luzon, I get the exceedingly great pleasure every December of being Santa Claus.

I am a volunteer high school teacher. My first year here, I was asked to play Santa Claus at my high school’s Christmas assembly.  I excitedly volunteered.  Dressed in a red t-shirt and red jogging pants (the colors of our school), my black rubber swamp tromping boots (cleaned), a red cap with battery operated white blinking stars, my wire-rimmed glasses, and my long white beard, I, Santa Claus, appeared from the back of the stage of the school gymnasium to loud amplified blaring Christmas music. 

One thousand students went wild. This was my ultimate rock star Santa Claus moment. I strode across the stage waving, and then waded down into the roaring crowd.  Carrying a red bag filled with candy, I threw handfuls of candy everywhere.  It was almost a sugar frenzy riot. Everyone loves Santa Claus. No wonder he does this!  What a rush! I felt like Santa Claus. 

Next year, I was again invited to play Santa Claus.  But not only at my high school, where now, of course, everyone knew me; but also at an elementary school, where few, if any, of the kids knew me.  I cheerfully accepted.

I arrived at the elementary school dressed in regular clothes, with my Santa outfit hidden in my tightly folded red bag.  The principal of the school had made all the arrangements, agreeing with me that no one, except for a few teachers, would know that Santa Claus was coming to their school.  In the principal’s office, I changed into my Santa outfit. 

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Nine Mornings of Christmas

by B.J. Stolbov

I’m startled awake by every dog in the neighborhood going off, howling and barking. I’ve never heard such an ungodly uproar.  Nothing like this has happened here before.  It’s pitch black outside. There are no streetlights in this neighborhood; there are no streets, only dirt trails out there.  I roll over and look at my clock.  It’s 3:30AM.  I have no idea what’s going on.

There’s a light on in the kitchen and my host Mother is up.  She is boiling water, making herself a cup of tea. 

“What’s going on?”  I ask.

“Mass,” she answers. 


“Four o’clock mass.”  She sits down.  “The Catholics are going to church.”  She sips her tea.

“At four o’clock?” 

It’s nine days before Christmas. The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia. Beginning this morning, December 16, the Christians will get up and go to early morning mass every day until Christmas. The Catholics have to wake up this early because their churches will be full and the mass will start exactly at 4AM.

My host Mother, sitting in her bathrobe, heating a larger pot of water for her bucket shower, is Protestant, a Methodist.  For the next nine days, she will attempt to attend morning services at the much more reasonable hour of 6AM. And she invites me.

I’ve been living in the Philippines for a year now. I’m a 61-year-old male and, among other various professions, I’m a writer.  Rather than retire, I’m way too young to retire and this writer doesn’t want to retire, I decided to join the Peace Corps.  Now, I’m living a fascinating life with a Filipino family and teaching high school English in one of the most remote and beautiful provinces in the Philippines.

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7 Least Romantic Places For Valentine’s Day

by Debbie Wilson

Usually, at this time of year, I’m thinking about hearts, flowers, and chocolate in sweet, loving surroundings. I can’t believe that every year I descend into embarrassing fantasy clichés, so, this year, I’m trying something different. I’ve set out to find places where you or Cupid would never think of going.  Places you can immediately eliminate from your Valentine bucket list.  


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Nothing Says Christmas Like 130 Tubas

words + photos by Tom Adkinson


Walgreen’s may put up garland and tinsel the day after Halloween, but that and all the other premature signs of Christmas are a flop. Christmas doesn’t reign in my heart until I hear a sanctuary filled with the sound of 130 tubas.

It’s TUBACHRISTMAS, a time when people with big brass instruments converge to toot out deliriously delightful renditions of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and solemn and touching versions of “Silent Night.” The assembled spectators sing along. It’s like “Mitch Miller Meets John Philip Sousa.”

TUBACHRISTMAS for me is in Nashville, adding another layer to the city’s well-earned nickname of Music City.

The first TUBACHRISTMAS was in New York in 1974, and Nashville’s began in 1986. It echoed through several acoustically challenged venues before settling at First Baptist Church, where the sound is fine and the pews are comfortable 

After the first New York gig, a movement began, and you now can hear TUBACHRISTMAS performances across the nation. You’ll find a list at, you guessed it,

A spot check of states for 2010 reveals 12 TUBACHRISTMAS performances in New York, 10 in California and 21 in Texas. There are even enough tuba players in Idaho and North Dakota for three performances and in each state.

All of these performances are a tribute to a William Bell, born on Christmas Day 1902 and acknowledged as America’s premier tuba player and teacher of the 20th Century. He played for John Philip Sousa and Toscanini. The idea is to honor “all great artists/teachers whose legacy has given us high performance standards,” says the TUBACHRISTMAS website.

While anything but a church service, the Nashville TUBACHRISTMAS has an appropriate touch. The Baptists allow a collection to support a weekly meal for the homeless just down the street at Downtown Presbyterian Church, a venue where TUBACHRISTMAS once played.

Nashville’s TUBACHRISTMAS is December 14, but if I want to hear “Santa Wants a Tuba for Christmas” just one more time this year, I can hop a non-stop flight to Dallas for a Christmas Eve show.

 View photo gallery  


Tom Adkinson has worked in travel journalism and travel publicity for almost 40 years as a writer, editor and PR professional. His articles and photos have appeared in publications throughout the U.S. He is a Marco Polo member of the Society of American Travel Writers. 

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by Pete Thompson


When I was nine years old, my family went to the middle of nowhere in the middle of Texas where my dad grew up.  I had many aunts and uncles and their offspring who lived on several farms in the area; others had moved away to various other places like Dallas and such.  I did not know that this was going to be the last family Christmas gathering with my grandmother, who to me seemed older than hell.  Sorry, grandma, but I knew that word at nine plus a lot more and used them without remorse.  "Goddamn" was a hard one to master, being a Baptist, when I was scared to death of our preacher sending me to hell for even thinking it.   

We drove out to the farms in a new 1953 Ford, later to become my first car, to a wonderland of hard wood forests and smells of farm animals I had never experienced before.  I was growing up in the small town of Artesia, NM, where we moved 2 years after I was born in Roswell, NM.  In Artesia all the smells we had were mostly of the oil refinery located just east of town, one of our favorite play grounds if we didn't get caught.  Some believed it to be the smell of pure money and for some it was.  I preferred the farm smells to the refinery although now they say it's all the same, whoever the hell "they" are?

On Christmas Day, I was presented with a pellet rifle and a million lead pellets.  It was a single shot so I kept a mouth full of pellets for quick reloading.  Anybody who wanted me to talk to them had to wait until I spit all the spittle covered pellets out into my hand.  I also received enough firecrackers to wreak havoc on my small young world.  I could shoot everything that moved and blow up everything that didn't, which I commenced do immediately.

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Everybody's Jewish Mother

by Judith Fein

I was sleeping on a cot in her living room. Early morning sun was streaming in through an opening in the white linen drapes and she was standing over me.

“I was thinking about it all night,” she said. “I can’t believe you don’t know who Usher is!”

“Usher?” I asked, dragging myself from dreamland.

“Yes, Usher. Have you been living under a rock? He sings R &B, has won 5 Grammies and is a major philanthropist.”

I looked up at my 91-year-old mother.

“Okay, ma, you win. It’s important. I’ll find out all about Usher,” I conceded.

She doesn’t just know about Usher. At 85, as a result of her rabid interest in Eminen, she gathered her dear ones at a restaurant in La Jolla, threw some signs and began: “My name is Mickey and I’m here to say/I’m coming out as a rapper today.” The mouths of her guests and the entire staff of the restaurant fell open.

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Easter and Passover Different

by Judith Fein

I live in Santa Fe, the City Different.  It’s a town with a tap dancing rabbi, a stock broker who runs the community theatre, a real estate broker who moonlights by teaching cooking classes, legions of natives who protect the prairie dogs with their lives, a car that drives around with a suitcase on the roof to remind people that they have emotional baggage, tricked out lowriders, a Jewish mariachi, dead trees turned into sculptures of archangels, a judge who banged down his gavel and sentenced wrong-doers to bring a holiday turkey to court.

It should come as no surprise that this holiday season is replete with soul, spirit and a lot of quirk.

A few days ago, the Chabad rabbi, who is never seen in public without his black suit, black hat and pronounced beard, performed a little birthday party for the sun on the central Plaza.

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Nothing Says Love Like Bacon Grease

by Melissa Josue

Water droplets beat against the bedroom window, which framed a gray sky that poured all day into the evening. But the smell of hot butter browning in a skillet and the buoyant sound of trumpets and keyboard from the radio lifted my mood. I’ve only experienced Mardi Gras through weekend parades leading up to Fat Tuesday. But not the evening often touted on the news as an occasion of unabashed revelry and regrettable drunkenness.

“This must be a nostalgic time for you, isn’t it?” I asked my boyfriend Charles while he browned the French toast in a melted layer of what he calls “fake butter,” a cholesterol-free alternative to butter that I try to keep in his fridge should we decide to treat ourselves to a heavier brunch. I thought he was going to reminisce about stumbling out of the Napoleon House after having had too many beers or talk about the things he and his high school buddies did to get girls to catch their beads.

But instead, he prepared for Fat Tuesday as though it were Christmas. Reminding me weeks in advance to keep the evening free. Pulling out plastic beads to wear to work or offer his daughters. Interspersing the weekends before Mardi Gras with meals containing some variation of grits and cheese, a heavy cream sauce, and way too much butter for the sensibilities of a girl who practiced portion control with a kitchen scale. His shameless use of animal fat was both horrifying and endearing. If a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, he reciprocated by spending equal time over the stove to cook his way to mine.

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How I Spent my Winter Vacation

by Rachel Dickinson

Recently I found myself at the world’s largest ice-fishing tournament on Hole in the Day Bay of Gull Lake near Brainerd, Minnesota. There are probably two words I never wanted to use in the same sentence – ice and fishing – so it was with some reluctance that I found myself there in the first place. But being nothing if not a good sport, I packed all the cold weather clothing I could muster.

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Hanukkah Behind Bars

by Judith Fein

Christmas lights fringed the adobe walls in downtown Santa Fe, and I was feeling gloomy. In a few days I'd be leaving the country for a work assignment, and I wouldn't be able to celebrate the holidays with the kids behind bars.

For several years, I had volunteered to teach them creative writing, and I'd become very attached to them. In spite of their crimes, I loved them because they were just kids. Their life stories were punctuated with abuse, abandonment, and pain, and I knew their young hearts would ache with loneliness during the holiday season.

Impulsively, I called the head of the jail. He said I could have a special holiday session with the kids the following night.

Almost all of the Hispanic and Native American kids were Christians, and I wondered if any of them knew what Hanukkah was. I spent the next day buying plastic dreydls (tops) and gold-wrapped chocolate coins called Hanukkah gelt, and then I cut up more than 600 paper chits. In case my Hanukkah idea was a dud, I bought and signed Christmas cards for the kids.

As I was leaving for my Hanukkah mission, my friend Kitt arrived at my house with an enormous 50-pound pillowcase full of candy. "A little something for the kids," she explained.

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