OVER THE YEARS, Christmas has become an increasingly portable event. Many of us know the stressed-out joy of multiple celebrations. We’ve struggled to pack 148 packages in the back of a Country Squire without crushing any bows. We know the stamina required to digest turkey and dressing at lunch and again at dinner at the in-laws’ across the state. Deep down somewhere, we accept these modern customs of traveling chaos. But give us one fantasy year to flit from one hemisphere to the next, enjoying the best moments of Christmas traditions all over the world.
In Europe, we’d stop in France to sample the livers of a few fattened geese, and pause again in Germany for some homemade lebkuchen and sprengerle. Then we’d settle in Sweden for the rest of Christmas Eve. To rustle up an appetite, we’d put up a tiny Christmas tree for shivering neighborhood birds, as is the custom of Swedish farmers. As birds descended on the sheaf of grain topped with a tiny sprig of evergreen, we would cozy ourselves before a traditionally elaborate Swedish feast: a smorgasbord of cheese, spiced fish and caviar, washed down with several steins of Julglogg-a potent mix of brandy, port and spices that annually leaves Swedes asleep at the Christmas table.
Early Christmas morning, we would head across the date line to celebrate yet another traditional Christmas Eve: in Mexico. Their Christmas celebrations are in full swing from December 16 on in honor of the nine days it took Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A shopping spree would lead us through colorful Mexican Christmas markets, which offer Indian weavings, carvings and pottery along with an assortment of cheeses, fruits and sweets to nibble along the way. By dark, the Christmas Eve procession would be marked by orchids, paper streamers and pinatas, their many colors dancing in the glow of Venetian lanterns and strings of lights. Men and women carrying flower-shaped lanterns and perfumed torches and children dressed as angels would march together through the narrow streets until nearly midnight, when all would trickle into their neighborhood churches for midnight Mass.
For an ascetic, aesthetic change, Japan would seem a logical counterpart to Mexico’s gaiety, especially since fewer than 5 percent of the population professes Christianity. A glance at the Japan Times, however, proves us wrong. The tiny island is stuffed with spruce-scented candles and commercial Christmas hype. Loving all that is American, the Japanese have almost outdone us in their celebration-for-profit’s sake. Although December 25 is not a holiday, English carols blare from public-address systems, turkey and dressing is offered in Eastern restaurants, and department stores are packed with holiday shoppers and Oriental Santas.
Let’s end our Christmas fantasy where the whole thing really began: in the Holy Land. The landmarks of the Nativity story are well-marked-the Shepherd’s Field, the inns that may have turned Mary and Joseph away. Christians from all over the world come to this predominantly Moslem and Jewish city to worship during the three different days the holy day is observed. They tread single-file down a narrow stairway to the small stone cave where Christ was born. The manger, where Mary is believed to have placed her child in the straw, is now inlaid with a single silver star. Christmas today is little like that night long ago, but the pilgrims show a spirit that hasn’t changed. Their celebration, too, is of a portable Christmas, a celebration that has traveled around the world and back again.