Parallel worlds: Christmas in 4 cities and a small Irish village

We asked five writers around the world – in four cities and a small Irish village – what the Christmas vibe is like where they are, right now. We didn’t quite know what to expect, but the parallels and the contrasts in the stories have blown us away. Read on for a fascinating glimpse into Christmas around the world.

PS What’s it like where you are? We’d love to know, so please leave a comment at the end of this post.

Melbourne, Australia

[words by Jo Stewart]

In Melbourne, many of the classic Aussie Christmas clichés actually ring true: blazing heat, sizzling barbecues and a big, bright sun in the sky combine to create an iconic Christmas season that is nothing but normal to locals and a strange, otherworldly experience to visitors from northern lands.

Dig a little deeper and Christmas time reveals more clues to the Melbourne identity. The television buzzing in the background features an odd mix of live cricket matches, hokey Christmas movies and dated biblical epics, house doors are adorned with everything from traditional holly to homemade wreaths constructed from beer cans and, sadly, the primal, smoky scent of bushfires often hangs in the air.

As a highly multicultural city, there’s an infinite variety of ways locals like to celebrate during the festive season. Head to my local park during Christmas and you’ll see the hip crowd (complete with ciders, Frisbees and sausage dogs) lazing on the grass, alongside a large family of refugees cooking up a storm on the communal barbecue. Dogs go wild chasing each other as joyful kids revel in their new toys and enthusiastic runners jog laps of the park – not keen to surrender to a day of inactivity. Not even at Christmas. At night the weather turns balmy and people head to the beaches and bays to swim, stroll and enjoy the slow tempo of life. While not big on tradition (or precipitation) Christmas in Melbourne is a brilliant time to see local life unfold organically.

Castlemartyr, East Cork, Ireland

[words by Thomas Breathnach]

Amid all the countdown chaos, a gentle lull always seems to descend on the village on Christmas Eve. There’s almost a biblical serenity to it all – clear starry skies twinkle over dewy pastures, flocks of sheep breathe puffy clouds out into the frosty air.

“Midnight Mass” (which, due to a trend of drunken hecklers, has now shifted to the primetime slot of 10pm) marks my annual church visit. Despite feeling like the black sheep in the congregation, something always draws me back to the fold: the candlelit nave, so festively festooned with ivy and holly boughs, the meditative fragrance of frankincense waving across the chapel, or my internal debate on whether the choir will hit that high G on “Oh Holy Night”. Perhaps, it’s simply the reassuring tradition of it all, or that brief refuge from the climatic sense of Christmas expectation.

While goose was the favoured dish of old in Ireland, turkey is now the ordre du jour for most Christmas Day dinners. I’m one who relishes the culinary challenge; basting the bird and tending to veg while juggling my medley of sausage and sage and potato and thyme stuffings. Our neighbours gift us a delicious baked ham every year which, along with the Corkonian delicacy of spiced beef (cooked in stout), is the main seasonal fare.

Outdoorsy rural traditions mark St Stephen’s Day on the 26th (from the Celtic ritual of celebrating the wren bird, to the Anglo pursuit of foxhunting) but all roads eventually lead to a crackling pub fireside, and hot ports and whiskeys with friends. Bartering gifts; exchanging tales of family bust-ups; it’s back to work for many the next day. Nollaig Shona – happy Christmas.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

[words by Aslı Pelit]

This is going to be my tenth Christmas below the equator. I thought it would get easier over time, but I am still not used to the idea of decorating a palm tree instead of a pine. Call me old fashioned. I really don’t care. For the infidels like me, 24th of December is a celebration of good times, with good friends – and it is a winter thing. I  guess you can take this Turk out of the northern hemisphere but can’t take the homey feeling of a real cold December out of her!

My home for the past five years, Paris of South America (aka Buenos Aires) prepares for Christmas around November, as most cities do. Yet for me, a lonely expat/agnostic international party girl, aside from Jesus and Immaculate Conception scenes decorated here and there (not that I mind seeing them so much when it is contained in the house of God, but have issues with it in shopping malls and even inside public buses) it feels more like a pseudo-religious ceremony while getting ready for summer season.

Come November in this part of the continent, at the first sight of the sunlight, people flock to one of the hundreds of parks around town to get a tan; kids skip school; newly acquired pairs of breasts (about 20,000 women get fake tits a year in this town) are eagerly demonstrated in skimpy tank tops; yuppy narcisistic portenos hit the gym to build last-minute six packs. But by far the worst part of being an outsider witness to this hype, those who have neither a family nor enough money to escape Baires’ excruciating heat at this time, is to see that most businesses around town start placing “we will be closed from December 24th to January 15th” signs on their front doors.

This year, in order to survive the week after the 25th, I decided to stock up on groceries as I’d do before a hurricane, download as many movies I can (internet and electricity is not at all reliable during this period of time), and hope I will be invited to a house far enough from the city (and I can go with my dog Vinicius) or that the Christmas will go away fast!

Madrid, Spain

[words by Mark Eveleigh]

There is a thin sprinkle of frost on the rooftops and fragile crystals of ice between the cobbles. They seem to add a touch of authenticity to the icy buntings and glittering fake icicles that decorate the market stalls in Plaza Mayor.

The Christmas market is already filling up with shoppers buying decorations, trees, candles, fancy-dress costumes and little figures that will occupy nativity scenes in every traditional household. Off to one side of the plaza is a bigger “Belen”, as they are called, decorated with the entire cast of holy family, kings, shepherds, angels and adoring livestock.

Madrid’s Christmas season has already been going for some time. Traditionally Madrileños start with a warm-up party in the public holiday that falls in early December and extend their winter fiestas almost for a full month; right through Christmas and New Year and on to January 6. On that night, the market will be cleared away and the procession of the Three Kings will pass through the plaza, as through every big town in Spain. Spanish kids still have a long wait ahead of them since, in Spain, Santa delegates his traditional responsibilities and the kings deliver presents here – with a delay of 12 days.

Spain has what might be the longest Christmas party season in the world and, with typical stamina, the Madrileños are now seriously gearing themselves up for the long run.

Cape Town, South Africa

[words by Narina Exelby]

Ask any South African for a word that describes Cape Town and the answer will almost always be the same: chilled. It’s a reputation the city has carried for generations – but right now, that laid-back vibe is faltering, ever so slightly, in St George’s Mall.

This pedestrian shopping street in the centre of Cape Town is a parade of tanned legs, wishing-they-were-tanned legs and sandaled feet – all with somewhere to be, something to buy. But there is little sense of urgency. Lunch patrons fill all the seats at outdoor cafés and people amble past the street stalls, running their hands through the sarongs, T-shirts, necklaces and scarves that hang to define the stalls’ edges. A busker near the top of the mall blows on his sax; you might know the tune from somewhere. You might not.

Apart from there being more people than usual and two Santa hats pegged to one vendor’s wares, there’s virtually no sign that Christmas is just a few days away. No arms are weighed down with shopping bags; no Christmas carols lilt from inside the big stores. There are no elves or men in red suits and there’s no fake snow sprayed onto display windows – South Africans realised a few years back what a silly tradition that was.

The suburban shopping malls, of course, have had Christmas decorations up since October and now will be a frenzy of branded bags and last-minute dashes. Air-con units will be working at full capacity. Supermarket shelves will be packed and unpacked with de-boned gammon and trays of mince pies. But it’s Cape Town out here on this street. Under the trees and between bright fabrics gathered from around the continent, the festive season is well under way in true Mother City style: the holiday-makers have arrived, summer is here, and we’re taking life pretty easy.

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