festivals

Witnessing a Hindu Festival at Pura Samuan Tiga

We stumbled upon a full moon festival of Siat Sampian at a local temple near Goa Gajah, Bali — glimpsing a fascinating ritual but missing the big fight.

Pura Samuan Tiga, during the precursors to the Siat Sampian festival

Pura Samuan Tiga, during the precursors to the Siat Sampian festival

Our driver seemed to be trying to dissuade us from visiting Pura Samuan Tiga.

“It will be very, very crowded,” he told us, “because of the festival for the full moon. Not a good time to go.”

But hearing there was a festival only made us want to visit all the more.

Temples popular on the tourist trail are always worth seeing, but we recommend finding at least one local temple on every trip. It’s a fascinating glimpse into another religion — especially when it’s the ever-enigmatic Hinduism, the major world religion I understand the least.

A man and his children pause under the elaborate temple offerings

A man and his children pause under the elaborate temple offerings

Fences close off areas of worship at Samuan Tiga

Fences close off areas of worship at Samuan Tiga

Duke, a total Ravenclaw when it comes to research, will spend hours poring over websites and books when building out our itineraries for a trip. He found Samuan Tiga and suggested a stopover en route to the nearby giant mouth cave of Goa Gajah. Located in the village of Bedulu in the Gianyar regency, the temple is about a 20-minute drive from Ubud, where we based ourselves.

Pura Samuan Tiga might not be one of the most visited temples on the island — but it gives you a great feel for what these sprawling Hindu temple complexes are like. Especially if you’re lucky enough to happen upon it during a festival.

Bhoma guards the temple from malevolent spirits

Bhoma guards the temple from malevolent spirits

The statuary in the temple was originally carved from volcanic rock

The statuary in the temple was originally carved from volcanic rock

One of the outer courtyards at Samuan Tiga, which was much less crowded than those within

One of the outer courtyards at Samuan Tiga, which was much less crowded than those within

The vast, bustling temple complex evokes the feel of a village market

The vast, bustling temple complex evokes the feel of a village market

Built between 988 and 1011,  the temple sports typical Balinese religious architectural design, with its soaring orange brick gates, weathered teak open-air pavilions, volcanic stone carvings of bulging-eyed monsters and thatched triangular rooftops. While most temples on Bali (pura in the local tongue) have three courtyards, Samuan Tiga is much larger, with seven.

There’s some debate around the reason for the temple’s name, which translates to “the meeting of the three.” Local lore holds that three warring Hindu sects came together to resolve their issues. The royal priest decreed that each kingdom would have three main temples, which represented not only the Hindu trilogy of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva but the mountain, village and sea as well.

One area of the temple was filled with offering baskets

One area of the temple was filled with offering baskets

Like a National Geographic Article Come to Life

We had stumbled upon one of the oldest Hindu rituals on Bali: Siat Sampian (War of the Offerings), which takes place every 10th full moon. While we saw many crowds praying in the various courtyards, apparently we missed the battle that would take place later, when hundreds of pilgrims playfully “attack” each other, throwing arrangements called sampian, which consist of woven palm fronds pointing out like the rays of the sun.

That’s the trouble with knowledge sharing, even in this age of the internet. It was tough even discovering the name of the temple — and we didn’t learn about the details of the festival until we were back home. I wish our driver or another local had known more about Siat Sampian, and we could have tried to time our visit with the frenzied fake fight. Sigh.

There was still much to see, though. Women carried stacked woven baskets atop their heads, all dressed in long-sleeved lace tops, most of them white, paired with brightly colored sashes around their waists and ankle-length floral sarongs. Children, also in vibrant sarongs, munched on snacks.

Women carry their loads in woven containers atop their heads

Women carry their loads in woven containers atop their heads

Some of the men have adopted this means of carrying offerings

Some of the men have adopted this means of carrying offerings

Children probably spend hours at the temple during the festival and snack throughout the day

Children probably spend hours at the temple during the festival and snack throughout the day

Samuan Tiga sports seven courtyards — more than your typical Balinese temple — and they were all quite crowded

Samuan Tiga sports seven courtyards — more than your typical Balinese temple — and they were all quite crowded

In certain parts of the temple, facing raised platforms, people crowded into tight spaces, sitting down to pray — a vast sea of worshippers, most of whom wore white shirts, the men also in white headbands with a sort of bow in front. Everyone sat quietly, arms extended in front of their faces, their hands pressed together. This is the purification process before the comedic war to come.

The crowds got downright claustrophobic in quite a few areas

The crowds got downright claustrophobic in quite a few areas

People worshipped in different courtyards

People worshipped in different courtyards

This area was right off of the Barong pavilion

This area was right off of the Barong pavilion

Offering baskets were everywhere, small square trays woven from palm fronds and filled with rice, flowers and fruit.

An elaborate floral offering

An elaborate floral offering

Beautiful offerings for the gods

Beautiful offerings for the gods

Fruit is a popular offering

Fruit is a popular offering

Worshippers create small offering dishes filled with flowers and food

Worshippers create small offering dishes filled with flowers and food

An entire pavilion was filled with masks of Barong, who, despite his sharp fangs and wide eyes, is actually the personification of good.

Barong masks receive offerings 

Barong masks receive offerings 

As frightening as he looks, Barong is actually reprepsentative of all that is good

As frightening as he looks, Barong is actually reprepsentative of all that is good

Masks of Barong lined an entire pavilion at Samuan Tiga

Masks of Barong lined an entire pavilion at Samuan Tiga

In one corner of the temple complex, we stopped to listen to an entirely female gamelan troupe. I had always heard of the percussion-heavy, xylophone-like instruments being played by men and wondered if this was a new phenomenon.

An all-female gamelan band

An all-female gamelan band

As they played their jarring and discordant yet strangely hypnotic tunes, a man in costume approached for a dance. Covered in layers of colorful fabric with shimmering gold designs, barefoot, boasting long nails like claws, he descended the stairs. As he got closer, what caught my eye most was his frightening visage: a wide, wrinkled brown mask with a sweeping black mustache. Its features seemed pinched from the nose, lending an overall appearance of a rodent, not softened by the floral headband framing his face. If anything, it looked like foliage that had caught as he burrowed in the dirt. He made slow, sweeping movements, only his hands twitching rapidly, like the fluttering wings of a raven.

We think the character might be Topeng Bujuh, a comic figure in Balinese performances.

A creepy costumed character danced to the gamelan music

A creepy costumed character danced to the gamelan music

As we wandered through the courtyards, most people were extremely happy to see us. They grinned, said hello, greeting us with a sembah (a gesture of respect, similar to the Thai wai, where you place your palms together in front of your chest and bow). I took the opportunity to snap quick photos of the worshippers and almost every time, they smiled back at me, unoffended, much to my relief. It seemed they were happy to share their experience, that they were glad a couple of Western tourists had felt their sacred festival worthy of a visit. –Wally

Pura Samuan Tiga is one of the largest Hindu temples in central Bali

Pura Samuan Tiga is one of the largest Hindu temples in central Bali

Pura Samuan Tiga
Jalan Pura Samuan Tiga
Bedulu
Blahbatuh
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali 80581
Indonesia

Portugal’s Pastry Penises

Cock an eye at the phallic pastries from Amarante, Portugal, which, strangely, honor a saint.

Doesn’t this penis pastry look simply mouth-watering? Hopefully it's cream-filled!

Doesn’t this penis pastry look simply mouth-watering? Hopefully it's cream-filled!

Portugal’s pastry penises, they pop up (sorry, couldn’t resist) everywhere. Darling small ones covered in sugar. Massive ones big enough to share. Some are filled with, what else, cream. Porcelain ones, can openers, corkscrews line up on store shelves like soldiers at attention. It’s a penispalooza!

You see them all over the country, but they actually come from Amarante east of Porto. A lovely town where everything — the church, the bridge, the convent, a street — is named after the same man, Amarante sits at the western entrance to the Douro Valley, home to the port wine industry.

Modestly dressed women giggle as they confront an anatomically correct penis dusted with powdered sugar.

There is that awkward moment of deciding whether to use a knife and fork or pick it up and nibble away.

In the 13th century, long after the Romans built the bridge that bears his name, a priest, now canonized, São Gonçalo, had “matchmaking abilities.”

There is no word on his personal equipment size. Given the doces fálicos (phallic sweets) or bolos (cakes) that commemorate him, however, it must have been quite something.

The fact that he was run out of town for some long-forgotten reason fuels speculation as to why he is so vividly remembered eight centuries later. Also no word on why he’s revered with pastry — malleable, rise-able, edible…shouldn’t go too far with the metaphors.

Portugal’s penis obsession extends to other products, including bottle openers

Portugal’s penis obsession extends to other products, including bottle openers

The pastries are given as gifts in January so that the recipient will have a fortuitous and fertile year. But the really big celebration is the first week in June, around São Gonçalo's feast day, when Amarante goes penis crazy.

There’s a procession, fireworks, penis bunting, fetching penis deely-boppers and a lot of pastry penis presents to single women looking for love. In other words, the world’s largest bachelorette party.

Phallic baked goods are a common sight in Portugal, especially the town of Amarante

Phallic baked goods are a common sight in Portugal, especially the town of Amarante

The rest of the year, modestly dressed women sit in cafés throughout the country, sipping espresso and giggling as they confront an anatomically correct, carefully circumcised and fully, shall we say, inflated penis dusted with powdered sugar. There is that awkward moment of deciding whether to use a knife and fork or pick it up and nibble away.

Otherwise, if you miss the festa in Amarante, if you’re new to Portugal, if you haven’t seen anyone eating the equivalent of a phallic doughnut, you are left standing in the middle of Porto’s open-air market, staring into a bakery shop window thinking, “That’s not what I think it is. Is it?” –Rebecca

No Fooling: The History of April Fool’s Day and Poisson d’Avril

Learn the origin of April Fool’s pranks — and check out these bizarre vintage April Fool’s Day cards.

I’m not making this up: No one’s 100% sure how April Fool’s Day started, but it probably began when the New Year moved dates

I’m not making this up: No one’s 100% sure how April Fool’s Day started, but it probably began when the New Year moved dates

The flowers begin to bud, robins appear, and a few gorgeously warm days start to sneak their way in. Springtime in Chicago is wonderful — though Duke and I will never forget that early April trip we took to Switzerland, when they were harvesting the spaghetti from the trees. Our timing was perfect; one more week and the limp noodles hanging from the branches would no longer be al dente.

Coincidentally, Easter falls on April 1 this year, as it did in 1957, when the BBC aired a three-minute segment showing people plucking strands of spaghetti from trees. Some viewers even called the BBC, wanting to know where they could purchase their very own spaghetti tree. Of course, it was just an elaborate prank — the first televised April Fool’s Day hoax.

Because spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, silly.

The Amusingly Mysterious Origins of April Fool’s Day

This isn’t a joke: No one’s completely sure where and when April Fool’s Day started, but they’ve got some pretty good ideas.

A favorite theory is that it has to do with the switch from the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar, to the Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII. The decision was made in 1563 at the Council of Trent. That meant the New Year shifted from the end of March to January 1.

A poisson d’avril symbolized an easily caught fish and, by extension, a gullible person.

Some years later, in 1582, the French made the calendar switch. Those who didn’t get the memo or refused to play by the new rules were poked fun at and had paper fish (poisson d’avril, or April fish) sneakily placed on their backs. A poisson d’avril symbolized an easily caught fish and, by extension, a gullible person.

It’s also thought that the ancient Greco-Roman festival known as Hilaria (the Day of Joy) is a precursor to April Fool’s Day. This pagan celebration began on March 25, shortly after the Vernal Equinox, to honor Cybele, Mother of the Gods, and the resurrection of her castrated lover (and in some tellings, her son!), Attis.

The festivities conclude on April 1, accompanied by feasts, games, masquerades and practical jokes — hence the association to April Fool’s Day.

Even the Indian holiday Holi, which takes place around this time of year, involves much mischief-making. Associated with the Hindu demoness, Holika, people celebrate the triumph of good over evil by throwing brightly colored powder on each other.

During the 18th century, April Fool’s Day caught on in Britain. The Scottish celebrated a two-day event that started with “hunting the gowk” (a word for the cuckoo, which represents a fool), during which people are sent on wild goose chases. This was followed by Tailie Day, where the butts of jokes had fake tails or Kick Me signs pinned to their backsides.

Have a laugh at these hilarious (and bizarre) vintage April Fool’s and poisson d’avril cards. –Wally

The Thai Zodiac and Songkran, the Thai New Year

How the Thai calendar differs from the Gregorian, what Thai fortune-tellers do and the Thailand water festival that’s all wet.

Thai stamps honor the signs of their zodiac, inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac

Thai stamps honor the signs of their zodiac, inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac

Those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar ring in the the New Year at midnight on January 1, hitting the reset button and making year-end resolutions we’ll definitely, maybe follow. While we only have ourselves to blame for our overindulgent last hurrah, Wally and I venture out to console ourselves with pho ga at our favorite local Vietnamese restaurant, which does seem to help.

The Gregorian calendar, consisting of 365 days, is off kilter with the Earth’s trip around the sun and is adjusted every four years in February with a leap day. Meanwhile, other cultures, such as Thailand, have their own complex system that aligns with the lunisolar Buddhist calendar of 354 days, which have dates that indicate the moon phase and the time of the solar year.

April 13 marks the beginning of the Thai New Year, when they partake in Songkran, the world’s largest water fight.
The spring festival of Songkran marks the Thai New Year

The spring festival of Songkran marks the Thai New Year

Songkran: Making It Rain

April 13 marks the beginning of the Thai New Year. This is when they partake in the world’s largest water fight, known as Songkran. The festival celebrates the end of the dry season to welcome the rain needed for a successful rice harvest. The communal holiday takes place over a period of three days or more and is when the year assumes the next animal in the rotating zodiac of 12 animals.

The etymology of Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word sankranti, or the passage of the sun from one side of the zodiac to the other, and is symbolic of transformation and change. The tradition may have originated from the Hindu harvest festival Makar Sankranti, which welcomes the onset of spring with colorful soaring kites.

Songkran has always been associated with water, and according to Thai custom, a small bowl of scented water is sufficient to wash away the previous year’s troubles and start anew.

This holiday is also the time for villagers to honor their elders, give offerings of food to monks, ignite firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and ritually bathe household Buddha images.

Songkran has turned into the world’s largest water fight

Songkran has turned into the world’s largest water fight

Over time, this tradition has evolved into water being thrown less ceremoniously, as men, women and children armed with Super Soaker water guns and buckets of dirty moat water await unsuspecting friends and tourists alike.

Although our friends David and Arnie insisted that this is fun time to visit Chiang Mai, Wally and I decided to wait until the festivities had passed. For the most part, I consider us adventurous, but the thought of experiencing this firsthand and getting drenched (not to mention having our phones and cameras ruined) while exploring the Old City was not high on either of our lists.

Phrommachat manuscripts determine the compatabilty of Thai couples

Phrommachat manuscripts determine the compatabilty of Thai couples

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Sign?

The 12 animals of the Thai zodiac were borrowed from the Chinese zodiac, with a decidedly Thai twist and include naga iconography on the snake and dragon. Each animal has a predominant natural element that rules over them: earth, wood, fire, iron or water. For Thai people, the completion of each 12-year cycle brings them back to their birth-year animal. It should be noted that the Thai adaptation shifts by about 23 days compared to the Gregorian calendar.

Those born in the year of the monkey are sociable but selfish

Those born in the year of the monkey are sociable but selfish

An important part of the decision-making process in traditional Thai culture is to consult a divination specialist, known as a mor doo, on the uncertainties of love and everyday challenges. These fortune-telling specialists consult divination manuscripts, known as phrommachat, matching the horoscopes of prospective couples. The mor doo possesses knowledge hidden from ordinary people, particularly on the perceived influences of stars, planets, numbers, plants, animals of the zodiac and divinities on the lives of humans.

According to the Thai zodiac, people born in the year of the snake are deep thinkers, though they can be vain about their good looks

According to the Thai zodiac, people born in the year of the snake are deep thinkers, though they can be vain about their good looks

Phrommachat manuscripts include texts and illustrations of unlucky constellations for prospective couples, taking into consideration their character traits as well as their horoscopes. The pages are richly illustrated with four images of each of the 12 animals of the zodiac, combined with alternating male and female avatars, the material appearance or incarnation of a deity on earth, and a symbolic plant in which the khwan, multiple souls or life forces, resides.

A mor doo, or Thai fortune-teller, lets you know if you’re a good match with the one you love

A mor doo, or Thai fortune-teller, lets you know if you’re a good match with the one you love

Personally, the closest I ever came to this type of divination manual was reading the paper placemats with animal signs of the Chinese zodiac when my family would stop in Fort Erie, Canada on our way back from visiting Toronto. –Duke

Vintage New Year’s Greetings

Pierrot clowns, dwarves, pigs and cherubs helped ring in New Years past.

May the New Year come crashing in…in the most adorable way

May the New Year come crashing in…in the most adorable way

The new year is a time to let go of our bad habits and make some sort of effort to improve ourselves. It’s a time of optimism, when the new year spreads out before us as a blank slate. Any unpleasantness from the past year can be left behind.

newyearsresolutions.jpg

So it’s not surprising that people used to send New Year’s greetings that were filled with symbols of good luck and promise. On these vintage cards, you’ll see kids enjoying bottles of champagne (that effervescent boozy beverage is still the tipple of choice on New Year’s Eve).

For some reason, Germans viewed pigs as signs of prosperity, so you can see porkers cavorting all over these old-time cards.

There are also quite a few depictions of bearded humanoids. The cards with dwarves were typically created for Scandinavians, particularly the Swedish. These magical diminutive creatures are symbols of luck. Indeed, you can see them holding bags of coins.

Other European countries incorporated their magical creatures (elves, gnomes and the like) into their New Year’s cards.

Another character making an appearance on vintage New Year’s cards is the clown with poofy balls on his costume known as Pierrot. While clowns are often sources of mirth (even though plenty of people think they’re creepy as hell), Pierrot is a sad clown, desperately in love with a woman named Columbine, who breaks his heart and takes up with the dapper Harlequin. I’m not sure why they became associated with the holiday, but it’s a depressing way to kick off the new year.

Good luck symbols are found all over these cards, including horseshoes, mushrooms and four-leaf clovers, which have migrated from New Year’s iconography to St. Patrick’s Day.

For some reason, Germans viewed pigs as signs of prosperity, so you can see porkers cavorting all over these old-time cards.

And of course there are the most popular New Year’s characters: “The symbols for the New Year are Father Time, hoary with age, being replaced by the newborn child,” writes Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell in her book Postmarked Yesteryear: Art of the Holiday Card. “It is the retelling of the King who dies only to be replaced by a younger and stronger ruler. It is the story of the Phoenix shedding its beautiful feathers and then bursting into flames only to be reborn from the ashes on his self-induced pyre. It is senility and decay replaced by virility.”

Take a spin through these sometimes strange but often sweet vintage New Year’s cards, most of which come from the early 1900s. May your New Year be filled with mushrooms, pigs and small bearded men. –Wally

Christmas Around the World

Learn strange Christmas traditions from other countries.

Why are these people in blackface? It’s just one of the quirky Dutch Christmas traditions!

Why are these people in blackface? It’s just one of the quirky Dutch Christmas traditions!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the song goes. But in many parts of the world, it’s one of the strangest times of the year as well.

Americans have their share of kooky Christmas traditions, including the belief that a misfit reindeer with a glowing red nose named Rudolph flies through the sky, helping pull a fat man’s sleigh. Not to mention that said fat man somehow fits all the presents for every kid onto this sleigh and makes it around the world, slipping down chimneys, all in a single night.
But that’s nothing compared to some of the holiday traditions in other parts of the world.

People in the Netherlands dress as Black Peter, a Moor, by putting on blackface.

For example, Christmas takes on a strangely scatalogical bent in Catalonia, a region of Spain. People place the figurine of a guy in the act of deficating in their nativity scenes as well as beat a log until it poops out treats for kids.

And in Austria and other parts of Europe, if you’re a naughty child, a devil named Krampus will kidnap you, beat you savagely with a stick and drag you to Hell.

Here are some of the more bizarre ways to celebrate the holidays in other parts of the world.

The Dutch version of Santa Claus has a helper named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter

The Dutch version of Santa Claus has a helper named Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter

Go in blackface as Santa’s helper in the Netherlands.

Sinterklaas, as Santa Claus is known to the Dutch people, travels with his servant. But instead of diminutive elves, Sinterklaas is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. Today people dress as Black Peter, a Moor, by putting on blackface. Not very PC — it’s amazing this tradition still exists. It wouldn’t in the United States, I’ll tell ya that.

Someone’s been naughty and needs to get stuffed into a sack and sent off to Spain!

Someone’s been naughty and needs to get stuffed into a sack and sent off to Spain!

It’s these fellows who keep tabs on who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. The good kids get presents, while the bad ones are shoved into a sack and taken off to Spain for a year of reform school.

Spiderweb decorations are common in Ukraine and Poland

Spiderweb decorations are common in Ukraine and Poland

Decorate the tree with spiderweb ornaments in Ukraine and Poland.

Spiderweb ornaments might sound more Halloween than Christmas, but there’s a story behind them. A poor Ukrainian widow lived with her children in a hut. The kids saw a majestic evergreen outside and wanted it to be their Christmas tree. Trouble was, they didn’t have any ornaments and couldn’t afford them.

So the woman cried herself to sleep that night. The hut’s spiders heard her sobs and decorated the tree in intricate webs overnight. In the morning, the sunrise caught the webs and made them glisten like metal. And everyone lived happily ever after, as they tend to do in these fairy tales.

In Poland, they also decorate Christmas trees with spiderwebs, but there’s a different tale behind this tradition. They believe a spider wove a blanket for baby Jesus. I’m sure it wasn’t warm and was annoyingly sticky, but I suppose they appreciated the sentiment.  

If a witch can’t find a broom in your house, Norwegians think she’ll leave you alone

If a witch can’t find a broom in your house, Norwegians think she’ll leave you alone

Hide brooms from the witches in Norway.

Apparently witches and evil spirits like to come out to play on Christmas Eve. So Norwegians, to keep them at bay, hide their brooms, which we all know is a witch’s favorite means of travel. To thwart the witches and evil spirits, men will also fire three shots from their rifles into the air.

These nuns in Venezuela were off to celebrate Christmas mass on roller skates

These nuns in Venezuela were off to celebrate Christmas mass on roller skates

Roller skate to church in Venezuela.

Amid the explosions of firecrackers, entire Venezuelan families in Caracas don roller skates and head off to Catholic mass. As tradition has it, children go to bed with a piece of string tied around their toe with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters roll past, they give the string a tug, and children know that it’s time to put their own skates on. It’s such a popular tradition that the government took to closing entire streets to traffic so families could skate together in safety. This has gotta be the only time church feels like a disco club. All that’s missing is the mirror ball.

Grab your horse skull! It’s time to go wassailing in Wales!

Grab your horse skull! It’s time to go wassailing in Wales!

Carol (and beg for booze) with a dead horse in Wales.

Perhaps you’ve heard the song that begins, “Here we come a-wassailing.” This is the Welsh version of caroling. Wassail is an old England word for “cheers” and can also refer to the boozy beverages the carolers are begging for: ale or mulled wine.

The old Mari Lwyd just ain’t what she used to be

The old Mari Lwyd just ain’t what she used to be

The tradition, known as Mari Lwyd, translates to the Gray Mare, involves people going from house to house, singing and challenging the families inside to a battle of rhyming insults until they get a boozy beverage. What makes this creepy is that one person dresses up like a horse, donning a white sheet topped with an actual horse skull adorned with ears and eyes.

Take me to church

Take me to church

Bring a rooster to mass in Bolivia.

Bolivians celebrate Misa del Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), the midnight service on Christmas Eve, by bringing along a rooster. It must get quite boisterous. But what’s with all the cocks? It’s to honor the creature that is believed to be the first to have announced the birth of baby Jesus.

Dark-haired men, come on in! Blonde and red-haired women, stay the heck away!

Dark-haired men, come on in! Blonde and red-haired women, stay the heck away!

Hope for a dark-haired man to visit you on Christmas in Estonia and Ireland.

Your first Christmas visitor (the first-footer) can determine if your household will have a good year or not — at least that’s what the Estonians believe. If you’re a woman, blonde or red-haired, just stay home, though, please. It’s really only dark-haired gents who bring good luck.

Ireland has the same tradition, though they light a candle and, at the last stroke of midnight, throw open their front doors to welcome in the New Year. Women will beat the door with a loaf of bread, while hoping for a dark-haired gentleman to darken their doorway.

People in Finland buy small tin horseshoes to melt on New Year’s Eve as part of a fortune-telling ritual

People in Finland buy small tin horseshoes to melt on New Year’s Eve as part of a fortune-telling ritual

Melt tin and predict the future in Finland.

You might need a book of symbols and their meanings for this tradition. On New Year’s Eve, Finns purchase small tin horseshoes to melt and ladles. The molten tin is dropped  into a bucket of snow or ice-cold water. Once it hardens, they hold the blob up to the light to see what shape its shadow casts. If it looks like a hill, for example, there will be obstacles ahead. If it looks like a coin, you’ll be coming into some money.

Pesky Greek goblins called the kallikantzari take a break from trying to cut down the World Tree to cause mischief on the 12 days of Christmas

Pesky Greek goblins called the kallikantzari take a break from trying to cut down the World Tree to cause mischief on the 12 days of Christmas

Kallikantzari like to scare humans — and poop in their food

Kallikantzari like to scare humans — and poop in their food

Watch out for goblins in Greece.

According to Greek legend, the hobgoblins called kallikantzari come up from their underground homes on Christmas Day to play tricks on humans until Ephiphany, January 6. They’re particularly fond of sneaking down the chimney like Santa to hide in your home and jump out and scare you. The kallikantzari also rearrange the furniture and, shudder, take dumps in any open containers of food they find.

Grab a colander — it’s one of the best ways to get rid of these Greek goblins

Grab a colander — it’s one of the best ways to get rid of these Greek goblins

If you want to avoid goblin crap on your cookies, burn logs or old shoes, or hang sausages or sweetmeats in the chimney. In addition, many Greeks put a colander on their doorsteps because the goblins will be compelled to count the holes. They don’t make much headway, though, according to A Scary Little Christmas, because the dim-witted creatures can only count to two.

They’re burning Mickey Mouse?! What did  he  ever do to hurt anyone?

They’re burning Mickey Mouse?! What did he ever do to hurt anyone?

Burn effigies in Ecuador.

In their own version of Guy Fawkes Day, Ecuadorians celebrate La Quema de los Años Viejos, the Burning of the Old Years. They make life-size dolls that resemble someone they dislike — maybe a local politician or the ever-popular Osama bin Laden. (I’m going to guess that Trump is a new fave.) People write notes explaining why the dolls should be burned and what changes they’d like to see in the coming year.

The effigies are proudly displayed on balconies or in windows until New Year's Eve, when they’re burned in a bonfire in the street. People jump over the fires for good luck.

Don’t be late on the winter solstice — you’ll be the Thomas Donkey and will end up the butt of jokes all day

Don’t be late on the winter solstice — you’ll be the Thomas Donkey and will end up the butt of jokes all day

Try not to become a donkey in Germany.

Don’t be an ass! In Germany, the Winter Solstice is also known as St. Thomas Day. It’s not a good day to be tardy. In parts of the Sauerland region, if you sleep in or get to work late, you’re given a cardboard donkey. called the Thomas Donkey and you’ll be the butt of jokes all day.

At least you’re rewarded at the end of the day with Thomasplitzchen, iced currant buns.

The Greek goblins known as the kallikantzari like to take dumps in any open containers of food they find.

Put on your skates and grab your cock before hitting midnight mass! Maybe you can incorporate some of these traditions into your Yuletide celebrations! –Wally

What is the Day of the Dead?

Don’t be scared of Día de los Muertos! With sugar skulls and homemade altars, it’s an exuberant celebration to honor those who have died.

Every year Duke and Wally head to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago to see its Day of the Dead exhibit

Every year Duke and Wally head to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago to see its Day of the Dead exhibit

To an outsider, it can seem a bit odd. I remember the first time I saw the representations of skeletons dressed up in outlandish clothes as part of the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. It seemed as if people were mocking death — and, in a way, that’s exactly what they’re doing. By laughing at death, it takes away some of its power; death becomes something you fear a little bit less.

You might leave out toys for little ones who have died — or booze and cigarettes for adults who indulged during their lives.

What are the origins of the Day of the Dead?

The Aztecs honored their ancestors, particularly at the monthlong festival for Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead, So there’s part of that tradition kept alive by the Aztecs’ descendants. But the holiday is also affiliated with the Catholic holy days, All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2, first brought over by the Spanish conquistadors. (Halloween’s name derives from All Hallow’s Eve, meaning it’s the night before All Hallows’, or All Saints’ Day.)

Día de los Muertos became a way to celebrate with your loved ones — even those who have passed on.

Surprise! Fall is the time of the year when the dead are said to come back to visit this world

Surprise! Fall is the time of the year when the dead are said to come back to visit this world

Is the Day of the Dead a scary time?

Don’t let its potentially frightening name fool you. Unlike Halloween, when people love to play up the spooky (hands reaching out from graves, evil clowns, fake blood, giant spiders, ghosts), the Day of the Dead is actually a joyful holiday.

In many parts of the world, this is the time of year when people honor those who have died, and the veil between the world of the living and the dead is said to be at its thinnest.

What about all those skulls and skeletons?

Skulls and skeletons are everywhere during the Day of the Dead. Artwork and food depict them, including skull-shaped bread (pan de muerto) and sugar skulls that you inscribe with the name of someone who has died. People will do elaborate Day of the Dead makeup to give the illusion that they’re skeletons.

Duke went as a Day of the Dead skeleton recently for Halloween

Duke went as a Day of the Dead skeleton recently for Halloween

Why did these icons become so prolific? It traces back to the pre-Hispanic era, when skulls were kept as trophies and used during rituals, according to HuffPost.

Families make altars for their loved ones who have died, decorating them with photos and offering treats

Families make altars for their loved ones who have died, decorating them with photos and offering treats

The fun bright orange marigolds are common decorations during el Día de los Muertos

The fun bright orange marigolds are common decorations during el Día de los Muertos

How is the Day of the Dead celebrated?

Families will set up altars, or ofrendas, in their homes to honor those who have died. A photo of the dead person, candles, bright orange marigolds and colorful paper banners are popular. Family members put out the favorite food and drinks of the deceased, along with various items that they loved in life (a musical instrument or book, for instance). You might leave out toys for little ones who have died (angelitos) — or booze and cigarettes for adults who indulged during their lives.

This ofrenda at the National Museum of Mexican Art was created by a graphic novelist, Raúl the Third

This ofrenda at the National Museum of Mexican Art was created by a graphic novelist, Raúl the Third

Another stylized altar for the Day of the Dead exhibit in Chicago

Another stylized altar for the Day of the Dead exhibit in Chicago

What’s this about a party in the graveyard?!

That’s right. Mexican families will camp out at their loved ones’ graves and have a huge feast. That probably sounds creepy to a lot of you — but they’re just including those who have passed away to join the party. They’ll sing songs, talk to the dead and introduce them to new family members. It’s also a good time to clean their loved ones’ tombstones.

In some villages, people will leave a trail of marigolds from the deceased’s grave back to their home, so the dead can join them there.

These sugar skulls were crafted by the Mondragón family in Mexico, a specialty they’ve worked on for generations. The name of the deceased is written on the forehead of the skull

These sugar skulls were crafted by the Mondragón family in Mexico, a specialty they’ve worked on for generations. The name of the deceased is written on the forehead of the skull

There are some lovely Day of the Dead practices that could become a part of your family’s Halloween traditions. Duke and I have started collecting sugar skulls, and we’ve always loved the skeleton artwork.

¡Feliz Día de los Muertos! –Wally

Mexican families camp out at their loved ones’ graves and have a huge feast. That probably sounds creepy to a lot of you — but they’re just including those who have passed away to join the party.

The Strange History of Valentine’s Day

From Lupercalia, where young men whipped eager women in the streets of ancient Rome, to St. Valentine’s secret weddings.

Valentine's Day wasn't always about cupids and hearts — or even love

Valentine’s Day is much more than just conversation hearts, boxes of chocolates, flowers and cards. There are some downright outlandish origins to this holiday.

After the flagellation ceremony, men would draw women’s names from an urn — and that would be their sexual partner for the year

Valentine’s Day dates back to a couple of Roman festivals.

The Romans celebrated two ritual festivals that formed the foundation for the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day. Februalia was a purification rite, which occurred on February 14 and gave the month of February its name. It was later combined with Lupercalia, which took place on February 15.

Valentine’s Day as we know it began with an unusual Roman fertility rite

The crazed men, nude save for a goatskin loincloth, would take the hides of slain animals cut into strips and flagellate the women of the village in hopes of bestowing fertility.

This someecard points out just how strange Lupercalia was

Lupercalia involved some bizarre practices, including beating women with animal pelts.

For this affair, young Roman men would congregate in the Lupercal, the sacred cave in the mountains where Romulus and Remus, the twins who suckled the she-wolf Lupa, were supposedly reared. Romulus would later found Rome and sacrifice Remus, but that’s another story.

The Luperci, the Brotherhood of the Wolf, would sacrifice a dog for purity and a goat for fertility.

Ancient Romans believed being whipped by blood-soaked animal skins would help you get knocked up

The crazed men, nude save for a goatskin loincloth, would take the hides of the slain animals that had been cut into strips and flagellate the women of the village in hopes of bestowing fertility.

 

Saint Valentine has become the patron saint of love

Valentine was also the patron saint of epileptics

Saint Valentine performed secret marriages when the institution was outlawed.

In this painting by David Teniers III, Valentine receives a rosary from the Virgin Mary

During the 3rd century CE, Roman Emperor Claudius II, wanting to increase the size and strength of his military empire, saw marriage as an obstacle. He believed that men were unwilling to fight due to their strong attachment to their wives and families. In an effort to circumvent this, he forbade all future marriages and engagements.

Whether Valentine was a bishop or priest has been lost to history, but he began performing clandestine ceremonies. He was soon discovered and imprisoned for his betrayal.

His legend is associated with having sent a note to his jailer’s daughter on the eve of his execution, signed, “From Your Valentine.” No historical evidence exists to back the authenticity of this myth, though.

Valentine was beheaded, died a martyr and in death was elevated to the patron saint of love.

The skull of Saint Valentine resides in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy

Pope Gelasius I used an ingenious sleight of hand, merging the pagan Lupercalia with the feast of Saint Valentine into a single holiday celebrated on February 14.

 

The Cadbury boys found a way to extract a delicious byproduct of cocoa — what we know know and love as chocolate

Cadbury created the first chocolate candies — and the first heart-shaped box of chocolates.

One of the first heart-shaped box of chocolates

In 1882, John Cadbury, an English proprietor and founder of the Cadbury candy empire, opened a tea and coffee shop in Bournville, Birmingham, England. His shop also sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared using a mortar and pestle. This was a luxury item even among the upper class. The resulting beverage was coarse and grainy but popular.

A vintage ad for Cadbury chocolate

Cadbury’s sons Richard and George visited the Van Houten factory in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which specialized in the manufacture of cocoa powder. The brothers integrated this method into their manufacturing facility. The process allowed them to extract pure cocoa butter from pressing cocoa beans and adding sugar, reducing its bitter taste. Cadbury used this byproduct to produce several varieties of “eating chocolates.”

The retail division of the business was passed on to Richard in 1861, who recognized a great marketing opportunity and revolutionized sales by packaging Cadbury chocolates in the world’s first heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day. The box could be kept and used to store mementos after the chocolates had been eaten.

 

Victorians began the tradition of sending valentines — some of which were downright cruel.

Do you remember making a mailbox to hold your cards and exchanging valentines with your classmates in elementary school, or perhaps receiving a pink or red carnation in high school? I did accrue a fair amount of cards through my formative years, though I do remember wishing I would get a carnation from a secret admirer.

Valentines pre-date Hallmark and were the preferred token to celebrate romantic love by the prudish 19th century Victorians in England. The first mass-market cards were introduced then, and the penny post made it possible to send them easily and inexpensively.

Plus, you could send notes anonymously, something the Victorians prized. This allowed them not only to exchange serious or humorous cards but downright mean-spirited ones as well, aptly called vinegar valentines.

“Senders would use the anonymity of the card to comment on the inappropriate behavior of a couple or the distasteful political views of a feminist friend,” Slate writes. “Women seemed to be the targets of many of the surviving examples, but balding men, pretentious artists and poets, and smelly fat guys made appearances as well.”

So the next time you send a valentine to a loved one, think about how whipped women, a beheaded saint and mean, anonymous cards are all part of this holiday. –Duke

Santa Semana Bar Crawl

Holy Week is a big deal in Málaga, Spain. Learn all about the bizarre celebrations featuring humpbacked and hooded figures in secret brotherhoods.

La Dolorosa (Our Lady of the Sorrows). Resin teardrops, glass eyes and actual clothes add to the realism of the pained expression of the Virgin Mary, featured at Puerta Oscura in Málaga

Tucked away in the narrow Calle Mosquera and situated near the historic Málaga Centro, Taberna Cofrade las Merchanas is a local bar with an unassuming exterior that belies what awaits you inside.

Here, the interior is a quirky tribute to the Santa Semana celebration (Holy Week, which starts on Palm Sunday and concludes on Easter). The bar is filled with holy relics, photos and memorabilia associated with the traditions of Santa Semana. The establishment belongs to the cofradia (brotherhood) and although it was opened in 2011, it has the feel of having existed for decades.

Local belief holds that the bigger the hump, the more pious the man.

Relics pertaining to Santa Semana fill the walls at a bar in Málaga, Spain, owned by one of the Holy Week brotherhoods

Semana Santa traditions in Spain are a serious affair — and Málaga is no exception. They include processions in which an elaborate ceremonial trono paso, literally a throne step or float, is carried by costaleros, or “sack men,” so named for the padded headdresses they wear to support the float. Because they’re hidden beneath a cloth, the trono paso looks like it’s floating through the air.

The platform of the trono paso holds life-size effigies made of wood, wax and wire depicting scenes from the gospels related to the Passion of Christ. There are up to 40 costaleros underneath each trono paso. These men bear the weight of the float on their necks and shoulders. Many are left with a humpback for several days after. Local belief holds that the bigger the hump, the more pious the man, our friend Jo informed us.

The pasos are followed by nazarenos, or penitents, dressed in colorful tunics and conical hoods and masks called capriotes to render the individual unidentifiable — they’re all equal in the eyes of God. Americans might be alarmed at first, confusing the hoods for those of the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, who also adopted the medieval attire, though in white.

A shelf filled with nazareno figurines at Taberna Cofrade las Merchanas in Málaga. The different colored robes indicate which hermandad (brotherhood) the individual belongs to.

The sound of slow, rhythmic drum beats traditionally heard during the procession provide the soundtrack in the bar, which is a stop on the pilgrimage circuit during Holy Week — and serves up good tapas year-round.

 

RELATED: In Seville, the jubilant Feria de Abril begins two weeks after Semana Santa, while in Málaga, it’s typically held in August.

 

Taberna Cofrade las Merchanas

Calle Mosquera, 5


 

The Devil’s in the Details

After visiting the Soho district, a street art mecca, our friends Jo and José led us to the café/bar Puerta Oscura, or the Dark Door.

Upon entering, the dimly lit interior resembles a Baroque-period salon: pale powder blue walls, ornamental plaster embellishments and cut crystal chandeliers accompanied by furnishings upholstered in a burgundy and gold stripe.

The main room of the café serves as an exhibition space for museum-quality polychromed devotional sculptures, and at the time of our visit last spring was featuring the work of Ramón Cuenca Santos.

The intricate process to create the sculptures includes clay and polychromed cedar.

Jesús Cautivo (Bound Jesus), a life-size (and amazingly lifelike) seated Christ with wrists wrapped in real gold-colored rope.

It was fascinating to see the prototype sculpture first conceived in clay and subsequently polychromed cedar. These expertly handcarved and painted sculptures appear as if they might just move when you’re not looking.  

We ordered coffee and perched on stools while classical music played, and Wally and I took photos of the sculptures.

The process of creating these lifelike sculptures is truly amazing:

Puerta Oscura

Calle Molina Lario, 5

How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

The surprising origins of Jolly Old St. Nick include a tie to prostitution, kids chopped into pieces, a devil named Krampus and a racist tradition around his helper Zwarte Pieter, or Black Peter.

Our beloved Santa Claus started out as a bishop from Asia Minor named Nikolaos

Growing up, I can vividly remember nearly peeing my pants when I was 6 years old. It was early Christmas morning and I was afraid that if I left my room I would startle Santa and he wouldn't leave me any gifts. The willpower of a child is strong, but the pull of a tree with gifts beneath it stronger.

Fast forward to the sad rite of passage in learning that this being you believed in was a lie. Maybe you discovered your parents’ hiding place for gifts (my dad’s office) before they put them under the tree, or perhaps a friend told you.

A butcher welcomed three children into his shop, slayed them and unceremoniously tossed them into a tub of brine to cure, with the intent to sell their flesh as ham.

What most of us don’t know is that the inspiration for Santa Claus came from a real man whose historic generosity would become a legacy for the ages.

 

11 Little-Known Facts About St. Nick

A children’s book about Sinterklaas, the bishop who became Santa Claus

1. He didn’t live at the North Pole.

Far from his home and workshop at the top of the world, in the south of present-day Turkey, lived a 4th century bishop whose full name was Nikolaos of Myra, a city now known as Demre. An ancient Byzantine church dedicated to St. Nicholas and containing his tomb still stands in Demre. Legend holds that it was built on the foundation of a Lycian Temple of Apollo.

St. Nicholas came into money at a young age, and was always very generous with it

2. Saint Nicholas was born into a wealthy family — and had a penchant for charity.

Born a rich man’s son, Nikolaos donated his inheritance to the poor by giving them gifts, which he’d toss through open windows. Details changed as the story was retold with later iterations of him having tossed them down chimneys — the vehicle for Santa Claus to enter homes.

 

3. The tradition of putting out stockings was to protect young maidens from being sold into sex-slavery.

Many stories are told of his generosity, such as the tale of the father and his three daughters. To save the maidens from being sold into prostitution for want of dowries, Nikolaos tossed a bag full of gold into the man’s house. It landed in one of the stockings the eldest daughter had hung up to dry. Now she could be married and was spared from selling her body to survive. The other two daughters quickly hung up stockings for Nikolaos to fill with gold, so that they, too, could be married.

Note the bags of gold, which saved three young women from a life of prostitution, in this depiction of a young, hot St. Nick

(As an interesting aside, the three golden globes that have come to symbolize a pawn shop are attributed to these three purses of gold.)

Yeah, it’s kind of creepy that Saint Nicholas comes while kids are sleeping — but, hey, they get some toys out of it

4. Stockings shifted to shoes after Nicholas’ death.

The Feast Day for Saint Nicholas is celebrated annually on December 6, the anniversary of his death. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or, later, placing their shoes out with carrots and hay for the saint’s horse, hoping that Saint Nicholas would fill them with fruit, candy and other small gifts.

 

5. Early iconography depicts him as a white-haired bishop atop a horse.

Known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, he is a stately and resolute man with long white hair and a full beard. He wears a lengthy red cape over a traditional white bishop’s alb, or tunic, holds a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top and rides a majestic white horse.

Saint Nicholas resurrected three kids who had been chopped into pieces by a butcher and left in a salted tub to be passed off as cured ham

6. A not-so-pretty ditty tells of the murder of children and Saint Nicholas’ role in their resurrection.

A 16th century French song titled “Le Légende de Saint Nicholas” recounts the unfortunate and gruesome fate of three children.

The song, inspired by a miracle performed by Saint Nicholas tells of a butcher, who during a time of famine, welcomed three children into his shop, slayed them and unceremoniously tossed them into a tub of brine to cure, with the intent to sell their flesh as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry seven years later, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime but also miraculously resurrected the three boys.

If you’ve been good, St. Nicholas will bring you gifts. If you’ve been naughty, you’re screwed

7. He hangs out with a devil, so be good for goodness’ sake!

Saint Nicholas was occasionally portrayed in medieval iconography taming a chained devil, who would later become the cloven-hoofed half-goat, half-demon Krampus. Children who have behaved get gifts from Saint Nicholas. Those who have not suffer a terrible fate: They get beaten with a birch switch by Krampus and are packed away in his bag to be taken to Hell.

 

8. Saint Nicholas’ helper wasn’t an elf — it was a slave.

In Holland, Sinterklaas doesn’t have elves helping him deliver gifts. He has the arguably racist companion Zwarte Pieter (Black Peter).

To this day, parade participants don blackface, red lips, nappy wigs and colorful period attire.

Saint Nicholas’ helper is Black Peter, a controversial character that inspires people in the Netherlands to actually think it’s OK to wear blackface around the holidays. Illustration from a book by Rie Cramer

By Dutch tradition, Zwarte Piet was the servant of Sinterklaas — most likely a “blackamoor,” the name given to Africans who were captured and sold into slavery. The Dutch had the preeminent slave trade in Europe, and one of their roles was acquiring and transporting slaves to the Americas. Slave trade was abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, and while some locals perceive wearing blackface and dressing up like Black Peter as an innocuous tradition, others view the practice as a distasteful connection to the past.

Eventually Saint Nicholas morphed into Santa Claus

9. He morphed into Santa Claus in the U.S.

The Reformation attempted to erase the image of St. Nicholas, without success. The tradition was brought to New Amsterdam, the original name for New York, established at the southern tip of Manhattan island, via Dutch settlers as the beloved and saintly bishop Sinterklaas. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.

St. Nick lost much of his bishop’s attire and began wearing red cloaks before he got his telltale suit

10. Washington Irving played a part in our conception of Santa as well.

In 1809, author Washington Irving’s satire History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, he introduced the “Knickerbocker,” a New Yorker who could trace his ancestry to the original Dutch settlers. It was also a reference to the style of pants the settlers wore.

In its pages, Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long-stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad-brimmed hat. The familiar phrase “laying his finger beside his nose” first appeared in this story.

Naughty Santa! I guess people started leaving out milk and cookies so he wouldn’t drink their Cokes and eat their leftovers, as seen in this vintage ad

11. Things really do go better with Coke.

In 1822, Clement C. Moore wrote a whimsical poem for his children, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which was published the following year and is more commonly known by its opening line “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Coca-Cola commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to create an image of a wholesome, realistic Santa Claus, which was inspired by Moore’s poem. His popular image of a pleasantly plump Santa debuted in 1931 and is the one that endures, setting the standard for renditions that followed. –Duke