Friday, 3 December 2021

The holiday season is here

The Beginning

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The festive season is, once again, upon us. Whether you’re anticipating a Christmas dinner and a pile of gifts under the tree, or simply looking forward to the fresh new start that the new year represents, this season is a time that people all over the world gather to celebrate, make resolutions, and appreciate the company of friends and family. We take a look at how Christmas and New Year celebrations evolved around the world, from mainstream traditions associated with Western culture, to lesser known festivities from around the world.


To understand the history of Christmas, look to the sun: Christmas traces its roots back to the ancient celebration of the longest night and shortest day of the year called the winter solstice. To many ancient traditions, the sun was a god and the cold winter season was explained by a weakened god suffering from illness. The winter solstice — which falls on December 21 or December 22 — represents the cherished moment every year that the sun begins its road to recovery and the seasons start to warm. Evergreen plants, which remain green and retain their foliage year round, have long been associated with the celebration as symbols of life and vitality.

Scandinavians celebrated Yule for a 12 day period starting with the winter solstice. Longer days and warming temperatures were celebrated with indoor feasts in front of a fireplace with a large burning log at its center. This feast coincided with the time of year that most of the Nordes’ wine and beer had been fully fermented and when most of the year’s cattle were slaughtered. It lasted as long as it took for the log to fully burn out, which was usually around 12 days.

In ancient Rome, a month-long celebration called Saturnalia was held in honor of Saturn in the week leading up to the winter solstice. Saturn represented the god of agriculture to the Romans and the winter solstice marked the turn of the seasons towards trees becoming green again and soon bearing fruit. Some Romans also believed in a separate sun god called Mythra who was born on December 25, also making it the holiest day of the year.

This was true in ancient Egypt too where people celebrated the solstice as the crucial inflection point when the sun god Ra would start to recover from annual sickness. Green palm rushes adorned people’s homes as part of the celebration and symbolized a renewal of life.

The celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday was only codified in the 4th century AD by church officials. It was Pope Julius I who chose December 25 as the official holiday on which Christians would celebrate his birth. It was first called the Feast of the Nativity during which believers attended church and celebrated the holiday in a cheerful and often intoxicated state of mind.

It faced its fair share of threats: In the UK, Christmas was briefly cancelled in the early 17th century to clamp down on decadence associated with the holiday. But the celebration was re-instituted shortly afterwards, once the English puritan general Oliver Cromwell lost power to Charles II. In the US, it was some Puritanical beliefs the pilgrims had brought along with them from Europe that saw most of the early 17th century spent with virtually no celebration of the holiday. Between 1659 and 1681 christmas celebrations were even formally outlawed in Boston, Massachusetts.

Christmas only became a federal holiday in the US in 1870 but at that point it had evolved from a celebration of jovial excesses to a family-centric occasion where kids received gifts from their parents.

So when did Santa Claus come into the picture? The legendary jolly, grandfatherly figure in the red pyjama suit whose image is widely associated with Christmas can be traced back to a 4th century christain saint called St. Nicholas who had the reputation of being an especially ardent believer, and a protector of children. St. Nicholas only entered US pop culture in the late 18th century via Dutch immigrants who honored his death on December 6, and referred to him as Sinterklaas.

Santa Claus’ dominance over modern pop culture grew out of a series of poems and illustrated stories from US authors like “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas.” This image of a jolly, chubby elder was mostly conjured up by US political cartoonist Thomas Nast in his depiction of Santa giving out presents at a Union Army camp during the US civil war. This manufactured image of Santa Claus then eventually made its way back to Europe and is now one of the most widely recognized symbols of Christmas around the world.

Why Santa HQ found its home in the North Pole is also Thomas Nast’s doing: The political cartoonist in the late 19th century cemented Santa Claus’ residence in the North Pole in the public imagination through a drawing he produced, and published in Harper’s Weekly, of a village named “Santa Classville, N.P.” Among the reasons Nast chose the icy arctic as the fictional backdrop for Santa Claus’ home was in part because the region was still shrouded in mystery at the time for US and European audiences.

As for those little helpers? The story of tiny workers helping run Santa Claus’ global gift-giving empire originated in Scandinavian and Celtic folklore which believed in the presence of unseen mythical creatures like fairies, elves and spirits. Elves became linked to Santa Claus in the 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas, with an 1857 poem called The Wonders of Santa Claus, introducing the idea that elves were laboring away to produce all the gifts and food that Santa would distribute.

What about the trees? Although evergreens have long been used across cultures to celebrate the winter solstice, Germans are the ones credited with the start of the Christmas tree tradition in its present form. It began in the 16th century when Christians brought decorated, full-sized trees into their homes, which some attribute to the 16th-century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who added candles to a tree in an attempt to recreate the view of shining stars between evergreens for his family. The first recorded Christmas tree to go up in the US wasn’t until sometime in the mid 19th century by a group of German settlers. Christmas ornaments started funneling into the US by the late 19th century and by the start of the 20th century decorated trees became yet another ubiquitous component of Christmas celebrations around the world.

But some traditions associated with the holiday are straight up horrible: In the Netherlands people celebrate the Dutch St. Nicholas holiday on 5 December with large public parades where Sinterklass distributes gifts to children alongside an incredibly racist depiction of a helper dressed in blackface known as Black Pete. The character — for whom costumes and merchandise are still widely sold in the country — was popularized by a children’s book written in the 19th century and was likely inspired by the Dutch Royal family’s ownership of an actual slave. Public demonstrations in recent years have tried to get Black Pete removed from the country’s annual celebration.


Christmas traditions go far beyond carols and mince pies: For so many of us, the festive season conjures images of stockings hanging beside roaring log fires, trees laden with decorations and presents, turkey, gingerbread cookies and carol singers. But though western-centric traditions may dominate celebrations of Christmas in popular culture, countries all over the world have developed their own unique ways of marking the holiday — often blending religious themes with their own distinct cultural flavors.

Around the world, Christmas activities are varied: In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, Christmas morning sees throngs of roller-skating churchgoers making their way to mass. A very different note is struck in Finland, where people will spend Christmas Eve in the sauna before heading out to evening celebrations.

And some are really outlandish: A key part of Christmas in Sweden is the 3pm viewing of the Donald Duck Christmas special, which over 40% of the population reportedly still regularly tunes in for. In Catalonia, Tió de Nadal — a homemade Christmas log with stick legs and a red hat — is nurtured with water and treats between 8 and 24 December. Then on Christmas Eve, children hit Tió de Nadal with sticks and sing songs to encourage him to produce (read: defecate) presents and sweets, before throwing him in the fire.

Weird and wonderful characters make an appearance: Krampus, the evil companion of St Nicholas, is believed to walk the streets of Austria at Christmas time, looking for badly-behaved children. Over in Iceland, it’s a giant cat — Yule Cat — who’s expected to be seen prowling around, ready to devour workers who haven’t been working hard enough. In Italy, an old woman called Befana is said to visit children on 5 January and leave them sweets and presents. And in Norway, witches and spirits are believed to come out for some fun on Christmas Eve.

When it comes to food, turkey’s not for everyone: some prefer KFC and Christmas caterpillar. In Japan, the slogan “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas) has become a well-known seasonal refrain, with families often heading to KFC for a special meal on Christmas Eve. China sees the exchange of Christmas “peace apples” as gifts: the apples are wrapped in colorful paper or put in special boxes. And over in South Africa, it’s fried caterpillars that are the delicacy of choice. The creepy crawlies are supposed to bring luck to anyone who eats them.

In Germany it’s customary to hide a pickle in the branches of the Christmas tree and give a gift to the child who finds it. Meanwhile in Ukraine, people like to put up decorations that look like dew-covered spiders’ webs, rather than fairy lights and baubles. In the Philippines, special Christmas lanterns are made from bamboo and paper, and hung throughout towns and villages. And while Senegal is primarily a Muslim country, Christmas — like a host of Christian and Muslim holidays — is widely celebrated. Christmas trees and traditional Senegalese masks covered in lights are the decorations of choice in the country’s capital, Dakar.

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Not down under. With Christmas coming during the height of summer in Australia and New Zealand, Christmas Day is often spent feasting on a lunchtime barbecue, before heading off to the beach. New Zealand also has its very own native Christmas tree: the beautiful, red-flowered pohutukawa.


Not all Christmas celebrations are the same: Beyond the highly decorative and gift-centric celebrations of the West exists a more stripped down form of the holidays among one of the oldest and longest running denominations in christiantity. Orthodox Christians — who comprise some 260 mn followers throughout Egypt, Russia, and much of Easter Europe — celebrate Christmas on January 7, instead of December 25 when the Western world observes the holiday.

The issue comes down to a 400 year old calendar discrepancy: A faulty 2k year old calendar known as the Julian calendar falls at the center of this disagreement. First adopted in 46 BC by Julius Caesar in Rome, the Julian calendar was about 11 minutes too long each year and became even more out of sync with the sun as time went on. The more accurate Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 to resolve this problem and the majority of the Christian world was on board with accepting it as the primary method of time-keeping. The Orthodox church refused to transition to the new calendar and cited the occasional overlap between Passover and Easter that would take place under the Gregorian calendar as unacceptable. Their insistence on the Julian calendar meant that by 1923 there was a 13 day difference between Orthodox Christmas on January 7 and Western Christmas on December 25.

But there are some key differences in how Christmas is celebrated: In Egypt The Holy Nativity Fast is crucial to the Coptic Orthodox tradition — one of the world’s oldest continuous Christian denominations. Observers follow a strict plant-based diet in the 43 days preceding January 7, and typically attend midnight mass at church on Christmas eve and break their fast with hearty meat-based dishes like fattah. Having kahk the following morning and giving younger children money is a common way to celebrate.

Up North things are kind of the same: In Russia, where some 39% of the world’s orthodox chrisitians live, people begin their holidays starting New Year’s Day until January 8. Similar to the Coptic Orthodox tradition in Egypt, Russian Orthodox Christians begin Christmas Eve celebrations with a 12 course dinner on January 6, with each course representing one of the 12 apostles. In Belarus people eat pancakes and fish over straw and in Montenegro people bake loaves of bread with a hidden coin on the inside, believed to bring good luck to the person who locates it.

Egypt plays a central role in the story of Jesus’ early years: Faced with the threat of death in Bethlehem at the hands of King Herod I of Judea, Mary and her newborn son, Jesus, fled to Egypt for some 3.5 years of refuge. Their covert journey spanned some 26 locations across the country from Rafah in North Sinai all the way south into Asyut. The Al-Muharraq Monastery in Assiut, the Church of Sergius and Bacchus in Old Cairo and the Church of the Virgin Mary in Maadi are among the many religiously significant locations along Jesus and Mary’s journey through Egypt — which in 2017 was declared by the Vatican an official Roman Catholic pilgrimage destination. The government earlier this year inaugurated the first of 26 destinations in 11 governorates on the Holy Family Trail that have been undergoing restoration work since 2013.


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Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in November:

  • The EGX has been busy: EGX fees are set to be cut 20% and planned caps on margin trading could be delayed by six months as the government looks to cushion the impact of the controversial planned capital gains tax on EGX trades.
  • The public sector is looking to back out of select sectors of the economy as a way to avoid “crowding out” the private sector, the Cabinet decided last month.
  • The PPP Act got final sign off, opening the door for more collaboration with the private sector.
  • EBRD upgraded Egypt’s growth outlook for current fiscal year: Egypt’s economy is on track to grow 4.9% in FY2021-2022 — up 0.4 percentage points from the bank’s June report, which EBRD relates to a pickup in the telecoms sector, a rebound in private consumption and investment, as well as recovering foreign direct investment flows.
  • Vodafone Group agreed to transfer its 55% stake in Vodafone Egypt to sub-Saharan African subsidiary Vodacom, in an EUR 2.72 bn transaction, which is expected to conclude before 31 March 2022.


Christmas movies are a quintessential part of the holiday season and each year we cozy up and watch snow-filled, lovey dovey flicks that show off a more magical world. Giving viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be, rather than as it is, is what Christmas films are all about. It’s this comfort of knowing that everything will end up alright that makes people seek out these films every December (and sometimes November).

How did we get here? One of the first movies to use Christmas as a backdrop is the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. The film’s release coincided with World War II and indulged Americans’ need to watch something light — a world which “has no dark side,” historian Penne Restad wrote in her 1995 book Christmas in America. While Holiday Inn never became a classic Christmas movie, a song sung in the film managed to gain popularity and even inspired a 1954 film of the same name… White Christmas. Other classics we couldn’t risk forgetting include 1983’s A Christmas Story, the charmingly narrated tale of schoolboy Ralphie’s misadventures in the lead-up to Christmas.

Films that embrace the holiday spirit: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a story of how goodwill and family love can make even the most miserable of characters embrace the holiday spirit. If you’re in the mood for some Christmas sass, Last Holiday starring Queen Latifah follows her as she plays a saleswoman who quits her job to live her dreams after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. On a sillier note, The Night Before follows Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie as they find the most ridiculous ways to spend the holiday season in this Christmas comedy.

All the lights really make the season romantic: The Holiday never gets old, with the storyline seeing Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz trading homes and finding love in unexpected places during the holiday season. In a similar vein, Love Actually brings more people into the storyline, following eight very different couples in the month before Christmas — which can really bring out the best and worst in people.

Celebrating Christmas with Bruce Willis? Some Christmas films don’t follow the rules of the genre, but are undeniably Christmas movies, and Die Hard is probably the most prominent example. The 1988 action film takes place over the course of one day, Christmas Eve, with the holiday acting as a backdrop setting and story-wise, as well as through its soundtrack. Die hard fans of the film (is that where the expression came from?) argue it best, and Movie Web has a long tirade about how the Bruce Willis flick “is a Christmas movie whether you like it or not.” It’s 1988 sequel Die Hard 2 was also set during Christmas Eve, though the subsequent films in the series diverge from that time frame. In a similar vein, Home Alone is another film that uses the holiday season to move the story forward, but takes a different route with eight-year-old Kevin fighting off two robbers after his parents forgot him at home during a family Christmas trip.

And then there are the new Christmas movies that come out each year: Binge-watching a ton of Netflix’s Xmas films each year is a guilty pleasure of ours, especially the bad ones. Netflix has released an ambitious fantasy Christmas story this year, A Boy Called Christmas, that follows a young boy called Nikolas as he ventures into a village of elves while in search of his father. We’re more excited for the Hallmark-type Christmas movies such as Love Hard and Princess Switch 3. Netflix is also bringing reality TV into the mix, with Blown Away: Christmas which will see five artists compete to create the best Xmas decorations.

If you’re feeling nostalgic: Amazon Prime is bringing back an old favorite — It's a Wonderful Life — in its original black and white version as well as a colorized version. HBO Max (whose titles are available to stream on OSN Streaming) is also throwing it back, releasing Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Finally, Apple TV is also jumping on the trend by showing A Charlie Brown Christmas while also introducing a Christmas documentary ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas which follows a dispute between an Idaho homeowners association and a resident who tries to throw an over-the-top Christmas event.


Ringing in the New Year: New Years’ celebrations around the world all have a few things in common. While many involve raucous parties, others are more low-key, with friends and loved ones holding large celebratory feasts, families clearing old or dormant energy and inviting luck and love into their houses, and others practicing reflection, repentance and making resolutions.

The New Year’s Resolution: One of the most universal traditions, the making of New Year resolutions, can be traced back 4k years to the ancient Babylonians, who made promises to their king and gods for the coming year. The tradition was also practiced in ancient Rome and later for early Christians, when the first day of the new year became a time for reflection and prayer, replete with “watch night” services that included reading from Scriptures and singing hymns – a practice that many evangelical Protestant churches still have.

Parties, broken plates and stolen kisses: In Europe and North America, where New Years’ is a pretty big deal, traditions include throwing parties, toasting your loved ones or kissing them (which, according to English and German folklore, dictates your destiny for the year). In Spain, eating 12 grapes (one for each month of the year) can bring good luck, while the Danes have made a sport of breaking plates on the doorsteps of friends and loved ones on New Year’s Eve, with the person who has the most broken tableware at their door considered the luckiest (and most loved). In the American south, eating a stew of black-eyed peas called Hoppin’ John is thought to usher in wealth for the new year. Further north, the dropping of the ball in Times Square, a tradition that began in 1906, has become a spectacle for residents and visitors to the Big Apple, not to mention the folks watching at home.

Goodbye evil spirits, hello luck, love and peace: In Colombia, people run around their block while carrying an empty suitcase to usher in a year of travel. In Brazil, people wear white for peace and good luck and, if they’re seaside, proceed to jump over seven waves, making one wish for every wave. In Puerto Rico, people throw buckets of water out of the window to drive away evil spirits and then sprinkle a little sugar outside their doors to invite good luck, while in Ecuador and Panama, people make large scarecrows or effigies in the image of a disliked person or politician and set them on fire, ridding themselves of bad things from the past year.

Red envelopes, firecrackers and reunions: For the Chinese, New Year, which is celebrated between 21 January and 20 February, is a time to honor deities and ancestors, with Chinese families reuniting for dinner on the eve of the new year. And if there was ever a time to talk about chi, it is in preparation for Chinese New Year, when homes are cleaned to dispose of ill-fortune and make way for good luck to enter the home.

“Shaking down the house:” Many cultures practice some kind of “spring cleaning” in anticipation of a new year. In Iran, the Persian New Year Nowruz is celebrated on the spring equinox, and is marked with celebrations that center around rebirth and renewal. Traditions include jumping over bonfires as a symbol of purification and energetic cleansing, spring cleaning or “shaking down the house,” and enjoying large meals with friends and loved ones. 7

The Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah, which falls during September/October, is celebrated by wearing new clothes and sharing festive meals with loved ones. The celebrations begin following religious services and the sounding of a trumpet made from a ram’s horn called the shofar, which serves a call to repentance. Many practice “tashlich” or casting off, a practice where they throw pieces of bread into a flowing body of water to symbolize the sins of the past year being swept away.

Sweets, prayers, and alms-giving: The beginning of the lunar year, which marks the Islamic New Year, is celebrated on the evening of the first day of Muharram. Many Muslims pray, recite the Quran, and practice mindfulness, distributing sweets and pastries to neighbors and giving alms. Although the holiday is no longer celebrated with festivities in Egypt, in Fatimid Cairo, the start of the new year saw tents set up in which revellers could share meals of meat and listen to Quran recitations.

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