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Exploring some festive traditions around the world From carp in bathtubs to Christmas crackers

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“Christmas Eve without carp would be like Thanksgiving Day without turkey,” narrator in YouTube video: Butchery in Prague

I had to stay. I had just completed my teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) course in Prague, Czech Republic. My apartment was new and so was the job at Berlitz language school.

I was not going to be flying back to Bermuda for Christmas. It was the first time I had spent the holiday away and I was slightly worried about how I would handle it in this landlocked country.

Where would I find a beach? What crazy Canadians would I watch swimming on Christmas Day? And then I saw the kiddie pool on my Prague corner. Huh?

The temperatures had descended below freezing and mittens upon mittens captured my hands, and the Czechs had pulled out bathtubs onto their streets.

What could possess them to do such a thing?

Well I wasn't sure either when I spent a Christmas in Prague seven years ago. So as I walked home one day, trying to keep my toes from falling off in temperatures more suitable to snowmen, I watched as a crazy Czech dove his arm into a pool of water. Seconds later his arm and a massive fish (carp) came out.

I had to ask my Czech friends. This can't be right. Is he really doing this? Why would he be doing this? Why wouldn't they just go to a butcher counter in a warm supermarket? All of that seemed sane to me.

Unfortunately, for the butcher that is, warm and Christmas Eve dinner do not go hand in hand in Prague. Instead carp, which is the Czech's Christmas Eve dinner, is supposed to be kept alive as long as possible before chow time. That means tubs on the side of the road until they are butchered. Some Czechs even forgo the butchering and take their carp home alive to sit in their bathtubs until Christmas Eve! Forget the goldfish pet!

Even crazier? Carp is supposed to be (I was never brave to try it) salty and boney, but it's tradition. Don't believe me? Don't think the Czech's are up for the cold? Well visit my website www.robynswanderings.com for video proof!

Go figure. Christmas traditions around the world can strike the odd chord. Of course we have our own in Bermuda and sometimes they make sense (cassava pie) and sometimes they don't (Elbow Beach boozing).

But last year I was not in Prague or Bermuda. This time last year rather than trying to decide which slippers I'm going to give my mom (ooops there goes the surprise) I was navigating Peru.

Well Peru and then Bolivia! These would be my last stops on my trip around the world. I would not, however, be spending Christmas in either place. Nope.

After 12 months on the road, I was ready to go home.

So I missed the celebration. But this year as I sit comfortably at home I was curious. What are the traditions in South America? What do Peruvians eat/do for the holiday? Well, good thing my friend and soon-to-be travel buddy is from Peru.

According to my STB travel buddy, Christmas in Peru? It's turkey. Yeah, not very exciting or different from home (Bermuda).

I mean this is a country that eats guinea pig on a regular basis. No, I am not kidding. They eat what we call pets. Maybe they're good? I wouldn't know. Unfortunately all the menus I saw in Peru made the guinea pig look completely revolting.

However, according to my STB travel buddy: “People in different regions will vary their Christmas menu so some people may actually eat the little gerbil creatures, but for the majority, it's turkey with various side dishes (often including tamales) and champagne. Panetón and hot chocolate are very popular too.”

Mmmmm....tamales. They were a massive hit with me when I was in Peru. How can they not be? Wrapped in banana leaves, completed with corn flour and filled with meat there is literally nothing I can think of that would stop me from not loving them!

Want to learn how to make them? Visit my website www.robynswanderings.com for the video! All of this Peruvian food is eaten at a get together, party or dinner on Christmas Eve which culminates at midnight when everyone wishes everyone else Merry Christmas!

Of course this is the hottest time of the year in Peru and Bolivia (we are talking the Southern Hemisphere here so it's summertime). In Bolivia Christmas food generally focuses on picana.

Pic...what? Picana. It's a soup made of chicken, beef, corn and spices and is eaten usually on Christmas. Well it could be the eve or on the day, but that just depends on the Bolivian family.

Accompanying the soup? Salads, roast pork or roast beef, and an abundance of tropical fruit. For a sweet it will be taffy-filled wafer cookies called “turrón”.

Unfortunately I never indulged in this amazing feast because I was whisked away by American Airlines.

As I touched my toes to Bermuda soil I was, in what can only be described as ironic, directed to arrive in London, England. My family was spending Christmas abroad.

With four days in Bermuda I packed a new bag and was set for London. Of course in England they have their own traditions for Christmas: It's crackers! Which of course we have in Bermuda.

But not ones you can eat. Well I suppose you could and then you'd probably be quite sick. In any case, the Christmas cracker tradition is not one I have ever seen in the United States.

The history of it? Of course this tradition started with who else? A Brit. Thomas Smith in 1846 to be precise. Why? Well because he had been in Paris and seen bon bons wrapped in tissue paper. He took the idea back to England, wrapped poems in them and eventually transformed the entire idea with a banger a chemically impregnated paper that explodes when pulled.

His sons took over the business in the 1900s and in the 1930s the love poems turned to jokes. Ahhh, the Christmas traditions explained.

Unlike Americans, however, the British are not happy with one day off and, like we do here, have two! Boxing Day is celebrated on December 26. Want to know where our day off comes from? Well that was a day when boys used to go round collecting money in clay boxes. When the boxes were full, they broke them open.

This year I'm also breaking something: my travelling. Yes, I will be in Bermuda and will only have to travel as far as one parish to another to indulge in turkey, ham, beans, carrots and the traditional cassava pie!

Of course cassava pie! How could I not? This has made me hungry! It's time to enjoy and indulge wherever you are so have a happy holiday, visit www.robynswanderings.com for more traditions and stay tuned next week for Rock Fever's take on New Year's around the world!

Cross your Arms for Christmas Crackers
Robyn playing along with the Czech Christmas Traditions
Cassava Pie ala Skinner household

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Published December 22, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 22, 2010 at 6:55 am)

Exploring some festive traditions around the world From carp in bathtubs to Christmas crackers

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