Dec. 22, 2021

Yule love these . . . holiday traditions

Alumni all over the world celebrate the next few weeks in unique and memorable ways. From lighting spectacles and latkes to marzipan pigs and loksa, UCalgary grads give us a window into the diverse world of holiday time
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Symphony of Lights/Hong Kong Getty Images

There’s no place like home for the holidays — or is there? Are your holiday traditions starting to feel  . . . dare we say, stale?

If you’re tired of the same-old, same-old, pinch something from the rest of the world like hide an almond in a bowl of porridge on Christmas morning (a tradition in Norway); hang a sparkly spiderweb decoration for good luck (Ukraine); or dangle a good-luck pickle bauble on a tree (Germany). Or, if you don’t mind a mess, do what they do in Slovakia, where the oldest man in the house hurls a spoonful of loksa pudding (made of poppyseeds, honey, milk and bread) onto the ceiling. The longer it sticks, the greater the luck!

Whether folks showcase old-world traditions or have opted to embrace more modern rituals, we checked in with alumni across the globe, from South Africa and Malaysia to New York City and Tokyo, to see what they were doing for the holidays.

KwaaZulu Natal Midlands, South Africa

From now until January, Christmas decorations — from flying reindeer to inflatable Santas — and jolly ol’ carols fill every mall during South Africa’s “summer” holiday, writes Dr. Helga Holst, MD’75, a recent Arch Award recipient. In South Africa, December and January fall in midsummer and signal school holidays, precisely why, Holst says, “Many families head to the coast for a seaside holiday, or to a favourite farm or hotel resort where some families may have been going for decades. Others go to reconnect with friends who may meet each other at a game reserve or on caravanning trip.”  

Holst herself intends to “lie low” during the holidays and will join her sister and friends on Christmas Eve for a “kalte platte” (similar to a charcuterie platter). On Dec. 25 itself, Holst and a few neighbours will gather for a “shared Christmas lunch,” which sounds like a potluck affair. Others, writes the retired physician, may opt for a Braai (a barbecue of lamb, steak, chicken kebabs and roasted mealies, a.k.a. corn on the cob). Another South African tradition is a tikkie (a Christmas pudding with coins in it for the kiddies) doused in brandy (for the non-kiddies).

New York

Matt Fox and Enrique Crame III outside Fine & Dandy in Hell's Kitchen

Hell’s Kitchen, New York City

Enrique Crame III, BA’02, and his partner, Matt Fox, recently opened a vintage-clothing shop next to their existing and always-charming men’s boutique called Fine and Dandy. Not so far from this delightful bolthole stands the iconic, 79-foot-tall spruce tree, twinkling in the Rockefeller Center plaza where some 750,000 visitors are predicted to parade by it daily from now until Jan. 10. With Fine and Dandy located just a few blocks away from the Center, the duo is banking on a fair amount of foot traffic and sales.

When Crame and Fox can steal a few moments, they like to “walk along 5th Avenue to check out all the holiday window displays . . . it sort of reminds me of driving around Calgary looking for the best light displays and the most beautifully decorated houses,” says Crame. “I guess it’s our version of those old family rituals back in Calgary.”

As for any specific holiday traditions, Crame confesses that, because he and Fox work flat-out until Christmas Eve, their tradition is to head somewhere close that has “food, entertainment and, most importantly, service. After long days of extended hours at the shop, it’s nice to sit back and enjoy some holiday cheer. So, to Birdland Jazz Club it is!”  

Hong Kong

Colossal Christmas decorations front most department stores

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a visual jaw-dropper all year long, but in December, the city takes it the next level with what’s dubbed the Symphony of Lights. This spectacular multimedia show involves 19 key buildings on Hong Kong Island that glow and flicker in a myriad of colours.  

Wendy Tam, BComm’86, an executive committee member with UCalgary’s Alumni Association in Hong Kong, loves the Western menus that dominate the restaurant scene throughout the month. Plenty of spots serve honey-glazed ham and roasted turkey, which she fondly remembers from her student days at the Haskayne School of Business.

Even bigger than Christmas is New Year’s Eve when parties often have themes; in the past this has included Gatsby Night, Moulin Rouge, Arabian Nights, the Masquerade, and Great Shanghai Night. In 2020, the Hong Kong government imposed very rigid social distancing restrictions (two people per table and 1.5 metres between tables).

“This year, things will be more relaxed,” writes Tam, explaining the quarantine requirement for entering Hong Kong is very strict (21-day compulsory quarantine at a designated hotel) and the vaccine rate is high. “We can now have 12 people at a table and, for a large banquet, a company can host 20 tables of 12.”

Edwin Chan, BSc (Eng)’94, another member of Hong Kong’s active Alumni Association, plans to help his wife, Ping, sell flowers and handmade decorations at the Stanley Market, with proceeds being donated to charity groups. Not to miss, he says, is the Chinese Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, that is feted with a Cantonese festival meal known as Poon Choi — a tradition that has existed for seven centuries. The meal is served in a large basin loaded with 14 ingredients. Each item is prepared separately and is then layered meticulously in the basin.

Tokyo, Japan

At this time of the year, Paul Pryce, BA’10, looks forward to oseibo. The tradition is a gift exchange with co-workers, or one’s doctor or landlord (the gifts are typical consumables, such as food or soap). “In Canada, we often try to maintain a clear distinction between work and personal life,” writes Pryce, managing director of Saskatchewan’s new Japan Trade and Investment Office. “But in Japan, teams in the workplace seem to be much closer, making gift exchanges something that happens organically, rather than a manager-enforced ‘culture-building’ exercise.

“It may seem peculiar, but there's also a lot of enthusiasm for KFC in Japan at this time of year. People will book weeks in advance to receive buckets of fried chicken for a holiday dinner. As for me, I've found my own source for a simple, old-fashioned turkey.”

When it comes to gift-giving, Pryce says he and his wife, Kathryn, “typically open one gift each on the night of Christmas Eve, empty our stockings on Christmas morning, and then take turns opening the rest of the gifts throughout Christmas Day.

“Kathryn is a bit more adept at stuffing things into a stocking, whereas mine tends to tumble out into a pile. We have a small tree this year and not really one that can be decorated, so we'll miss that tradition. But it's the thought that counts!”

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After last year’s tight travel restrictions, Dr. Munawwar Salim, MD’10, is determined this year to take his family to a resort somewhere in Malaysia. “The end of December is also monsoon season so it’s often hard to plan,” he says, cautiously. “But last year’s inter-state travel banned us from going anywhere on the island and I was so busy providing relief work with my NGO team (IMARET), that we only had a three-day break.”

In Malaysia, the end of December signals two weeks of school holidays. For Salim, the holiday is all about family time and, because Malaysia is such a multicultural and religiously diverse country, Salim’s family will celebrate Christmas, but they also, he says, “recognize Eid (Muslim), Chinese New Year (Chinese) and Deepavali (Hindu). We are so lucky that way.”

Nuremberg, Germany

Dr. Stefan Hoerzer, PhD’18, director of athlete servicing at Adidas, has happily adopted some of Germany’s holiday rituals but still misses Canada’s snowiness. In Germany, presents arrive on Dec. 24 and are delivered by Christkind, not Santa Claus. Christkind is a “sprite-like child with blond hair and angelic wings,” writes Hoerzer, who now, like his neighbours, opens gifts at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Sadly, Nuremberg’s 400-year-old Christmas market — famous for its puppet shows, fresh sausages, mulled wine and homemade crafts — is being shuttered, just as it was last year. And once again, holiday celebrations will be restricted to small groups of people.

However, and wherever, you spend your holidays this year we hope you’re safe and warm, that you’re able to relax a bit, and that you get to connect with people you love. And if you’re travelling, we hope your trip is headache-free. Thanks for making room for us at your table, under your tree, on a frozen rink . . .  Happy Holidays.

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Although it's been cancelled for 2021, Nuremberg's Christmas Market has existed for 400 years

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