Wednesday, December 14, 2016



    Now I know that some of you may not know exactly what a Christmas cracker is or what it does, but let me start out by assuring you that it is not something that you can spread cheese on and eat!  Well, you could, but you might regret it a short while after....
   Perhaps not as well known in the United States. , The humble Christmas cracker has been a staple ingredient in every household in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia since time immemorial.  They are loved by children and adults alike and are always the first part of the traditional Christmas dinner every year.

   They are basically a party favor, a small cylindrical cardboard tube, wrapped in festive paper and filled with a small prize, a paper hat and usually an awful joke.  There is a long, thin peice of paper that runs through the cracker that, when broken, produces a loud snapping sound, or "crack"-hence the name.  The idea is that you hold one end and offer the other to someone else at the table and then proceed to play a mini "tug-of-war" with each other, until the cracker "cracks" in two.

   These can be bought in varying degrees of quality.  At the bottom of the pile there are the bargain basement cheap ones that will most likely fail to produce any form of noise except a groan from the pullers and a soft swear from the person who paid for them.  The other end of the scale sees opulence personified in the form of 6 hand crafted crackers costing upwards of $5000, containing such prizes as gold watches, pearl earrings and diamond rings-I kid you not!


How to make Christmas Crackers

   It is easy, quick and fun to make your very own Christmas crackers, and kids absolutely love it!  All you need is a few toilet rolls, some fancy Christmas paper, a roll of ribbon, glue and some prizes to go inside.  Even the snappers can be bought over the internet if you aren't able to find them at your local arts and crafts store.  I have found a great website called Old English Crackers.com, which is an entire website devoted to the humble Christmas Cracker and all the information you need on how to make Christmas crackers this year.  They even sell all the materials you will need to bring gasps of surprise from your guests this season as they take their seats at the dinner table. 
   Traditionally, you get to choose whom you pull the cracker with and whoever ends up with the larger half after the "bang", keeps the prize.  It is then customary for the winner to pull their cracker with the same person, in order to give them a sporting chance at winning something back.  Soon enough, everyone at the table is wearing a paper hat, and has recited the groan-inducing corny joke found in their cracker, won a prize and is ow offering to trade their prize with the person next to them.
   So go ahead and have a go at making your very own Christmas crackers this season for the personal touch to the Christmas table, and bring a touch of old English tradition into your home.


   Pictures and displays have been used to tell Bible stories since the days of the early church.  Nativity sets are popular indoor decorations for many homes during the Christmas Holiday's.  In fact, the original nativity display was not motionless figurines.  It was a live display with people dressed as Joseph and Mary with live animals.
   IN 1223, St. Frances of Assisi had longed to see the nativity with his own eyes.  Therefore, he planned a surprise for the people of the town.  This turned out to be the first nativity display, which used real people and animals.  This eventually spread to Germany in the 1600's.  Traditionally the sets were displayed in the front of medieval churches and temples.  Eventually carvings of these images were done in wood or made out of straw by artists.

Living nativity scene

   The nativity scene moved to other countries like Italy where other materials such as stone and ivory was used.  Many Italians commissioned famous artists to hand sculpt or carve their nativity displays.
   When the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was settled in 1741, the people there brought this old tradition to America.  Originally, the nativity sets were call creche, which means crib in French.  Materials used today can range from paper mache, to glass or ceramic.  A background of a barn or a manger are used by most people today, but a background of  more natural materials, such as grass or rocks is also used by others.

A giant nativity scene

   A nativity scene generally refers to any depiction of the birth or birthplace of Jesus.  In Spain and some hispanic countries, this is call Belen (meaning Bethlehem in Spanish), In Argentina it is called pesebre, similar to Catalan (pessebre), and in Mexico is known as nacimiento (in fact, "pesebre'", "nacimiento" and "belen" can be used interchnageably in most Spanish speaking countries).
   Christian Nativity scenes, in drawing, paintings, icons, etc. or in sculpture or other three dimensional crafts, usually show Jesus in a manger, Joseph and Mary in a barn or cave intended to accommodate farm animals.  A mule and an ox accompany them, after the Apocryphal Gospels.  The scene sometimes included the Magi or the Three Wise Men, shepherds, angels and the Star of Bethlehem.  The traditional scenes that show the shepherds and Magi together are of course not true to the Bible story, since the Magi arrived much later (see Luke 2:7-16).


   On Christmas Eve, millions of children around the world will settle uneasily into bed, hardly able to contain themselves.  What vision could possibly dance through their heads, turning them into twitchy, restless insomniacs for just one night?  Is it the Sugar Plum Fair from "The Nutcracker" or the sugarplums from "The Night Before Christmas"?  Can sugarplums really do such a thing?
   Chances are the children are thinking about toys, Santa Claus and his team of reindeer--if the children have been nice this year, that is.  Jolly old St. Nick should be landing his sleigh on their roof sometime late in the middle of the night.
   Everyone has their own traditional image of Santa's sleigh, but could there be more to it than just a sled and a team of reindeer?  Although no one may ever know for sure just how Santa operates, here's a look at what some think are the most logical explanations for how the big guy in the red suit accomplishes all that he does.

   Sure, demystifying Santa's modus operandi puts us at risk of getting nothing but a big piece of black coal in our stockings for this year and maybe years to come.  It's all for the noble pursuit of yuletide knowledge.   After all, have you ever wondered how Santa's sleigh flies?  What about the reindeer?  And how does Santa fit all of those presents into one bag? 


   Rustic on the outside and state-of-the-art on the inside.  Santa's sleigh would have to be a marvel in engineering.  These are the main parts of the sleigh that would be needed to get Santa across the world in one night.

   The Sleigh's Interior:
   The front of the sleigh's dashboard would be dominated by Santa's own GPS navigator--the elves would map out millions of destinations before Christmas Eve, just to make sure Santa doesn't miss anyone.  The device would also have a built-in Naughty-or-Nice Sensor that keeps Santa updated on children's activities.  This is important, as even the most minor of naughty deeds committed within the last few hours of the 24th of December can determine whether or not a child receives a nice lump of coal.
   A Speedometer on the left of the dashboard would allow Santa to monitor his flying speeds.  On the other side, there would be a Radio Communicator --just in case the Mrs. or the elves need to update Santa with weather reports or toy inventory.
   For in-flight entertainment, there would probably be an iPod Dock --for all of his favorite holiday tunes, it may get pretty boring just hearing the bells jingle on the harnesses of the reindeer's.  There would also be a Hot Cocoa Dispenser somewhere convenient and reachable while he's holding the reins, and fuel for the reindeer, they can't go around the world on just one meal.

Transdimensional Present Compartment (The Bag):

   Ever wonder how Santa fits all of those presents into one bag?  Think of a transdimensinal present compartment in the form of a traditional gift sack, which would act as a portal between the sleigh and the North Pole.  However, we'd also like to think that Santa may have harness the power of nanotechnology and found a way to miniaturized millions of presents into one large bag.  But this information remains unconfirmed.

The Stardust Antimatter Propulsion Unit

   What ins antimatter?  Is it some kind of magical substance Santa uses to power his sleigh?
  Antimatter is the opposite of regular matter--the mirror image of normal particles that make up everything we can see or touch.  The big draw to antimatter is the amount of energy it helps create.  When antimatter and matter come into contact, they annihilate each other--breaking apart into tons of smaller particles--and 100% of their masses convert into energy.
   Although antimatter propulsion rockets are mainly used in science-fiction shows to allow spaceships to travel at warp speed, the possibility of designing one is very real--NASA is currently developing one that would get us to Mars within a matter of weeks.
   Santa's would have to be way ahead of the game, however, and we'd like to imagine that he has his own custom Stardust Antimatter Rocket.  It would be small enough to install in the back of his sleigh and fast enough to deliver every present to all the good children across the world.  Of course, if the rocket ever malfunctions, the reindeer would be there to back Santa up.

Now Dasher! Now Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen!!

   Sleighs are large sleds or carriages used for transportation in colder climates--they have two runners on the bottom instead of wheels, making it easier to barrel across snow and ice.  With the aid of kinetic energy, a sleigh can easily travel downhill.  But once it plateaus, it needs momentum to keep moving and navigate any steep terrain--or in Santa's case, take flight.  But what if the Stardust Antimatter Propulsion Unit malfunctions?  Enter Plan B: reindeer, the engines behind the sleigh.

   What we know about these majestic creatures--aside from their steady diet of carrots--is that these particular reindeer would need wings to properly fly.  Paolo Viscardi, a flight physiologist from the University of Leeds, suggests that Santa's reindeer would need a 33 foot long wingspan in order to take flight, and a sizable team of reindeer would be required to lift Santa's sleigh.  An extra source of heat from the cocoa maker in the dashboard would send out hot air, acting like a thermal unit in a hot air balloon, giving the reindeer the extra lift that Viscardi recommends for optimal flying conditions.
   According to the famous poem "A Vist from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore--and the disgruntled elf--a team of reindeer drive Santa's sleigh.  These are the reindeer we know as: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph.

   Of course, the most widely recognized reindeer is Rudolph.  Folklore has it that during a particularly foggy Christmas Eve one year.  Santa was unable to fly his sleigh due to poor visibility. It's posited that Rudolph helped guide Santa's sleigh through the bad weather with his bioluminescent nose radiating a red light.

North Pole Hideaway: Reindeer Training

   Based on what we know about reindeer and science, we think that Santa would have to have a state-of-art training facility in order to get reindeer ready for the rigors of flight.  A simple, idyllic barn in the middle of the Arctic would make an ideal facility for such activities.

   A comfortably large stable would have enough room to provide fatigued reindeer with a place to sleep as well as contain equipment such as flight simulators, treadmills and steering practice platforms.  Specially trained elves would be on-site to take care of the reindeer and guide them through their training exercises.
   This is also where the elves would make any repairs or additions to Santa's sleigh when he needs a little something extra.  The runners of the bottom of the sleigh, for example, would need to be examined pretty frequently.  Since Santa lands on so many roofs on Christmas Eve, the elves would need t make sure the sleigh's landing equipment can handle a few scratches and dents.


   And if Santa should need an immediate Christmas Eve repair, the head elf technician could climb through the transdimensional present compartment and fix the sleigh in mid-flight.  We'd like to think that Santa has been greatly influenced by some find of automotive racing, and that this procedure works very much like a NASCAR pit-stop.
   Without his sleigh, Santa would have a tough time getting airborne the night before Christmas.  Fortunately, elves, reindeer and technology could all be available to help, keeping St. Nick as jolly as possible.
   Milk and cookies could help, too, of course.  So don't forget to put those out.



   Christmas in Mexico is a mixture of festivity and reverence.  Beginning weeks before Christmas, puestos (market stalls) are set up in the town plazas.  These puestos offer crafts of every imaginable sort, as well as foods and other seasonal items like orchids and poinsettia.  Homes are decorated, and most people attend gatherings of friends and loved ones to celebrate the season.


   The main public celebration of Christmas in Mexico is a beautiful reenactment of events leading immediately to Christ's birth.  La Posada is a religious procession in which participants reenact the search for a room at an inn by Joseph and Mary before the birth of Christ by walking from house to house with figures or images of Joseph and Mary.  Family and friends determine who will be innkeepers and who will be pilgrims.  The pilgrims do the traveling from house to house, where the innkeepers repeatedly turn them away, until they reach the house that has set up the altar and nativity scene.  There they are welcomed.  Because the pilgrimage from Nazareth to Bethlehem took 9 days, the processions start 9 days prior to Christmas.


    On Christmas Eve night, there is a midnight mass service called " La Misa Del Gallo (Rooster's Mass), where the churchgoers sing lullabies to Jesus.
   Thought some families in Mexico celebrate the story of Santa Claus, it is not the predominant custom.  The red suit is echoed however, in the poinsettia flower, which has a brilliant red star shaped bloom.  The story of the origin of the poinsettia is a beautiful one (the story of the poinsettia is one of my early December blog posts).  It is told that a young boy named Pablo was on his way to see the nativity scenes at church, but had nothing to leave as a gift by the manger.  He picked plain green branches, and took them in, amid laughter and mocking of the other children.  However, when he placed the branches near the manger, they began to bloom bright red flowers on each branch.


    Despite less emphasis on Santa, Mexican kids are given presents on Christmas day.  They are blindfolded, and they each take a turn, trying to bust the clay decorated pinata that has been filled with small candies and prizes.  The children scramble to recover as much candy as they can retrieve once the pinata has been busted open.  Further, kids who have behaved themselves receive a gift from the Three Wise Men on January 6th.