In Europe, St. Nicholas comes before Santa Claus

Who is the man with a long white beard in December?

In many countries, there are two answers to that question: Santa Claus and St. Nicholas.

Before Santa Claus delivers gifts at Christmas on Dec. 25, people in many countries in Europe and Central Asia celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which is Dec. 6 (in some western European countries, such as Germany) or Dec. 19 (in Eastern European countries). Many people in those countries celebrate St. Nicholas Day and Christmas.

Unlike Santa, St. Nicholas was a real person born in the third century in what’s now Turkey. He was a bishop who became a Christian saint in the late 10th century.

In Germany, St. Nicholas Day isn’t a public holiday, but it’s celebrated widely. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, or Nikolaustag, which is tonight (Dec. 5), children in Germany place their boots or hang stockings outside their door. On the morning of Dec. 6, children (who have been good) wake to find their boots or stockings filled with chocolate, cookies, nuts or small gifts like a scarf.

German shops sell candy like these of St. Nicholas chocolates in Berlin. (Sheryl Jean)

St. Nicholas Day has a dark side. A folkloric helper called Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, or Krampus in some Central European countries, often accompanies St. Nicholas to punish naughty children. The half-goat, half-demon creature usually is portrayed as dark and hairy with horns, cloven hooves and a long, pointed tongue.  The mythological figure inspired a yuletide horror movie called “Krampus” in 2015.

In comparison, St. Nicholas often is portrayed as an elderly, benevolent soul, with a long, white beard, wearing a bishop’s mitre (a tall headdress) and holding a hooked staff.

Statue of St. Nicholas
This statue of St. Nicholas is how he often is portrayed in Western Europe. (dassel via Pixabay)

Note: The featured photo at top is by Ben Kerckx via Pixabay.

5 tips to free up room in your luggage for holiday travel

It’s that time of year again, when we travel far distances to be with family and friends for the holidays.

Whether you’re flying or driving, space is at a premium. Packing light is a priority.

Here are five tips on what not to pack and how to better pack what’s necessary:

1. Leave your toiletries at home. Whether you’re in a hotel, AirBnB or a relative’s house, chances are they’ll provide shampoo. If you can do without your favorite brands for a few days, leave behind your soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion and other common toiletries. You also can buy them at your destination. If you must have a certain brands, carry the travel sizes. That will not only save room in your checked bags but it meets TSA regulations for carry-on bags. Also pack smaller sizes of other items, such as a hairbrush.

If you must pack toiletries, bring the item on the left, which is smaller than 3.4 ounces. (Sheryl Jean)

2. Think like a European. Do you really need six complete changes of clothes and five pairs of shoes for a four-day trip? Recycle your clothing. That’s what Europeans do. Pack color coordinates items to mix and match pieces of clothing. Your relatives may not even notice you wore the same blues two days ago if it’s underneath a sweater.

3. Roll, don’t fold. You’ll save room your luggage by rolling your clothing instead of folding them flat. That method also reduces wrinkles and makes it easier to see what’s in your bag. I was rolling long before Marie Kondo recommended it.

This is how I roll my clothes before placing them in a bag. (Sheryl Jean)

4. Pack for the weather. Check the weather forecast for your destination before you pack. If there’s no chance of rain, don’t pack an umbrella and raincoat. If it’s supposed to snow, replace high heels with boots and wear them on the plane. Always wear your heaviest items when flying to free up more room in and reduce the weight of your luggage.

5. Don’t duplicate. If you have an e-reader, do you need to bring books? If you have a smartphone, do you need a travel alarm clock? Do you need both a tablet and a laptop? Pick technology or go Old School, but not both, and don’t duplicate your technology.

Note: The featured photo at top is from took a pic via Pixabay.

Portland, Maine, knows how to celebrate Christmas

The quintessential New England coastal town of Portland, Maine, really comes alive for the winter holidays.

Many special Christmas decorations and festivities dress up Portland’s historic buildings and cobblestone streets. It all creates a cozy atmosphere to warm up visitors on even the coldest days.

Many of Portland’s annual traditions include lights, such as the Monument Square tree lighting in the heart of downtown. It will take place from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 29. It also features live music and Santa Claus.

Also from Monument Square, the city offers free horse-drawn carriage rides through downtown on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 29 through Dec. 22.

You can’t miss the Harbor Christmas Boat Parade of Lights in Portland Harbor on Dec. 14. You can watch the festivities from Fort Allen Park or elsewhere along the Portland waterfront as decorated boats sail by. You also can be amid the boats, with a specialty cruise with Casco Bay Lines for $12.50.

Portland Maine
Portland’s Longfellow Square, which is home to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Monument, is lit up with holiday lights all winter. (Sheryl Jean)

In addition, much of downtown is lit up all winter. Stroll along the bustling streets and vote for your favorite window display as part of the city’s Holiday Window Display Contest from Nov. 29 through Dec. 25.

On Shop for a Cause Day on Nov. 30 – the day after Black Friday — purchases made at participating outlets will benefit a local charity. On Dec. 5, stores participating in Merry Madness will remain open until 10 p.m. for holiday shopping.

Visitors who tour the Wadsworth Longfellow House this holiday season will learn about the friendship between poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol. Dickens reportedly performed a public reading of his holiday ghost story at Portland City Hall in 1868. The Maine Historical Society will offer tours of the house where Longfellow grew up on Dec. 16-23.

During Christmas at Victoria Mansion, its 19th-century interior is filled with decorations from local artists, designers and florists over six weeks from Dec. 22 to Jan. 5, 2020. Visitors can take a tour or attend one of several holiday programs and events. Built in the mid-1800s, the mansion boasted hot and cold running water, flush toilets, central heat, gas lights, wall-to-wall carpeting and a 25-foot long stained-glass skylight. Admission prices vary.

Holiday not required

There’s more to Portland than Christmas. Dating to 1632, the city was once Maine’s capital. Its compact size makes it easy to walk to museums, performing arts, quaint shops and plenty of good restaurants, cafes and craft breweries any time of year.

Maine
It’s easy to walk around Portland’s compact downtown, which is rich with historical buildings and colonial architecture. (Sheryl Jean)

Many of those sights are downtown or in the Old Port District, which also offers beautiful water views. The Arts District west of downtown is home to the Portland Museum of Art (designed by I.M. Pei, its collection includes works by Monet, Renoir and Winslow Homer) and the free downtown Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art. Here is where you’ll also find Portland Stage and the State Theatre.

Maine has more than 100 craft breweries, and more than a few call Portland home. There’s Allagash Brewing Co., Liquid Riot Bottling Co., Rising Tide Brewing Co. and Shipyard Brewing Co. to name a few. Don’t want to drink and drive? Hop on The Maine Brew Bus to tour some of the local watering holes.

Portland, Maine
Family owned Shipyard Brewing Co. offers 20 beers and soda at its Portland taproom and brewery. (Sheryl Jean)

Note: The featured photo at top is by Kristel Hayes on Unsplash.

Why do Catalonian nativity scenes feature a man pooping?

Some places have downright odd traditions and rituals.

As I wandered through some outdoor Christmas fairs in Barcelona, Spain, last weekend, I found many stalls specializing in crèches and figures for nativity scenes.

Fira de Nadal at the Barcelona Cathedral
This stall at the Christmas fair (fira de nadal) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral sells crèches. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

One figurine caught my eye because it seemed so bizarre: El Caganer. In polite translation, it means “the defecator” or one who poops.

He usually wears the traditional Catalonian red cap, a white peasant shirt and squats with his pants pulled down and a pile of excrement on the ground behind him. (See featured photo at top.)

El Caganer can be found in Christmas nativity scenes, but not in the manger. He’s usually tucked away somewhere, presenting his gift to baby Jesus, so to say.

Yes, the Catalonians are somewhat obsessed with crap. They’re not the only ones.

Scatalogical humor is part of our modern global culture, whether you like it or not. Over the last few years, it’s received a bit of a boost with the insane popularity of the poop emoji. Although the poop emoji appeared in 2010, it didn’t become one of the most popular iPhone emojis until 2016. Now, it can be found on earrings, hats, cupcakes, balloons and more.

poop emoji
The iPhone poop emoji (Apple)

The origins of El Caganer go much farther back than that of the poop emoji. In his book Barcelona, author Robert Hughes, traced the caganer as a folk-art character to the 16th century. The story goes that he became popular as a nativity figure in the 19th century.

The caganer also has appeared in more modern art, including by Catalonia’s own Joan Miró. He painted a baby squatting near his mother washing clothes at a cistern in “The Farm” in 1921 and the surrealist “Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement” in 1935.

The Farm by Joan Miró
Catalonian native son, artist Joan Miró, painted a baby (a caganer) squatting near his mother washing clothes at a cistern in “The Farm” in 1921. (Wikiart)

At the Christmas fair (fira de nadal) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral and the one in front of the Sagrada Familia, I saw rows of traditional caganers for sale. (These stalls sell many other figurines to basically create an entire village, complete with miniature animals, pots, jamón and looms.)

At tourist tchotchke shops, I also saw caganer figures in slightly larger versions on celebrities like Elvis to politicians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and even FC Barcelona soccer stars. (See photo at end.)

Why? I’m not exactly sure where this affinity for poop comes from, but it’s real.

Catalonians have “an abiding taste” for scatological humor and place the value a “good crap” on level with that of a “good meal,”Hughes writes. An old Catalonian folk saying goes “Menjar be, cagar fort, I no tingues por de la mort”or “Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death.”

Cagier figurines
Many tourist tchotchke shops in Barcelona sell caganers modeled after celebrities, politicians, soccer stars and others. (Wikimedia Commons)

3 tips to help make holiday travel jollier

A record 107.3 million Americans are expected to travel to grandma’s house or some other destination this holiday season, according to AAA.

Most people will drive, but more travelers will fly because holiday airfares cost nearly 20 percent less than last year and are at a five-year low.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, you’ll probably experience crowds, lines and congestion at airports, on roads and at bus and train stations. Here are three tips to help make traveling jollier this holiday season:

1. The big question for many fliers is whether to wrap gifts that you’ll pack in your luggage.

Transportation Security Administration agents can open wrapped gifts to check what’s inside. It’s especially an issue with checked baggage because you’re not with your luggage at that point in the process. The TSA’s blog says wrapped gifts are allowed, but “not encouraged.”

Tip: Instead, bring wrapping paper, bows and tape with you or buy them when you arrive at your destination.

2. If you’re flying, remember that liquids are limited to 3.4 ounces in a quart-sized plastic bag within carry-on bags. If you have TSA Recheck (it will be printed on your boarding pass), you don’t have to put liquids in a baggie and separate them from the rest of your baggage. There’s no restriction if you pack liquids, such as wine, in a checked bag.

The TSA expands the definition of “liquid” to include aerosols, gels (such as some lip balms), creams (such as lotion) and pastes (such as toothpaste) as liquids in carry-on bags. Medications and infant/child nourishments are exempt from the rule.

Tip: If you must give wine or another liquid as a present, ship it ahead through a mail service or buy it once you arrive at your destination.

mittens-2111853_640
(Creative Commons via Pixabay)

3. No matter how you travel during the holidays, space is sure to be a precious commodity. Most airlines charge at least $25 to check a bag and some have tightened their carry-on limits this year. Choose gifts that won’t occupy too much space in your luggage or car.

Tip: Think small, light and easy-to-pack, such as jewelry, socks, winter accessories, electronic gadgets, candy and gift cards.

Happy holidays!

Holiday crush: AAA forecasts a record holiday travel season

The crowds will shift from malls to roads and airports, as AAA expects a record number of Americans to travel this holiday season.

More than 103 million people are expected to travel from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2, up 1.5 percent, or 1.5 million people, from last year. It’s the eighth straight annual increase in holiday travel, according to AAA.

“Rising incomes and continued low gas prices should make for a joyous holiday travel season,” AAA CEO Marshall Doney said in a statement. Overall, improvements in the economy are driving travel.

Consumer spending is expected to rise 4.1 percent this year vs. 2015, according to AAA’s holiday travel forecast report. The nation’s unemployment rate was 4.6 percent in November. Personal income will rise 3.3 percent as an improved job market drives up wages. The stock market is at a record high.

How people travel aaa-pie

Most holiday travelers (an estimated 93.6 million people) are hitting the road again, with road trips expected to rise 1.5 percent from last year.

That’s largely due to low gas prices, even though today’s average national price of $2.24 a gallon is higher than the of $2 a year ago. AAA estimates that U.S. drivers have saved over $27 billion at the gas pumps so far this year compared with last year.

In addition, average car rental rates are slightly lower than last year at $66 a day, according to the forecast.

Air travel will increase by 2.5 percent, with more than 6 million Americans flying. Other types of travel, such as by trains, buses and boat, will decline slightly.

AAA projects holiday airfares will average $204 for a round-trip flight on the top 40 U.S. routes. Lodging rates are to increase 7 percent, with travelers spending an average of $144 a night.

Where people go

While many people visit relatives for the holidays, others take time off for a winter vacation. Warm-weather destinations top the list, with the exception of New York, based on AAA.com bookings. Here are the top five destinations:

  1. Las Vegas
  2. Orlando, Fla.
  3. New York City
  4. San Diego
  5. Anaheim, Calif.

AAA’s travel projections are based on economic forecasting and research by IHS Markit.