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I won't be home for the holidays...

By Staff / December 22, 2000

Journalists tell stories. Some of their best are about themselves and how they adapt - or don't - to the societies in which they live. We asked Monitor foreign correspondents to share a few tales of their holidays abroad.

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The kings and I

In November 1930, says Latin American bureau chief Howard LaFranchi, the Mexican government became alarmed at the rising popularity of a red-suited, bearded foreigner at the Christmas season. It issued an edict: From then on, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl would replace Santa Claus as the "divinity" bringing good things to girls and boys.

The decree never took. "But in this age of globophobia and rants against cultural imperialism, I treasure the lesson Mexico has provided my family and me. While there is value in cultural diversity, it also takes cultural strength to accept - and at times adapt - the traditions of others," says Howard.

He admits, however, that the first year in Mexico, his young children adapted faster than their parents. "We didn't pay much attention to Jan. 6, the Epiphany, the revelation of the Christ to the three kings. In Mexico, these great gift bearers are responsible for filling children's shoes left by the hearth.

"But we didn't know what we were doing. We put oranges or a candy cane in them."

It might as well have been lumps of coal.

Through their friends at school, Howard's children were much better versed in Mexican traditions - and gift expectations.

"We now keep one or two Christmas gifts back in reserve for when the tres reyes come," he says.

Howard's family also now sings about "the fish in the river" who "return, return, return to drink" of the waters for having seen the birth of the baby Jesus - according to a favorite Christmas song here "we really don't understand - and my wife, Jane, will even eat a tamale on Christmas Eve."

But LaFranchi's favorite Mexican tradition is creating a nativity scene, with humble clay figures all laid out on moss purchased at the local market. In addition to the holy family, the traveling kings and their desert tent, they now have a tortilla-making lady, a fisherman (beside a pond with three fish), a snake, a frog, and two shocking pink flamingos, all there to adore the new king.

Scrum at Manger Square

Europe Bureau Chief Peter Ford recalls one Christmas during his posting to Jerusalem. He had managed to wangle much-coveted tickets to the Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. But when "I arrived with my visiting family, Manger Square was filled with a densely packed mob of would-be worshippers, being violently herded by Israeli soldiers," he says. Peter, his brother, and his father (all big men) had to link arms and use their old rugby skills to form a protective wall in order to keep their 80-year-old grandmother from being flattened.

"It was a far cry from the 'little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie' of the carol," Peter laughs.

An easy-to-remember anniversary date

Christmas Day 1997 stands out as the most memorable for the Monitor's then-Tokyo correspondents Cameron Barr and Nicole Gaouette.

It's their marriage anniversary. (Note the choice of words.)

In Tokyo, Dec. 25 is an ordinary business day. Cameron and Nicole put on some "nice clothes" and had their landlady and Japanese language teacher witness their marriage papers.

"We thought about a wedding with family and friends, but were defeated by the the logistics of getting people to Japan. We thought about eloping too," says Cameron.

Instead, they found themselves standing in the marriage, deaths, and births line Christmas morning at the Setagaya District Office in Tokyo.

"We handed in our paperwork. And they checked our identities and our witnesses. We paid our $14."

"Your marriage has been registered," said the clerk.

The two left for a honeymoon in Nagano, at a hot springs resort. They booked one night there, and enjoyed the spring-fed bathing cave so much they tried to stay another night. No room at this inn.