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

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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.

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.

Recommended: Christmas cookies for everyone on your list

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.

They found another, where they were visited by mountain monkeys while they luxuriated in sulfur baths. "No question, that was my best Christmas ever," says Cameron.

Multicultural feasting

For Millenniums, breaking bread together has been a sign of making friends, says Tokyo bureau chief Ilene Prusher, "and I think that's more evident at this time of year than at any other. I feel that my holiday celebration - now becoming a tradition - is defined by menu, and I'm picking up more and more dishes as I move around the world."

Last year, Ilene and her roommate (a fellow journalist) had a holiday party in Jerusalem that included frying Hanukkah latkes (Ilene's mom's recipe), making homemade Christmas ravioli (an Italian-American delicacy, her roommate's mom's dish), and decorating a tree (chopped down with a Palestinian friend somewhere in the forests surrounding Jerusalem), and making Ramadan pancakes.

"It was a really nice way of combining the three great faiths in Jerusalem at a time when all three holidays fell in December, which doesn't happen every year," she says.

"This year, I'm in Tokyo and we're making latkes, gingerbread cookies, and Ramadan cakes. We'll have some sushi, too. And I have added to the menu Kwanzaa plantains and, most important, mochi, a sweet rice paste, which the Japanese eat on New Year's.

"A few more foreign postings, and I'll have the whole UN on my table each December."

Queen on the telly

In, Alexander MacLeod says one of the most durable Yuletide rites is Her Majesty the Queen's Christmas Day broadcast.

Alex, who is a New Zealander, and his Hungarian-born wife, push aside their duck a l'orange and join about 12 million British families who watch Queen Elizabeth at 3 p.m.

"She's been doing the broadcast every year since she ascended the throne in 1952. Before that, starting in 1932, her grandfather, George V, and father, George VI, used to go on radio and speak direct to British people every Christmas Day," says Alex. These days, thanks to satellite links, the 10-minute talk goes out to 37 countries of the British Commonwealth - plus the United States, on a British Broadcasting Corporation channel.

Truth be told, Alex says, the Queen "seldom says anything memorable, but the popularity of these broadcasts can't be denied. In the past few years," Alex says, "people have had the option of switching to a commercial channel at exactly the same time and watching a comedian saying irreverent things about the monarchy."

No cocaine here

The editors in Boston sent out Christmas stockings to the correspondents. But alas, Howard LaFranchi's ran afoul of Mexico's customs police. Howard was zipping off to conduct a last-minute interview earlier this week, while assuring his preschooler that, yes, they will go to see Jim Carrey in the "Grinch." Suddenly, the phone rang.

"Senor LaFranchi? This is Federal Express. We have a package for you. But, there's a problem, Senor Lafranchi. It's the candy, Senor LaFranchi. They've tightened up security at the border - you know, it's the drug problem. La cocaina. You understand, of course. We will naturally deliver your gift, but for security reasons we must place it in a plastic specimen bag."

His son tugging on his pantleg and the clock ticking, Howard caves: "Whatever, sure. Do what you have to."

When the package arrives, Howard wastes no time in calling his editor. "Elisabetta, when you guys sent those chocolates in the stocking, was there paper wrapped around them?"

"Yes."

"Uh, yeah. Well, what I got was a Ziploc baggie and a pile of little brown pieces fused together."

Five minutes later, Howard calls again. "So, my little boy Gabriel saw the red and white striped candy in the bag and asked me for one of the candy canes ... but the customs guys crushed them all to smithereens. You know, in case they were secretly hiding drugs!"

"Did you get the Monitor logo pen we sent?"

"There was a pen?" asks Howard dejectedly.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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