The people of Germany-people who need people, historically- celebrated St. Barbara's Day earlier this week (Dec. 4). On a clear day, according to tradition, St. Barbara was decapitated by her own father, Dioscorus, who got so veclemped after his daughter became a Christian that he took her into the mountains and chopped off her head. That instant, a bolt of lightning shot out of the blue sky and killed him. Now, in Germany, St. Barbara is thought of as a martyr closely associated with fire and explosions. Elsewhere in the world, she's a martyr closely associated with a Christmas album featuring a freakishly frenetic rendition of "Jingle Bells" and with being really, really Jewish.
But let there be no doubt: Happy days would be here again if she tried a bite of Speculatius, a cookie Hollanders make on St. Nicholas' Day (Dec. 6) and whose recipe calls for one cup of butter. The dough-which also contains an entire cup of lard and a half-cup of sour cream, as well as some other ingredients that actually taste good-is rolled thin and cut into the shape of St. Nicholas' bulging figure. Once the not-exactly-fat-free cookies have been baked, children smear them with icing and decorate them with candies and sugared fruit. The other part of this holiday everyone thinks is so cute is that, the night before, children leave those little wooden Dutch shoes on the windowsill and wake up the next morning to find them stuffed with candy and other forms of tasty calories. All of which makes you wonder: How come there aren't more fat kids in Holland?
Kids in Guatemala will be worrying less about their weight because the entire week leading up to the Burning of the Devil (La Quema del Diablo, Dec. 7) is strenuously cardiovascular: They spend their days being chased through town by men in makeshift devil costumes. What possesses these men to drape themselves in bed sheets and run screaming down city streets in broad daylight is somewhat unclear. The culminating ritual of the week is also, let's just say, interesting. That's not the devil you smell burning in Guatemala City; it's everybody's household garbage, in the streets, on fire. A big bonfire of trash. Festive, don't you think?
On the subject of small piles of trash, everyone this holiday season will be giving and/or getting Madonna's second greatest hits compilation, the follow-up to 1990's Immaculate Collection, which, while sacred to certain worshippers, should not be confused with the feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8). On this day, well-attended parades follow statues of the Virgin Mary through the streets of many Latin American capitals. In Bolivia, women throw confetti as the statue passes, and in Argentina, that country formerly ruled by another ambitious blond, white handkerchiefs are tossed into the air. In Honduras, the parade is just a small part of a much larger festival that also includes sack races, pig chasing, and greased pole climbing. (Similar activities are depicted in Madonna's well-known picture book that, so many years later, still makes a great gift.)
Not as good a gift, though, or at least maybe not as down-to-earth, as a wholesome shot of freshly whacked wheat grass. Courtesy of the local veggie bar and pursuant to Hungarian custom, infants should be offered green sprouts of wheat on St. Lucy's Day (Dec. 13). Agriculture was the centerpiece of the ancient Hungar-ian economy and, metaphorically, the harvest is ripe with meaning: nourishment, rebirth, earthiness. In Italy, Santa Lucia is remembered with a feast, at which Italians do something even more putrid than just eat the wheat: They boil it first. Finland, for its part, adorns the holiday. There, St. Lucia is a pretty girl who shows up in the morning wearing a crown wreath of flickering candles. She serves breakfast in bed: coffee, buns, and other items. Around the world, it's well-known that St. Lucy is magically impervious to fire and remains, after all these years, a virgin.
Speaking of people with magic powers, Bj� who is impervious to everyone else's opinion, may be celebrating St. Thorlak's Day (Dec. 23) this year, as it's a holiday native to her homeland, Iceland. St. Thorlak was born in 1133, more than 350 years before Columbus "discovered" anything-in other words, a long, long time ago. Thorlak is best known for his accomplishments as bishop of Skᬨolt, which are so well-known I won't bore you with the highlights. Anyway, in St. Thorlak's honor, Icelanders now set aside this day to chow down on steaming heaps of skate hash.
Other forms of hash, of course, are enjoyed the world over for a variety of joyous occasions. At a party, it can make you feel mighty real, which is the atmosphere you might expect on Sylvester Day (Dec. 31) even though, as it happens, the day has nothing to do with that disco band Sylvester, which, in the '70s, put out songs like "Can't Stop Dancing" and "Do You Wanna Funk?" Pope Sylvester-whose life in Rome was just about as short as the entire phase in which disco was hip-baptized Constantine the Great and ruled a Catholic church that was free of persecution (har, har). Sylvester Day is big in Switzerland and in Austria, where there's a special recipe for Sylvester punch. Basically, it's just a whole lot of brandy.