TRAVEL / Christmastime for everyone: In Japan it might mean a celebration in a hotel bed. In Russia it's merrier than it used to be. Our correspondents report on how it's marked and marketed around the world

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The Independent Culture
UNITED STATES

ANY DISCUSSION of the American way of Christmas must start with Jennings Osborne, of Little Rock, Arkansas. No, this has nothing to do with the more celebrated Arkansans who have recently moved into the White House (of them more in a moment). Mr Osborne is simply a man who takes the festive season seriously.

Each December he decks out his 2 1/2 -acres in a smart Little Rock suburb more magnificently than the last. The 1993 offering, expanded over two adjacent lots he's just bought, features 1.6 million flashing lights, a giant pulsating star and 40 angels with computer-controlled fluttering wings. These join existing attractions that include 80ft-tall Christmas trees, illuminated Wise Men, camels, Santa Claus, and Mickey Mouse driving a train on top of a 150ft brick wall. Last year more than 20,000 tourists went to see the show, which at one point consumed so much power that it blew a transformer, blacking out half the neighbourhood.

Not surprisingly, some local residents have had enough. They have taken Mr Osborne to court to force him to scale down the extravaganza. But he is unrepentant, insisting that his idiosyncracies are protected by the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and religion. Christmas, he says, is fun: 'I always try to go overboard, I can't do anything in moderation.' And, as in Little Rock, so across the country.

From the shopping malls to the courts and the bureaucracies, Christmas here is immoderation made flesh. Mr Osborne is undisputed national champion in his category, but almost every street has his imitator - that homeowner a few doors down, who at this time of year turns his house and garden into a set from A Christmas Carol. Only in America, too, could you find a local authority (in this case the District of Columbia Fire Department) which regulates the decoration of office buildings with instructions such as: 'If electric trains are placed under Christmas trees, the use of metal icicles on trees is prohibited.'

But forget the bureaucrats and their seasonal excesses. Washington revolves around the President, and the real trends are being set by the Arkansans who moved into the big house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The arrangements for the first Clinton Christmas have drawn media coverage rivalling that given the health care reform. 'Out-reach' is the hallmark of this Administration, and the Clintons asked folk artists around the country to send in ornaments. They got 7,500 of them, displayed on 21 Christmas trees which adorn the formal White House rooms and hallways. Pride of place goes to a gingerbread cake topped by a sledge drawn by cats, in honour of Socks, the First Feline.

But the Clintons have a problem. Like every other American they adore Christmas shopping - 'It's a big part of our Christmas, going out, walking around and watching people,' Mrs Clinton says. Alas, it is an unwritten constitutional requirement that every public step of the First Family be accompanied by an army of secret service agents, reporters and TV cameras. So how it can be done? She confesses: 'I don't quite know yet.'

But perhaps she need not worry. Her compatriots will be so busy shopping themselves, they probably wouldn't even notice. Christmas is for the US retailing industry what the Normandy landings were for the Allies in the Second World War, a make-or-break campaign planned months in advance. Read the financial pages, and you imagine the entire fate of the national economy hinges on its outcome. Every whim of consumers is monitored on an almost hourly basis; despatches from the front lines at Sears and Macy's are as avidly awaited as communiques from General Schwarzkopf in that other war. And, happy to relate, the news at Christmas 1993 is good. After three dodgy years, Americans are moving back to shop-till-you-drop mode.

For those interested in such things, this season's hottest toy is a garish, red and white dollars 10- model of the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, star of the eponymous Fox TV series, and virtually unobtainable in Washington-area toy stores without prior order. For bored millionaires, there are personalised luxury submarines for dollars 4.5 million a throw, complete with a two-week training course. For your pet, you may buy a Doggie Jogging Suit for dollars 55 or dollars 65, depending on his size. Other gems around this year include a machine which hurls small biscuits 'up to 60 yards at incredible speeds', according to the catalogue (although it doesn't say why you might want to do this), and yours for dollars 19.50; a dollars 4.95 tongue cleaner; and a converted flame thrower for garden use, called the 'Flame Jet Weeder', costing a mere dollars 14.95.

And so on, and on, and on. Amazingly, in the midst of all these temptations the country still finds time to worship; measured by churchgoing, the US remains one of the most religious countries on earth and never more so than at Christmas. And America being America, people still find time to litigate.

'Don't Let Them Steal Christmas', proclaimed a recent full-page advertisement in USA-Today, taken out by the American Centre for Law and Justice, a public interest group which has taken up cudgels against the 'censors' allegedly trying to replace Christmas with politicallly correct terms such as Winter Pageant and December Break. If Christmas is under threat, the Centre will not sleep in its defence. It promises to defend 'the right of Americans to observe holiday traditions' through all legal means, 'including court action'. Come to think of it, that could even be the answer to the Clinton's shopping problem. Rupert Cornwell

JAPAN

A JAPANESE department store reputedly once put up a big Christmas cartoon which had a Santa Claus prominently displayed on a crucifix. Whether or not this story, which has been doing the rounds in Tokyo for some years, is true or just another urban legend, is unclear. But either way it serves to illustrate the mixing of traditions and symbols that pervades the celebration of Christmas in Japan.

In principle Christmas should not even exist here, since the Japanese are mostly Buddhist or Shintoist, and barely 1 per cent are Christian. From the government's point of view, 25 December is just another working day, with offices, banks, shops and the stockmarket open for business. But Japan is never slow to pick up on a glitzy idea from overseas, and in something of a marketing triumph, retailers and hoteliers have managed to convert an entire nation into honorary Christians for the festive season. The department stores are all decked out with Christmas decorations, their background Muzak tapes have been switched to carols and seasonal jingles, and special 'present offers' are given prominent display.

How deeply the Christmas spirit has sunk in is another matter, and many of the seasonal rituals have been given a distinctly Japanese flavour. For example the Western focus on family get-togethers has been supplanted in Japan by a more modern tradition, Christmas Eve night in a hotel room with one's girlfriend or boyfriend. If the budget allows this 'celebration' includes champagne, satin sheets and the gift of a diamond necklace, which seems to owe more to St Valentine's Day than the Nativity. But once a trend catches on in Japan, everyone wants to get on board.

For those who might happen to find themselves at a loose end in Tokyo this Yuletide, and would like to experience a Japanese Christmas, the Independent's Tokyo office has compiled the following suggestions: a big hit every year is the special show put on at Tokyo Disneyland - which, in contrast to its French cousin, continues to pack 'em in. Christmas is celebrated with spectacular evening fireworks shows on the 24th and 25th - but you will have to beg or steal a ticket for those two days, as they have been sold out since November. But don't worry, Disneyland is on the way to Tokyo's international airport, so if you are flying in to the city after dark, get a seat on the left-hand side of the bus from the airport and watch the fireworks for free from the inevitable traffic jam on the expressway. More sedate is a Christmas cruise on Tokyo bay, where guests on special boats can sip champagne and tuck into turkey as they watch the chemical refineries, factory fronts, and warehouses slip by. A two-hour cruise on the Vingt et Un, including dinner and a Christmas present, is pounds 312 for two.

Present giving in Japan has been as thoroughly researched as any other prospective market, and a spokesman for Marui department store said that this year the average price of a present from a man to a woman is pounds 193. Men, on the other hand, are being given cheaper gifts, on average pounds 106. Clothes, watches and ties for men, please, jewellery for women. Tiffany's diamond necklaces used to be the most fashionable present during the bubble economy boom years, but budgets have shrunk a bit in the last two years, and a salesperson for Tiffany's Tokyo branch meekly said it was against company policy to reveal what was their best-selling item this year. Terry McCarthy

RUSSIA

IF YOU are one of those people who hate Christmas, then book yourself a package tour to Russia over the dreaded festive season. Since the Russians celebrate New Year and only Orthodox believers bother to make anything of Christmas which falls, according to the Russian Church calendar, on 6-7 January, you will be delighted to find that 24-25-26 December are just ordinary working days.

Personally, I love Christmas and will be Yorkshire-bound with great glee this year after two years of missing the holiday in England as I was working. In the bad old days before Mikhail Gorbachev, when the Soviet authorities looked on foreign correspondents as enemies, they did all in their power to spoil Christmas for us. Without fail, at two o'clock in the afternoon on Christmas Day, when the correspondents were just sitting down to their meal, the Foreign Ministry would summon them to a press conference. They could never afford to miss it just in case something important, such as the death of Leonid Brezhnev, was to be announced. But of course the subject was always tedious, for example 'How the Soviet Union sees the future of the United Nations', and the journalists would return without a story to a cold Christmas dinner. To his credit, it was Mr Gorbachev's Foreign Ministry spokesman, the urbane Gennady Gerasimov, who put a stop to this harassment.

Back in those days when the foreign community in Moscow was small, the British embassy would supply each expatriate citizen with a turkey and a pound of thick Irish sausages (since in Russia you can only get salami-type sausage). Nowadays we can buy all we need, from mince pies to crackers, in the hard-currency supermarkets which have sprung up all over town.

In other ways, too, Christmas is merrier in Moscow now. For example, a group of Western amateur singers have founded a choral society called Moscow Oratorio and in early December they put on a performance of Handel's Messiah which is virtually unknown in Russia since the Communists did not encourage religious music. Many Russians came to the performance, eager to hear it.

Russians like what they see of Western Christmas and some of them celebrate it with us before they start their own New Year holiday, thus getting the best of both worlds. We also have our cake and eat it by sharing their New Year after we have had our Christmas.

On the evening of 31 December, Russians gather round the yolka (fir tree) to drink out the old year with vodka and drink in the new with champagne. Children get presents delivered by Father Frost and his assistant, the Snow Maiden, whose task is to prevent him from getting too drunk on his rounds. Economic hardship has made Russian New Years lean of late but families put on the best spread they can afford.

It is a rare Russian who can restrain himself from giving and receiving presents at New Year and wait until Orthodox Christmas, so that on 6 January all that remains to do is to go to church. Believers attend all-night services with candles, incense, icons and chanting, and emerge into the frosty morning air to the sound of bells. Helen Womack

GERMANY

FOR SOME Berliners, it is still known as the Festival of Love; for others it is more like the festival of greed. Some see it simply as a good excuse to knock back plenty of Gluhwein (mulled wine). But nearly all are agreed that for all its stresses and strains, Christmas remains the focal point for tradition and custom in their calendar. And it does not come cheap.

'Every year I tell myself that I am not going to get sucked into the mad frenzy, but every year I am,' said Elizabeth Reiner, one of the tens of thousands of Berliners seeking gift inspiration in the Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), Berlin's equivalent to Harrods. 'The pressure to buy ever more extravagant presents has increased incredibly. It is hard to escape from it.' KaDeWe hits this year include cordless telephones, perfumes, puppets and the wide range of dolls, cribs and nutcracking soldiers hand-crafted in the traditional way in the Erzgebirge region just south of Dresden. But the real eye-catching feature is an astonishing display of Christmas trees decorated in different shades of red, turquoise, yellow or green. Designer baubles - priced at anything from pounds 5 to pounds 50 - are selling like hot cakes.

'People now see Christmas trees as modish accessories, something to fit in with the colour scheme of their living rooms,' complained Wolfgang Rudorf, an architect, who, like many, feels uncomfortable with the ever-increasing commercialism and gaudiness of the event. He looks back nostalgically to days when Christmas in Germany was somehow more elegant - only white decorations instead of the increasingly popular multi-coloured variety now seen flashing from living rooms all over the city - more simple, and more meaningful. 'Beneath the mountains of presents, the true significance of Christmas has been lost.'

Some of the traditions survive. In many households, biscuits are still specially baked for Christmas, and nearly all homes have their Advent wreaths bearing four candles to be lit, one each week, over Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes) on the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Santa Claus comes early for most German children: on 6 December, when those that have been good all year find sweets and presents have been placed in their shoes, while those that have been naughty, so legend has it, are confronted with a whip.

The defining moment of the celebration is Christmas Eve - Heiliger Abend or Holy Evening. In homes large enough to boast separate living rooms, children find themselves banished during the course of the afternoon while the decorations are being applied to the tree and piles of presents and Lebkuchen (a kind of spiced ginger bread) are placed before it in preparation for the Bescherung - the grand unwrapping ceremony.

'There is an incredible build up to Christmas Eve, and when the tree is finally unveiled in all its glory, it is simply magic,' said Rita Schroder, a Bavarian now living in Berlin. 'In my family, we still sing a carol together - 'Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht' (Silent Night, Holy Night) - before launching into the presents. It is still a very special and intimate moment.'

The Bescherung is essentially only for immediate family - children, parents and maybe grandparents - and, of course, it is followed by a meal. Perhaps surprisingly, this is usually quite a modest affair, consisting typically of sausage and potato salad. The serious eating begins on Christmas Day, known here as the First Christmas Holiday, when larger family groups will sit down to a lunch of goose, or, increasingly frequently, turkey. No special traditions are attached to the Second Christmas Holiday (Boxing Day), but it is usually a case of more of the same: visits to other members of the family or friends, or simply staying at home.

In many Berlin families, however, there is a palpable sense of relief when the whole thing is over. Suddenly being thrown back together with members of the family not otherwise seen too often can lead to tensions - particularly given the hectic build-up and high expectations raised all round. 'It is a shame, but in the rush to get everything perfect for the great moment, we no longer give ourselves time to prepare ourselves for it spiritually and in peace,' said Mr Rudorf. 'It does not take much for tempers to fray. Many people I know, when talking about Christmas, will frequently say: 'Yes, we had the traditional fight'.' Adrian Bridge

JERUSALEM

'CHRISTMAS tree distribution in Jerusalem,' began a city municipality press release. 'Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert would like to inform the public that the municipality, together with the Jewish National Fund, will be distributing Christmas trees on December 13.'

The traditional Christmas tree distribution is a nice gesture from a Jewish mayor. Christian institutions in the city take advantage of the offer, along with a handful of the 16,000 Christian Palestinians living in the Arab East side. Apart from this, Christmas goes almost unnoticed in Jerusalem. For Jews, Christmas holds no meaning. Before the Palestinian uprising, Jewish music-lovers might venture into churches in the occupied territories to listen to Christmas concerts of classical music. But nowadays none would dare. And since the uprising Palestinian Christians themselves have boycotted Christmas celebrations.

So why not go to Bethlehem, rightfully the centre of all festivities? One reason why not is the military presence. Since 1967, Bethlehem, a small Palestinian town on the West Bank, has been under Israeli occupation. Before the troops moved in, Bethlehem had 90 restaurants; now the town has little to offer the tourist in comfort or Christmas shopping, never mind spirituality. A few shabby souvenir stalls are dotted around Manger Square, which can only afford the tackiest of tinsel decorations.

And since 1987, when the Palestinian uprising began, the seige atmosphere has become ever stronger. Pilgrims are bussed in, staring out at the sad little town through grilles to protect them from stone throwers. Those attending midnight Mass have to undergo the ordeal of bag and body searches before entering the Church of the Nativity.

With the new peace accords, Bethlehem should be able to celebrate Christmas properly again for the first time in many years. A 'Merry Christmas' sign has been hoisted on to the town hall balcony. And Elias Freij, the Palestinian Christian Mayor, has tried to rally support for the peace deal around the season of goodwill. 'It's time for us to prove to the world through this celebration that we support the peace process and to express our desire to co-exist peacefully with our Israeli neighbours,' he says.

There are plans for 5,000 Palestinian boy scouts to resume a traditional practice of greeting the Roman Catholic Patriarch, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, at the town's plaza as he arrives to celebrate midnight Mass. Some of the factions of the PLO have given permission for local Christians to celebrate on Christmas Day, for the first time since the start of the intifada. And, also for the first time since 1987, the live cypress tree sandwiched between an Israeli police station and the Christmas Tree Cafe in Manger Square will be decorated.

But, sadly, there are many signs that Bethlehem is in for one of its grimmest Christmases ever. Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which opposes the peace accords, has barred Palestinian Christians from joining the celebrations, and, if only out of fear for their lives, most will obey. Bethlehem is near the epicentre of the violent opposition to the settlement: the West Bank town of Hebron, where, in recent weeks, Jewish settlers have been killing Palestinians, and Palestinians have been killing Jewish settlers. A soldier was killed last month standing outside Rachel's Tomb, on the edge of Bethlehem.

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism, keen to bring tourists to the Holy Land, tries to put a brave face on Bethlehem's Christmas, sending out detailed circulars for tourists on how to survive the experience. Meanwhile, it is trying to promote Nazareth as the Christmas centre of the future. When the peace agreement is finally in place, Bethlehem will revert to Palestinian control. Nazareth, however, is an Israeli town inside Israel proper. And he was, after all, Jesus of Nazareth. Sarah Helm

(Photographs omitted)

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