- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It’s not a most wonderful time of the year for all Americans, as 1.3 million face a loss of unemployment benefits if Congress doesn’t act by Dec. 28.

Yet try to put on a happier face for all mankind.

The Salvation Army is jingle belling and lots of folks are trying to be of good cheer.

After all, Americans aren’t the only people who celebrate Christmas.

In South Korea on Wednesday, the penguins stole the show.

Dressed in miniature reindeer, Santa and colored Christmas tree costumes, a family of nine African jackass penguins waddled in the holiday spirit at an amusement park.

The jackass penguin, named for its braying sound, is a protected class found off the coast of Africa.

And speaking of Africa, move it, move it along the coast to Madagascar, where our seasonal floral stars, poinsettias, are flaming year-round stars.

In fact, poinsettias grow as large as shrubs in Madagascar and are the island nation’s national flower.

Madagascar and other nations share other commonality with American Christmas celebrations — food and worship.

And leave it to France to mix hearth, worship and not just food, but good rich food and wine.

Christmas Eve night or early Christmas morning, tradition calls for yule logs of cherry wood to be sprinkled with red wine to create a nice aroma when burning. While Americans leave milk and cookies for Santa, the French leave food and drinks for Mary and baby Jesus.

The main meal, called Reveillon, is a feast, of course — on everything from roasted goose or turkey, to venison, foie gras and various cheeses, to pastries and desserts with fruits and nuts.

The Irish pretty much celebrate Christmas the same as we do here in the United States and in the United Kingdom, and indeed honor St. Stephen’s Day, too. That is when on the day after Christmas, soccer and horse races take place, and an tradition called the Wren Boys Procession takes place, where young folk dress in costumes and go house-to-house carrying a long pole decorated with a holly bush and sing a rhyme about the wren, a very small bird.

“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds/On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.”

Traditional food fare includes a turkey and caraway-seed cakes — one for each member of the household.

Another custom in Ireland is the Feast of Epiphany, held on the sixth day of the new year. That’s when tradition calls for women to have the day off and for men to fill their shoes by doing the cooking and the cleaning.

On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, food and libations are the heart of celebrations in Jamaica, too.

Supper traditions include ackee, fresh fruits, fried plantains and boiled bananas, as well as stews, and rice and peas — foods eaten year-round.

For drinking and dessert, they favor red wine and rum, and for fruit cake, get this: The fruits are soaked in rum and wine for months before the holiday season. Yum, yum.

Here in the good old U.S. of A, Americans and others who make up the new melting pot are a bit mixed about the reason for the season.

Some folks continue to take the Christ out of Christmas, and not much is standing in their way: winter break instead of Christmas break, and Happy Holiday instead of Merry Christmas.

Others just want to view the season as a time to give and receive material things.

Colleague Cheryl K. Chumley does a good job of laying out what Christmas means in our online story. Here are some highlights:

Nine out of 10 Americans do Christmas and three-quarters believe in the biblical account of Jesus‘ birth — but only a little more than half actually regard the holiday primarily as a religious celebration.

And, more than one-third say it’s more a cultural holiday, a new poll from Pew Research’s Religion & Public Life Policy found.

And younger adults generally see the holiday through a less religious lens than older Americans. And those under the age of 30 are far less likely to attend a religious service as part of the holiday celebration.

And we’re not sending a lot of Christmas cards anymore.

And caroling is on the decline.

And about 74 percent of respondents said they attended religious Christmas services when growing up.

But only 54 percent say they do so now.

While the reason for the season has changed not one iota, it’s clear our global society is trying to hold onto traditions and customs — wherever that may be.

Movers and shakers in Washington are moving and shaking a lot of things in the wrong direction.

But as the song encourages, may your days be merry and bright.

Merry Christmas, dear readers.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com