A.J. Jacobs: Traditional Holiday Traditions

Dec 17, 2013
Originally published on December 24, 2014 11:17 am

Did you know that every Dec. 7, Guatemalans gather trash from their homes into a giant pile, throw an effigy of the devil on top and then light it on fire? This practice, known as "the burning of the devil," may sound a bit far-fetched, but it's actually true.

For this VIP game, we brought back the guy who read the entire encyclopedia from A to Z, and lived "biblically" for a whole year: A.J. Jacobs. We pitted the author and editor at large for Esquire Magazine against a contestant to guess whether some weird, funny and fascinating international holiday traditions were real or fake.

Plus, Jacobs had a familial surprise in store for host Ophira Eisenberg.

This segment originally aired on December 17, 2013.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Let's get back to the puzzling. Please welcome our good friend A. J. Jacobs.


EISENBERG: Now, the last time you were on our show it's fair to say that you basically dominated the game.

A.J. JACOBS: Yes. Well, it was about initials and I do happen to know about initials. Because A. J. is my name. So I can't say that I'll dominate this time.

EISENBERG: All right. Well, we'll see. Let's welcome your opponent Mary Spadoni.




EISENBERG: Mary, what is it like to spend time with your family over the holidays?

SPADONI: Well, on Christmas Eve every year - no one actually likes each other so we try to do these, like, terrible icebreaker games. And it's like Stupid Family Tricks. And my aunt's like I can wiggle my ears. And then we all, like, watch her wiggle her ears.


SPADONI: And we're like this is the worst Christmas Eve ever. So it's terrible, actually.

EISENBERG: But it just keeps going...

SPADONI: We just keep going.

EISENBERG: ...year - yes. That is family.

SPADONI: Yeah. It's awesome.

EISENBERG: Excellent. A.J., what's it like at your house?

JACOBS: Well, like Mary, we like to have our extended family over, so aunts, uncles, and cousins. And actually this year I'm hoping one of my favorite cousins is going to come - Ophira Eisenberg.

EISENBERG: Aww. I'm a cousin? I'm in. Are you kidding?

JACOBS: You are literally a cousin. I did research.


JACOBS: And I discovered...


JACOBS: To be specific, you are my wife's third cousin's wife's first cousin once removed wife's second cousin's husband's niece. So, you know, we're practically brother and sister.



JACOBS: I expect to see you there.

EISENBERG: All right. So in this game we'll be roaming around the world to explore some weird, funny, and interesting international holiday traditions. OK. So we'll read you a tradition and you have to tell us is it real or is it fake. Jonathan Coulton and I are going to alternate questions so no need to buzz in. We'll start with you, A.J.

In Italy, rather than Santa Claus bringing presents, an old woman named La Befana rides on her broomstick on the evening of January 5th, climbs down the chimney, and fills childrens' socks with candy and small gifts.

JACOBS: I'm going to say that sounds true.

EISENBERG: You are correct. That is true.

JACOBS: All right.


JONATHAN COULTON: All right, Mary, this one's for you. In the German town of Freiburg, male students returning home from university jump into a nearby lake on Christmas morning to fetch a floating ornament which they present to their parents in exchange for a gift. It's called Geschenks Springem or Gift Plunge.

SPADONI: That sounds terrible but kind of awesome. How about true?

COULTON: I'm sorry, it's false.


EISENBERG: In Caracas, Venezuela, streets are closed on Christmas Eve because many people go to Midnight Mass by roller skating to church.


JACOBS: Interesting.

EISENBERG: Isn't it?

JACOBS: I am not sure. I would say - I'm going to say false.

EISENBERG: That is true.

JACOBS: That is true?



EISENBERG: They go to Midnight Mass by roller skating to the church. And they close down the streets.

COULTON: It's fun. You know why? It's fun.

EISENBERG: Totally fun.

COULTON: It's just fun.

EISENBERG: I'm told that the one guy in roller blades show up.



EISENBERG: It changes everything.

COULTON: In Japan it's traditional to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner on Christmas Day. KFC is so popular that customers are urged to place their order up to two months in advance for take-out or to make a reservation to eat in.

SPADONI: I have to say true.

COULTON: It is true.


EISENBERG: During the late 19th century in Aviro, Portugal, children traditionally climb to the top of a lighthouse and threw their least favorite gift into the ocean.



EISENBERG: Today, to be environmentally conscious, children throw biodegrable banana peels after they donate their least favorite gift to charity.

JACOBS: Whew. That is a good one. I got burned last time for saying false but I'm going to try it again. I'm going to say false.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's false.

JACOBS: All right. Yes. Whew.

EISENBERG: Can you imagine saying to your kids which was your least favorite?


JACOBS: Oh, they make it very clear.


JACOBS: They are brutally honest, don't worry.

COULTON: It's not the one I wanted.


COULTON: On the first day of Kwanzaa, the island of Barbados holds festivals featuring leatherback turtle races. The winning turtles are given a special meal of cantaloupes and figs and a choice of mates.

SPADONI: That sounds lovely.

COULTON: It does nice, doesn't it?


COULTON: It's a lot better than jumping into a cold lake.

SPADONI: Yeah, yeah. Cold water bad. Turtle races true.

COULTON: It is false.


EISENBERG: Yes. Leatherback turtles always pick their own mates. Yeah.

SPADONI: Oh, all right. Fair enough, fair enough.

EISENBERG: They are the bad ass turtle.

COULTON: It's true. Notorious. They have terrible relationships. The divorce rate is very high.

EISENBERG: Super high.


EISENBERG: All right. This is your last set of clues. A. J., since 1948 the Canadian town of Dawson has staged an outdoor chess game on Christmas Day with children as pawns and prominent citizens as kings and queens. Last year's game ended in a stalemate after 14 hours when the town's mayor got frostbite on three toes.

JACOBS: Hmm. You had me till the frostbite. That was a little suspicious. I am going to say true, though. That sounds...

EISENBERG: No. What kind of idiots do you think we are in Canada? That is false.


COULTON: It does sound pretty Canadian. That sounds pretty Canadian. All right. Mary, this is it.


COULTON: Every December 7th Guatemalans gather trash from their homes into a giant pile, throw an effigy of the devil on top, and then light it on fire. This is known, perhaps not surprisingly, as the Burning of the Devil.

SPADONI: You know what? Let's go with true.

COULTON: That one is true.



EISENBERG: All right. Art, how did our contestants do?

ART CHUNG: We have a tie.



CHUNG: So this tie breaker you're going to need your buzzers. In the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, December 26th is also a holiday marking the day when servants would get their presents. What's this holiday called?



JACOBS: Boxing Day?

CHUNG: That is correct.


EISENBERG: Thank you, Mary. A. J., you are moving on to our Ask Me One More final round at the end of the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.