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An international Christmas

Original article by Ieuan Dolby  |  Adapted by David V. Appleyard

A global baubleChristmas is once again just around the corner, which to me, and every other regular person on this planet who goes out for a walk or watches a bit of television, is something patently obvious. Even here in Taiwan, where just a few years ago Christmas was a strange ritual that the "white devils" reverently participated in, Santa Claus and his merry reindeer are becoming prominent features in the landscape. Some families have even confused Christmas decorations with just plain old decorations, so that various coffee shops and residential houses keep trees with flashing lights on all year round.

Most celebrants of Christmas associate it with snow. That is with the exception of Australians, who have gotten used to the fact that this festival occurs in the middle of summer. They continue to crack open cans of Foster and enjoy barbecues, just like on any other day of the year. Oh, and then there's Brazil, where Papa Noel does his rounds in a lovely outfit of silk in the summer heat. Japan and Korea can get away with the idea of falling snowflakes and white Christmases, since these countries have snow as part and parcel of living just south of Siberia. But Taiwan (apart from a freak snowfall one year on the peak of the highest mountain) has no relationship to or feeling for the white stuff at all. The Taiwanese still emphasize a Christmas with snow, as if the two things were inseparable, and so shops and department stores eagerly decorate their spaces with snowmen and fake snow, and turn up the air-conditioning to create a cool climate.

Over in Singapore, where temperatures hardly deviate from an average 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) all year round, enthusiasts seek out the perfect atmosphere in ice bars. One such ice bar is located behind Boat Quay and near to the Irish pub. After a few pints of Guinness, and feeling suitably warmed by the effects of the night heat and alcohol coursing through your veins, what could be better than entering a freezer? This is precisely what an ice bar is, beneath all the gloss and the glamour. It is a large room filled with tables and chairs and drinks, and it looks just like any other bar in the world, except for the fact that the inside temperature has been forcibly reduced to below zero. This unusual bar has proven quite popular, and is often frequented by Singaporeans dressed in Arctic jackets and thermal underwear in order to steer clear of frostbite. For their part, inebriated Scotsmen and bemused Canadians casually enter in T-shirts and wonder what all the fuss is about. At Christmas, profits quadruple as just the right seasonal atmosphere is recreated in a 30-foot-square walk-in freezer—an oasis of white Christmas that, because of the confined space, only 0.01% of Singaporeans can ever be part of.

Over on the Internet, Christmas provides a real windfall for spammers—a time for placing Christmassy words into spam emails in the hope that recipients will assume that Santa is in fact real after all. And just a click away is the opportunity to book a flight to see dear old Santa and his wife at home in Lapland—that unspoiled region in the north of Finland so beautiful that Father Christmas chose it as his home. It costs approximately $1,500 for a one-night stay, departing December 21st. After this date Santa is way too busy delivering presents to entertain any guests.

Please don't feel neglected if you don't have access to a computer; Santa still accepts mail through the old-style postal system. In fact, Children continue to write to Santa from all over the world, and in a small town located high in the Arctic Circle of Lapland a post office, appropriately named the Santa Claus Main Post Office, receives some 300,000 letters annually. Of course, the big rush occurs in December (slightly alleviated by some confused Australians who feel they should send their Christmas wishes in June during their own winter), so do be sure to send off your letters in plenty of time. Simply address envelopes to Santa Claus, or Babbo Natale (Italian), Père Noël (French), Weihnachtsmann (German), or Sing Daan Lou Jan (Chinese) at Father Christmas Street, Lapland, or "Where Santa Claus Lives" to ensure that your mail arrives safely and unopened. It is also quite possible that, should the return address and sender's name be legible, a reply will be sent by some busy elf—minus, of course, items on that long wish list made up largely of toys and games (cars and new spouses remain popular among adults who still believe in it all).

The true spirit of Christmas was invoked during those terrible years of World War One when Tommy and Fritz laid down their arms in order to play football in no man's land. A little-known Scottish poet, Frederick Niven, summed up the true essence of Christmas in his Carol from Flanders, the final verse of which goes:

Oh ye who read this truthful rime
From Flanders, kneel and say:
God speed the time when every day
Shall be as Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas
  • Ieuan Dolby is webmaster of 'The Scribbling Mariners' at As a Chief Engineer in the merchant navy he sailed the world for 15 years. Now settled in Taiwan, he writes about cultures across the globe and life as he sees it.

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The Rosetta Project

1,500 languages in safekeeping for 10,000 years

by David V. Appleyard

The Rosetta StoneCarved in 196 BC in Egyptian and Greek using hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek scripts, the Rosetta Stone has helped the modern world unlock some of the mysteries of ancient Egypt.

Named after the village of Rosetta (or Rashid), where it was first discovered by French soldiers in 1799, its inscriptions are tributes of a council of priests to a 13-year-old pharaoh, Ptolemy V Epiphanes.

After years of arduous study and careful comparison with other surviving samples of Egyptian writing, French researcher Jean-François Champollion finally managed to decipher the hieroglyphs in 1822. The language of one of the great ancient civilizations was thereby saved for posterity.

Now, however, our modern-day researchers are warning that anything between 50 and 90 per cent of the world's 6,800 or so remaining languages could die out within the next century. A decade ago a growing sense of urgency led The Long Now Foundation to embark on an ambitious project to safeguard basic documentation of as many of today's languages as possible for 10,000 years into the future. This it aimed to achieve by recording sufficient data for, at the very least, minimum representation of each language on an "extreme longevity nickel disk" to be mounted in a robust but aesthetically pleasing spherical container. It was envisaged that a large number of these "Rosetta Disks" would eventually be held by key institutions and project members around the world, and apparently anyone else willing to look after a copy.

According to information previously gathered, the Rosetta Project is to be complemented by a "single-volume monumental reference book," as well as an online database into which the public is invited to submit the following seven items deemed by the foundation to be of greatest value to future researchers:

  1. Detailed language descriptions (incl. origin, number of speakers, distribution, etc.)
  2. Translations of chapters 1-3 of the Book of Genesis (because these are thought to be the most widely and carefully translated texts in the world)
  3. Culturally specific glossed vernacular texts with grammar analysis
  4. Orthography and pronunciation guides
  5. Core vocabulary lists
  6. Phoneme inventories
  7. Audio files

The Rosetta Project has come a long way with its online database, which now purports to be the largest collection of linguistic data on the Internet, providing lasting documentation of some 1,500 languages.