10 Christmas stories around the world you (also) probably missed

If you’re a news junkie like me, it probably also hit you the morning after the Christmas weekend: You had not seriously checked the Internet, the TV, or the newspapers since your boss let you take half the day off on the 23rd to “prepare” for the holidays. 

(I sincerely hope, though, that in our rush, we missed only the news but not the time to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s birth – “Reason for the Season,” remember?)

Where did Christmas go? What happened across the planet these past crazy days that I wasn’t able to read or share on the World Wide Web? What didn’t I notice between the Miss Universe winner announcement blunder and the disqualification of Honor Thy Father from the Best Picture category of the metro film fest?

To help us get back in our news rhythm, I put together this list of 10 or so stories during the holidays that you (also) probably missed. 

More importantly, I hope that these stories will remind you and me to be thankful that our only worries during the Christmas week were last-minute shopping and mad cooking for noche buena (and, yes, neglecting the news). Some people – ordinary people like us – didn’t even feel the Yuletide because they were in the news. And it seems they will be for some time.

 

1. Christmas was banned in 2 Muslim-majority countries.

The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei and war-torn Somalia prohibited the observance of this Christian tradition, citing Islamic teachings. Imams in Bandar Seri Begawan said allowing Christmas celebrations might lead Muslims astray, while the director general of the religious affairs ministry in Mogadishu said it could damage the faith of the Muslim community.”

People displaying crosses, candles, Christmas trees, singing religious songs, sending holiday greetings, or even wearing Santa Claus hats or costumes in Brunei could land in jail for 5 years, while those in Somalia would be inviting the Shebab “to carry out attacks.”

I wonder how they would have reacted to the viral video of Muslim sufi and gazal musicians doing covers of classic carols.

 

2. More Syrians tried fleeing their troubled country – and died.

ON DRY LAND. Refugees wait to cross the borders close to Idomeni village, Kilkis, northern Greece, near the border of Greece with FYROM, December 18, 2015. Nikos Arvanitidis/EPA

ON DRY LAND. Refugees wait to cross the borders close to Idomeni village, Kilkis, northern Greece, near the border of Greece with FYROM, December 18, 2015.

Nikos Arvanitidis/EPA

For two consecutive days, December 22 and 23, a total of 24 Syrian migrants, including 10 children, drowned in the Aegean Sea while trying to reach different parts of Greece. It’s been the story of these migrants trying to flee their villages sieged by extremists: overloaded boats capsizing as they risk the turbulent waters for a hopefully better life in Europe. In this Syrian exodus in 2015, the International Organization for Migration said, about 700 people, many of them children, died trying to cross the Aegean to Greece, while almost 3,000 perished on the Mediterranean crossing to Italy.

Still on migrants, about 200 from Africa tried to break into the Spanish territory of Ceuta from Morroco on Christmas day. Two of them died while 12 were hospitalized for injuries. African migrants tried to get into Ceuta by scaling a barbed wire fence or swimming across to the city.

 

3. America debates whether it’s right to link the Christmas story to today’s Middle Eastern refugees.

NOWHERE TO GO. Palestinian refugees sit around a fire during a power outage in Al Shateaa refugee camp next the beach in the west of Gaza City on, 27 December 2015. Mohammed Saber/EPA

NOWHERE TO GO. Palestinian refugees sit around a fire during a power outage in Al Shateaa refugee camp next the beach in the west of Gaza City on, 27 December 2015.

Mohammed Saber/EPA

The president of the non-denominational Union Theological Seminary in New York took to task “conservative Christians” in the United States who, he said, are resorting to “distracting technicalities, legalistic interpretations and references to allegory and symbolism” about the Christmas story so it serves their “religious discrimination” against Syrian refugees.

“The Christmas story is not about a refugee family, but it is about a family seeking refuge….It was a fiercely political environment through which they wandered. Why should we pretend like it wasn’t?” the Reverend Serene Jones wrote for Time.

Our presidential candidates have said they would admit refugees from the Middle East who believe like the Jewish Mary or the Christian James, brother of Jesus. However, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have balked at welcoming refugees who are Muslim. Not only is this religious discrimination fundamentally anti-American, it flies in the face of foundational Christian values.,” he said.

On Christmas Day, even Pope Francis prayed for those who had opened their doors to refugees from conflict-torn countries. He asked God to “repay all those, both individuals and states, who generously work to provide assistance and welcome.”

The famous Facebook page Humans of New York announced that it was able to raise almost $500,000 for refugee families it met in December. 

Thanking those who donated, HONY said: “As of now, this is enough to provide each family with about $40,000. That is a large amount for anyone, but when you are starting from zero, it is all the money in the world. These families lost everything in the war. Most have multiple children and significant medical needs, so our assistance will significantly ease the stress of starting over.”

 

4. People died in fire and earthquake, buried by landslides.

BUSHFIRE. A handout picture made available on 26 December 2015 shows a bushfire at Wye River near Lorne, south of Melbourne, Australia, 25 December 2015. Keith Pakenham / EPA

BUSHFIRE. A handout picture made available on 26 December 2015 shows a bushfire at Wye River near Lorne, south of Melbourne, Australia, 25 December 2015.

Keith Pakenham / EPA

On Christmas Eve, a fire hit the Jazan General Hospital in southern Saudi Arabia, starting at the facility’s intensive care unit and maternity department. At least 25 people died, while 107 were injured. In Australia on Christmas Day, a bushfire hit the towns of Wye River and Separation Creek, destroying 116 houses, which were mostly holiday homes. Five hundred firefighters were needed to put out the blaze in these areas along the Great Ocean Road tourist drive southwest of Melbourne.

Also on December 25, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake rocked Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing a pregnant woman and injuring almost 70 others. The region had barely recovered from the 7.5-magnitude quake that hit it in October, killing about 400 people and toppling buildings.

On the same day in Myanmar, a landslide buried mine workers in Hpakant, Kachin State, the center of the country’s billion-dollar jade industry. The media reported that 50 people were under debris, but local authorities said there were only 3 or 4. Dozens have died in smaller mine accidents in the area earlier in the year. In November, however, a massive landslide there killed more than 100

In China, the Christmas Day mine collapse in Shandong province killed one person and trapped 17 others. Two days later, the owner of the mine committed suicide, drowning himself while helping 700 other rescuers try to save the trapped workers. A week before, a landslide at a quarry site in the city of Shenzhen killed 7 and left dozens more missing.

 

5. There were floods here and there.

UNDER WATER. Handout picture provided by the Press of Concordia Province shows the flooding region of the Argentinian city, Concordia, December 26, 2015. Prensa Municipio Concordia/Handout/EPA

UNDER WATER. Handout picture provided by the Press of Concordia Province shows the flooding region of the Argentinian city, Concordia, December 26, 2015.

Prensa Municipio Concordia/Handout/EPA

We were saying in the Philippines, after Nona (Melor) and Onyok, weather patterns have indeed shifted: Imagine, typhoons coming in December? Well, not just on our side of the planet. Parts of northern England have been flooded since December 26 due to Storm Eva. Hundreds of military personnel have been deployed to rescue residents from York, a historic city where some 3,500 properties are now at risk, as well as other places in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leeds, and Greater Manchester. The post-Christmas floods came 3 weeks after Cumbria, also in northern England, was badly hit by Storm Desmond.

In Latin America, more than 160,000 people had to evacuate after heavy rains brought by unusually strong El Niño pattern. Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay are experiencing the worst floods in decades, and authorities have reported at least 6 died.

Wild weather has been battering southwestern United States and parts of Canada since a day after Christmas, claiming at least 43 lives. Latest report said at least 14 people were killed after tornados – rare in December – touched down in Dallas, Texas, while warnings of blizzards, freezing rain, and flash floods have been raised over 21 states, from New Mexico to as far north as Michigan. Hundreds of flights have been cancelled. 

 

6. The crazy weather confused even the flowers.

RELIEF. A young boy runs through water being sprayed by an open fire hydrant in the Bronx, New York, in this photo taken in 2006. File photo by Justin Lane/EPA

RELIEF. A young boy runs through water being sprayed by an open fire hydrant in the Bronx, New York, in this photo taken in 2006.

File photo by Justin Lane/EPA

While one end of the US experienced severe weather, the East Coast had an unusually warm Christmas Eve, with 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius) recorded at New York’s Central Park, “the warmest Christmas Eve since records began in 1871,” reported Agence France-Presse. The temperatures reached 66 degrees (19 Celsius) on Christmas Day in the area, leading The New York Times to call the phenomenon a “tropical Christmas.”

The Christmas Week warmth shattered records in the East and the South, the Weather Channel noted, but in balmy Las Vegas, it snowed on Christmas Day. The National Weather Service said the last time it happened was in 2008, and in 1988.

The weather, it seems, has confused even the flowers, that at the New York Botanical Garden, they are blooming way ahead of spring. “Across the region, this uncharacteristically warm winter has flower beds springing to life…. It is not normal. And while the plants will probably not be harmed in the long run, it may mean a less vivid floral parade in the spring,” The New York Times reported.

Brian Sullivan, the botanical garden’s vice president for gardens, landscape, and outdoor collections, told the newspaper that these are either “fall flowers that are having an extended blooming period” or “spring flowers that are opening up too early.”

 

7. In China, the air was so bad, people were told to stay home.

IN THE SMOG. Commuters cover their mouths while waiting for buses in the heavy fog and smog in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China. Photo by Hao Bin/EPA

IN THE SMOG. Commuters cover their mouths while waiting for buses in the heavy fog and smog in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China.

Photo by Hao Bin/EPA

After Beijing issued its first ever red alert for smog in early December, 10 other cities did the same as of Christmas Eve, advising people to stay indoors or risk inhaling abnormal amounts of harmful particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs. In one city, Xinxiang, the PM2.5 count was “nearly 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum exposure of 25 over a 24-hour period,” Agence France-Presse reported. A red alert is the highest in China’s 4-tier pollution warning system.

 

8. How do we suppose the terror-stricken, the typhoon victims, and the hungry would celebrate?

ON GUARD. A French soldier patrols next to the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on December 24, 2015 as part of security measures set following the November 13 Paris terror attacks. Photo by AFP

ON GUARD. A French soldier patrols next to the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on December 24, 2015 as part of security measures set following the November 13 Paris terror attacks.

Photo by AFP

Tourist arrivals dropped, while security was heightened in churches and shops, for Christmas in Paris, a month after the simultaneous jihadist attacks that left at least 128 people dead. The Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores were not as crowded as in past holidays, but heavily armed soldiers still patrolled the area. Tight security checks were conducted in many of France's 50,000 churches, as authorities warned that church services at this time “could constitute targets of exceptional symbolic force.” Visitors’ bags and coats were checked for guns or explosive vests.

In the Philippines, residents in provinces north of Manila that were hit by a typhoon earlier in December were still wading through knee-deep floods, and only wanted food, water, and urgent medical care for Christmas. “I doubt Santa Claus will come tonight. The water's too high,” one resident said on December 24. The typhoon left at least 24 people dead, and 206,000 others spent the holidays waiting for the floods to subside. For noche buena, they had food rations from government.

In the city of Manila, many street dwellers didn’t have anything to eat the night before Christmas while most families around them held the traditional feast. Many parishes and village councils had run out of food to serve in their feeding programs, and would only have something to offer again in January. One in every 4 Filipinos is considered poor by government standards. 

 

9. Still, there were stories to smile about…

FINDING CHRISTMAS. People dressed as Santa Claus gather in Brooklyn's McCarren Park during the SantaCon 2015 in New York City December 12, 2015, the 21st anniversary of the event that sees hundreds of people dress as Father Christmas. Photo by Timothy A. Clary / AFP

FINDING CHRISTMAS. People dressed as Santa Claus gather in Brooklyn's McCarren Park during the SantaCon 2015 in New York City December 12, 2015, the 21st anniversary of the event that sees hundreds of people dress as Father Christmas. Photo by Timothy A.

Clary / AFP

Tim Peake, the British astronaut aboard the International Space Station, tried calling home on Christmas, but dialed the wrong number. “Is this planet Earth?” he said, but quickly realized he must have freaked out the lady who took his call. He apologized through a tweet. Read here the reaction of pensioner Betty Barker, the 79-year-old woman who was on the receiving end of what she earlier thought was a prank call.

While Major Peake’s ISS appeared like Santa’s sleigh 250 miles above the French-Spanish border on Christmas night, children in other parts of the world tracked Saint Nick online, via Google’s Santa Tracker and Microsoft’s interactive page on the North American Aerospace Defense Command website. Check out on Santa Tracker and on NoradSanta how the maps and games give users updates on where Santa Claus was and how many gifts he and his reindeers had delivered.

Meanwhile, from his home state of Hawaii, US President Barack Obama broadcast his annual Christmas greeting, especially thanking “the brave men and women of our military” and their families who “serve to keep us safe.” This year, however, the American president had guests on his televised address. Find out who.

In the UK, a song performed by a choir of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, porters, and administrators soared through the British pop chart, past Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” but not without help from the popular Canadian singer himself. He urged his followers on Twitter – 72 million of them – to buy “A Bridge Over You,” a single being sold by the choir of the state-funded National Health Service to raise funds for charity. 

Bieber tweeted – "So for 1 week it's ok not to be #1. Let's do the right thing & help them win. It's Christmas. @Choir_NHS good luck" – and the charity choir was on top in no time.

Justin Bieber is not the only one from Canada who’s charitable by heart. A Filipino cook who works in British Columbia, Paul Ivan Torio, helped the homeless in his host province through what he did best – feed people. Read and watch about his Christmas Day outreach on Rappler.

 

10. …and lights – natural or otherwise – to behold this Christmas.

DARKNESS ONCE AGAIN. This file photo taken on November 12, 2015 shows the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights illuminating the night sky near the town of Kirkenes in northern Norway. File photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

DARKNESS ONCE AGAIN. This file photo taken on November 12, 2015 shows the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights illuminating the night sky near the town of Kirkenes in northern Norway.

File photo by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Who’s not impressed with those photos of fabulously lighted American houses and lawns during the Christmas season? For those grand displays US households use 6.63 billion kilowatt hours of electricity during the holidays every year – more than what poor countries like El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Tanzania each use the entire year, according to the Center for Global Development.

In the Nordic countries – Sweden, Norway, Finland – the sky is dark from 2 pm to 9 am. They have these long nights for half a year until April, so people resort to artificial lights to keep the gloom in check. A lady in Stockholm, for instance, runs a spa where visitors can sit in a “sunroom” for an hour and bask in the rays of special therapy lamps. In other places in the region, people light candles as early as November and put up light sculptures in public squares. 

The most breathtaking display of light this year, however, was the Christmas Eve full moon. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said that the last time “a full moon dawned in the skies on Christmas” was in 1977. After 2015, it would not happen again until 2034, it added.

That’s a long time to wait,” NASA said, “so make sure to look up to the skies on Christmas Day.”

A number of Rappler followers did, and shared their photos with us.

Were there people stories that particularly touched you this season? Share them in the Comments section below. Rappler.com