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Religion Unplugged is a nonprofit news organization, with a New York-based team welcoming stories about religion from around the world. Religion Unplugged is funded by TheMediaProject.org and has received awards from Editor & Publisher, Religion News Association and SABEW.
Should Christians Be Scared Of Horror Movies?
Joseph Holmes

Should Christians Be Scared Of Horror Movies?

Horror films have a complicated and rich history with christian themes and influences, but how healthy is it for audiences watching?

“The Nun II” has little to show for itself except for its repetitive jump scares — but could it also be a danger to your soul?

Christians have a complicated relationship with the horror genre. On the one hand, horror movies are one of the few types of Hollywood films that unapologetically treat Christianity (particularly Catholicism) as good.

“The Exorcist” remains one of the most successful and acclaimed movies of all time. More recently, “The Conjuring” franchise — about a wholesome husband and wife duo who fight demons for the Catholic Church in the 1970s and related spinoffs about the monsters they’ve fought — has more reverent references to Jesus than almost any movie I can think of in recent memory (even more than many faith-based films).

The Catholic film critic Deacon Steven Greydanus once mentioned that one of the few places where you can find substantial positive Catholic representation was inhorror films.

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Pastor Maxwell Kapachawo talking in front of a camera.
Cyril Zenda

The HIV-Positive Pastor Breaking Down AIDS Stigma In Zimbabwe

In the long fight against HIV/AIDS, advancements in medicine mean that today, shame and stigma is often more deadly than the disease itself. One Zimbabwean pastor has been preaching a gospel of hope in one of the countries worst affected by the virus.

HARARE — Looking back on the life journey he has traveled since 2002, when medical tests delivered a bombshell that he was HIV-positive, the Rev. Maxwell Kapachawo is satisfied he has been faithful to the assignment that God commissioned him to do … to preach the gospel of hope to the hopeless.

“I have run the race to strengthen others … that even in death from HIV, there is still God in heaven,” Kapachawo, 49, told ReligionUnplugged.com in an interview as he reflected on his life. “Because he is so faithful, here I am today, still believing and spreading the gospel of life and hope.”

Chronic illness caused doctors to urge him to take an HIV test, and when the results came back positive, the world crashed around him. This was a virus associated with people of loose morals. So for a pastor to be HIV-positive, it was unheard of. This was a time when the pandemic peaked in Zimbabwe — one of the countries worst affected by HIV/AIDS — with one in every four adults having the virus and about 4,000 HIV-related deaths recorded weekly.

Anti-retroviral drugs were not yet available, and knowledge of the disease was at most patchy, with getting the virus then equated to a death sentence. As if to remove any vestiges of hope in Kapachawo, his brother and sister soon succumbed to HIV-related illnesses while his other brother opted to take his own life after testing positive to the same deadly virus. It felt like a truly hopeless situation.

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What Does Santa Claus Look Like Around The World?
Deborah Laker*

What Does Santa Claus Look Like Around The World?

He's making a list, he's checking it twice... But he doesn't always wear a red suit. From Aruba to Finland and Liberia, here's what Christmas looks like around the world.

Across the globe, Santa Claus is recognized as the Christmas gift bearer. But he is not always known as a red-suited jolly man. The tradition of a man bringing gifts to children is traced to stories about the early Greek bishop St. Nicholas of Myra, a small city in modern-day Turkey.

Santa Claus today not only goes by different names, like Father Christmas and Old St. Nick, but is linked to different folktales and cultural practices. Here are lesser known variations of Santa, from the beaches of Aruba to the snow-capped mountains of Finland.

Who is Sinterklaas?

Among the picturesque islands that dot the Caribbean is Aruba, a former Dutch colony. The country's name means “the happy island,” with Christmas being the happiest time of the year. Arubans celebrate Christmas by honoring Sinterklaas, the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. Every year in November, thousands convene at the harbor of Oranjestad, the capital, to welcome Sinterklaas with festive songs as he arrives on a steamboat from Spain.

National television stations broadcast the event live for families throughout the island to see a long-bearded man in a red robe and “mijter” (bishop's hat). Sinterklaas holds a long golden staff and a big book with names of children, stating whether they were naughty or nice during the year. After he docks, Sinterklaas rides through the city on a white horse tossing candy and “pepernoten,” small gingerbread cookies, to onlooking children.

Instead of elves, the Aruban Santa Claus is accompanied by helpers with black-painted faces and colorful Moorish and Spanish-style clothing. These servants are known as “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete in Dutch) due to the myth that Sinterklaas had a helper who was of African origin. In 2020, Culture Minister Xiomara Maduro banned blackface makeup, encouraging Pieten to use multicolor makeup instead.

Children put their shoes outside with a carrot, hay or sugar cubes for Sinterklaas’ horse the night before his birthday. Before heading to bed, they leave a letter telling him what gift they would like. On Dec. 5, they awake to find the horse’s treats gone, with Sinterklaas having left toys and sweets in their place. Typically, well-behaved children find chocolate coins, chewy bits of gingerbread known as taai-taai, and a chocolate figurine of Sinterklaas. Naughty children, however, receive either a bundle of sticks or a small bag filled with salt.

On Dec. 25, dishes shared by families reflect the cultural diversity on the island. Pumpkin soup and ham are paired with “ayaca,” a Venezuelan dish of boiled plantain wrapped in banana leaves. For dessert, they have a Dutch treat called “oliebollen,” a small, deep-fried ball of dough similar to a beignet. All of this is enjoyed with “ponche crema,” a Latin American beverage that is sweeter than American eggnog. The final Christmas celebration takes place on Jan. 6, when the Three Kings visit children, leaving them gifts at the Nativity scene.

Sinterklaas visiting a Dutch neighborhood in Potsdam, Germany

Bernd Settnik/dpa/ZUMA

Who is the Finnish Santa Claus?

Finnish people believe Santa Claus, whom they call Joulupukki, lives in Korvatunturi, a region of Finland north of the Arctic Circle. Near the area where he is believed to live is a theme park called Christmas Land that attracts around 300,000 tourists annually.

Joulupukkim which translates to “Christmas goat” in Finnish comes from the ancient tale of a scary yule goat who would ask people for presents. Over time the goat became a gift giver and a human figure rather than a goat, but the name Joulupukki remained.

On Christmas Eve, families enjoy rice porridge and plum juice for breakfast before heading to the local market to purchase a Christmas tree. During winter, it gets dark around 3:00 p.m. Before the sun sets, people usually travel to cemeteries to leave candles in hanging lanterns around the graves of relatives.

As the snow-covered tombs are illuminated by the glowing lanterns, families return to feast. Pork, salt fish, mashed potatoes and casseroles containing carrots and rutabaga are some of the dishes that make up a traditional Christmas dinner. After the meal, Joulupukki arrives dressed in a red furry costume with a large sack of gifts.

How does Italy celebrate Christmas?

While Italians have their version of Santa Claus, known as Babbo Natale, who brings presents on Christmas Day, homes across the country are also visited by La Befana. The old woman covered in a dark shawl flies through starry skies on her broomstick and enters houses through the chimney. Rather than leaving out cookies, Italians set a glass of wine or panettone for La Befana to enjoy when she arrives on Jan. 5 to fill their stockings. Her arrival is on the eve of the Festa dell’Epifania (Feast of Epiphany), a celebration of the visit of the Three Kings to the newborn Christ child in Bethlehem.

La Befana leaves sweets for the good children in the socks hung by the fireplace. But for the children she deems naughty, she leaves coal in their socks instead. Sometimes, before Le Befana flies to the next house, she may even sweep the floor with her broom.

The ancient folklore says the Italian Christmas witch Le Befana was invited by the Three Wise Men to deliver gifts to Jesus Christ. She declined their invitation, being too dedicated to her work as a housekeeper but later had a change of heart and tried to follow the Magi. Le Befana was unable to catch up with the Three Wise Men and never got to meet Jesus. She is now celebrated in Italy for giving the gifts she intended for him to other children.

La Befana leaves coal in children's socks if they are naughty

Eleonora Gianinetto

How does Liberia celebrate Christmas?

In Liberia, Santa Claus is replaced with Old Man Bayka, a devil who does not give presents but instead walks around the street on Christmas Day begging for presents. Throughout this West African nation, men dress in multicolored clothes along with piles of brown. Some stand on stilts to be as tall as 10 feet; others stuff their clothes to be as wide as three men. Old Man Bayka roams the streets entertaining onlookers as he dances to the beat of a drum. As he gyrates, he says, “My Christmas on you,” to mean “please give me something for Christmas.” Generous people give him money and sweets, while others simply enjoy the show.

The Liberian dancing devil is from the spiritual world of Poro. These are secret societies that have been a part of the spiritual and cultural landscape of African ethnic groups for centuries. Old Man Bayka is not an evil figure but rather “the manifestation of raw spiritual power,” explained Max Bankole Jarrett in an NPR article. Before American settlers landed on the shores of Liberia, these dancing devils were often seen in traditional festivals. As locals converted to Christianity, they incorporated the Porospirits in the Christmas festivities.

How does South Korea celebrate Christmas?

Almost half the population of Korea has no religious affiliation. The 3 in 10 Koreans who have ties to Christianity attend church services on Christmas, but for many, it is simply a festive time to celebrate with family and friends.

In South Korea, Santa Claus goes by the name Santa Haraboji (Grandpa Santa) and is clothed in green robes rather than the traditional red. This attire is paired with the “gat,” a tall flat-topped hat worn by nobles during the Joseon dynasty from the 13th century. Santa Haraboji rarely visits individual homes but rather gives gifts at public events or civic visits.

Gift-giving is not as common in Korea as in Western countries. On Dec. 25, children are usually given cash after they have given the group a musical performance or poetry recital. Loved ones share a meal of beef bulgogi, japchae sweet potato noodles and kimchi.

*Deborah Laker is an editorial fellow for ReligionUnplugged.com. She graduated with degrees in journalism and political science from Oral Roberts University.

Photo of ​Berlin-born Buddhist monk ​Tenzin Peljor sitting near a fountain
Tenzin Tsagong*

The German Monk Driving The #MeToo Reckoning In Buddhism

On his blog, Tenzin Peljor, a Berlin-born Buddhist monk investigates complex issues linked to his religion, including physical and sexual abuse in Buddhist communities.

FRANKFURT — When I first met Tenzin Peljor over Zoom in March of last year, the 54-year-old German-Buddhist monk had been living in a dorm-sized room at Frankfurt’s Tibet House for over a year. Speaking into a microphone screened by a filter, a bespectacled Peljor, dressed in his maroon robes, looked like a professional podcaster.

Behind him hung a Tibetan tapestry on a white wall, near his twin-sized bed blanketed in red and a white bookshelf lined with Buddhist texts. The place had become a refuge for Peljor since his exile from his former Buddhist institution, the Foundation of the Preservation of Mahayana Teachings in 2019.

Peljor runs a popular Buddhist blog, Difficult Issues — Controversies Within Tibetan Buddhism, to address complicated issues in the religion, especially regarding abusive spiritual teachers. In May 2019, Peljor published on his website a petition created by a group of senior nuns. The nuns demanded that FPMT investigate allegations of sexual assault against one of its senior teachers, Dagri Rinpoche.

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​Photo taken in front of the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize
Joseph Hammond*

How A Hardware Store Helped Build The Muslim Community Of Belize

In Belize, San Pedro's Muslim community revolves around the Harmouches, a Lebanese family who immigrated in the 1980s and whose hardware business is at the heart of the town.

SAN PEDRO, Belize — On tropical Ambergris Caye in Belize, Islam is a family affair. The island's largest town, San Pedro, has a population of just over 13,000, of whom some 200 are Muslims. This small yet vibrant Muslim community was launched by a single adventurous Lebanese family — the Harmouches.

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​Christmas lights in the northern district of Nazareth, Israel
food / travel
Gil Zohar*

Bethlehem To Nazareth To Jerusalem: A Christmas Tour Of COVID And Politics

On the same day that Bethlehem’s Mayor Anton Salman inaugurated the Christmas holiday season earlier this month with an impressive fireworks display and tree lighting in the town square, residents of the West Bank city’s three refugee camps — Aida, Dehaishe and Jibrin, also known as Azza Camp — continued their daily protesting against the Palestinian Authority.

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Photo of a Japanese "unwanted doll"
Heather Greene

Do Dolls Have Souls? A Funeral Rite In Japan Is The Essence Of Animism

Buddhist and Shinto temples in Japan hold "ningyo kuyo" (人形供養) funeral rites for unwanted dolls, a spiritual send off to thank dolls for their service and properly put them to rest.

KYOTO — Toys don't last forever, and kids grow up. Interests come and go, and a once-beloved plaything winds up in storage, at a yard sale or in the trash. This is the fate of many toys in the U.S. — particularly after the winter holidays — but in Japan, that is not the necessarily the case, at least for dolls.

Throughout the year, temples across Japan hold a "ningyo kuyo" (人形供養), a funeral ritual for unwanted dolls — especially traditional dolls. Held in both Buddhist and Shinto temples alike, the ceremony is a spiritual send off to thank dolls for their service and properly put them to rest.

Shinto and Buddhism are the two dominant religious influences on Japanese culture. Even with a population that is largely religiously unaffiliated today according to the JGSS Research Center at Osaka University of Commerce, these two religions continue to have a powerful spiritual influence on secular culture.

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