I spent two Christmases in Peru’s Colca valley, and I enjoy revisiting those holiday memories, contrasting them with what I experience at home in Montana.
In Chivay, Christmas decorations are almost non-existent, at least outwardly. Many homes and businesses, however, maintain a little home-made nativity scene in a corner, with figurines of wise men and animals. The baby Jesus isn’t present, though, until midnight on Christmas Eve, (“la Noche Buena”), when with some fanfare He is added to the scene.
In many homes, Christmas Eve is the focus of the celebration – the extended family gathered together for a big dinner, then drinking hot chocolate and eating panetón until midnight, when the Nativity scene is completed. No elaborate gift exchange, nothing fancy – although a few kids do go out at midnight to shoot off fireworks!
A big, Christmas Eve turkey dinner is still a tradition for many families. Our Peruvian family procured a turkey from the local market, and Amanda expertly prepared it, seasoning it and steaming it in a big pot to pre-cook, before sending it to the oven. In Chivay, few homes had their own ovens, so you sent items to one of the bakeries in town. Amanda favored El Choclito, as he was known. Like the other bakers, he had a large brick oven, in which he would build a blazing fire to heat the bricks. When it burned down and the bricks were radiating intense heat, he raked the embers out, and started shoving turkeys in. He’d bake turkeys until the bricks cooled, and then either hang up the “closed” sign, or build another fire, depending on his temperament.
Amanda’s eldest son, Aarón, came running back breathlessly at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, to announce that we’d missed the first baking, but that turkeys were lined up for a second round at el Choclito’s, ours among them. It finally arrived at 9:30 p.m., done to perfection, and our feast began.
In Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, the scene is very different. There, the commercialization of the season is evident, as you find businesses decorated for Christmas, with oddly out-of-place northern European symbols. Finding red-suited Santas, sitting amid snow, reindeer, and mistletoe, is culturally jarring, in a semi-tropical city entering its “summer” season. The palm tree-shaded Plaza de Armas once sported a tall, elaborate wrought-iron armature, more or less in the shape of a Christmas tree, bedecked with potted geraniums. At the foot of the “tree” sat a very Andean-looking Santa, ho-ho-ho-ing to the kids on his lap. It was a fascinating cultural mash-up for us modestly-homesick North Americans to contemplate.
Most days, Jean and I didn’t even notice how different our lives had become, but the Christmas season, with its deeply-embedded traditions and rituals, always heightened our sense of having been uprooted and transplanted. We felt a mixture of wistfulness and joy, experiencing something new and wonderful, but missing the familiar.
That was our state of mind on the 23rd of December, when Miriam, a former nun and one of our business contacts in Chivay, invited us to a “meeting” we somehow had not noted. After a perfunctory bit of business, out came a guitar, and mugs of hot chocolate, and we spent the rest of the evening learning traditional carols in Spanish. It was perfect.
Jean often responded with a selection of seasonal music she played on her flute, delighting those around us with impromptu concerts. Our English students would attempt the lyrics in English, we’d echo them in Spanish.
That’s the spirit of Christmas, wherever you celebrate it. The simple things – family, friends, a meal on the table, a song on your lips or music in your heart – are what lasting memories are made of.
May you share that spirit, wherever Christmas finds you!