December 2010

The Apprentice: Christmas

Christmas is less than two weeks away, and Thanksgiving was just a few weeks ago: the holiday season is here. Over the last few weeks I have been consumed with thoughts of family. I have spent an abnormal amount of time and money buying gifts off Amazon in an attempt to feel part of my family's Christmas this year, and yet all my efforts have failed to close the distance between us.

Crossing Cultures: Christmas

At first glance, Peru seems to have a similar Christmas season. Granted, it doesn’t kick off after Thanksgiving, since they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but once December rolls around, signs of the holidays are visible. The mall has trees and decorations for sale. Just about everyone at the markets is selling something with greenery or Papa Noel (Santa) or bells on it. Art and fabric stores roll out ribbons and beaded strings and glittery leafy sprays to spruce up normal plants with a holiday twist. You can 

find many things with “Merry Christmas” written on them, and I’m still not sure if that is a shout out to English speakers in the city or a lack of local options requiring extra importation of such decor. 
Many families to have trees, though artificial ones are the only options here. Most are small, from about 5’ tall and down to tabletop size. Larger ones are available, but less prevalent. 
The differences are hidden, but very much real. Some Peruvians buy and hang stockings, but they have plenty of adornment themselves, because they don’t have the stories of Santa coming down the chimney to bring gifts (poor people can’t afford such fairy tales), nor do they have mantles on which to hang them. So the stockings end up somewhere around the living area as another piece of decoration and nothing more. The most common decoration is a nativity scene, but these include some details that we aren’t usually accustomed to. For instance, one can readily find a stable-like structure to provide the stage for the nativity, complete with painted paper or dry moss to provide a natural flooring. The nativity typically consists of the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and some animals, but families sometimes add more animals and characters over the years, so that you might see a variety of unlikely witnesses to the event. Also, as homes are made of concrete, there is very little hanging of lights on the structure of the home, especially outside where they would likely be removed by a passerby. Rather, lit decorations are placed inside the windows to be seen from the street, everything from flashing words to basic net-style lights hung without ado. 
The most obvious difference is the actual celebration of the holiday. They do a big dinner of turkey and various sides, from applesauce to mashed pasas (a large white bean, kind of like mashed potatoes) to avocado slices. But they eat it on Christmas Eve. They start their family celebrations late, having dinner at about 11:00, which is strange in a country that eats a big lunch at 2 or 3 and hardly anything for dinner. This is followed by fireworks at the stroke of midnight. This is an amazing show, because rather than have a particular view in one part of the sky, the city lights up all around you. Last year, we hadn’t quite made it home when this part of the celebration started, which resulted in Kyle dodging black cats and bottle rockets those last few blocks to the house. It is only after the fireworks that families usually go back inside to share presents and additional treats, which might be followed by attending a mass at their church as well. All in all, the entire family, kids included, stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning before closing up shop. Christmas Day is just a day to rest and relax with the family. 
Being invited to a family’s Christmas Eve festivities is a huge honor, like being asked to be there on Christmas morning to open the stockings and everything. We are thankful to have such an opportunity to see special moments in a Peruvian family’s life, to understand them a little better and find ourselves less tied to assumptions we had and more aware that while cultures are highly different, the concept of family and celebration needs no translation.