We knew Christmas would be different this year. We just didn’t think it would be quite like this.
After months on end of watching every American holiday come to pass with little acknowledgement or recognition, I had honestly begun to lose all hope of a memorable Christmas. Especially after Halloween and Day of the Dead, when my high expectations fizzled out; void of anything worth writing home about. November crept by and I began to feel something like “the holiday blues” settling in. I believed it in my heart, that Christmas would be hard this year. This is our first Christmas abroad, away from family and friends. Without twinkling neighborhood streets, aglow with houses topping a powdery blanket of snow. We were not in Iowa anymore.
Then, December welcomed us with a sultry heat reminiscent of July back home. And still: no sign of red and green, glittery artificial snowflakes or jolly elves in storefront windows. We had our own festive little Christmas Tree at home, but that was it. No jingling holiday tunes, no posters for Christmas concerts, none of the typical infiltration that signals an American Christmas. Nothing. I started to believe that our tiny fishing village in Ecuador would not be celebrating Christmas. I told myself that it didn’t matter, we would be fine, it was no big deal, we didn’t need to be a part of all that over-commercialized nonsense anyway. But, secretly my heart sank. I had always loved Christmas.
A little more than five days into the month, the kids and I sat on our balcony with dripping popsicles watching the late afternoon waves roll up the beach and pound at the rocks beneath our house. My husband came rushing up the stairs, dogs trailing behind, exclaiming about something was happening in the street. We slipped on our flip flops, bounded down the steps, spilling into the sticky afternoon air. It was quiet and deserted, just as it usually is on a midweek afternoon, except for a few men huddled beneath the shade of one the storefronts a few lots down. We saw a few round bamboo poles splayed out on the street, and a large rectangular corral erected where there hadn’t been one before. We were intrigued, but the kids and I looked back at Carlos in bewilderment, waiting for his explanation of what we were seeing. “Christmas is here,” he said with a big, festive grin. After several minutes of pointing and explaining, the workers stopped their tinkering, waiting expectantly for our reaction. We never would have guessed what this was. It took the full limits of our imagination and the willingness to believe, before we came to understand that we were indeed witnessing the first moments of an Ecuadorian Christmas. These were the beginnings of a man-made Christmas Tree and one-of-a-kind Nativity Scene.
From that day on, it was a ritual, to wake up to the sun pouring in through the windows, and to rush down the street before we even had breakfast. It was the most important moment of the day, to see the new progress made on the greatest Christmas display we had ever seen. It wasn’t just something fancy and splashy and store bought. It was all custom, intricately detailed, truly Ecuadorian hand-made. It was nothing short of fantastic, to solve the riddles each dawn. To guess, speculate and imagine what each tiny part meant and how it fit in to the work of the next day. Approximately 10 days went by before it was all said and done, complete with a hand painted angel scene, a dozen tiny Bethlehem ranches laid out in rice hulls, twinkling lights, glittering backdrop, and a wishing fountain with running water. And as for The Tree, it lay on its side, protruding nearly 30 feet into the street with adornments being added almost every day. Each night we waited to receive word, of the official raising and lighting of the tree.
Finally the evening came, when the villagers knocked on the door, telling us to gather for the official start of Christmas. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that my husband would be the one to raise The Tree, standing barefoot on the back of a moving city bus! I am sure this is one of those memories that we will hold in our hearts until the days when we are old, when we lay in bed giggling and reminiscing on the absurdity of it all. The whole event was hysterical, and irresponsible, and impossibly full of Ecuadorian ingenuity. But, The Tree was up, without harm, and stood tall above the dusty street; casting a seasonal glow impossible to escape. Our heads hit the pillows that night, fully satisfied and heavy with Christmas spirit.
The following weekend, the street beneath The Christmas Tree was filled with chairs packed in tightly beneath rows of bobbing balloons strung up in the evening breeze. We gathered once again, with all the townsfolk, to witness an evening of cultural Christmas dance and a live Nativity put on by the children of the local church. A local man took the microphone and spoke for a short while about the meaning of Christmas. He told the story of a local elder lady, who noticed a change in attitudes and practices surrounding Christmas here sometime around 30 years ago. She found it troubling that the kids were becoming consumed by Santa and many didn’t know about Jesus and the religious side of the holiday. She was determined that her people would not, and could not forget the real meaning of Christmas. And so these traditions began and have continued ever since, to be sure future generations always remember that the story of Jesus is where it all began. This Lady of Christmas has since passed on, but her legacy has not faltered and the community is determined to keep her dream alive. That night we were enamored by the eclectic mix of bible verses and holiday hymnals, free sugar cane liquor being passed through the crowd, and festive Ecuadorian performers prancing gaily through the spectators.
Midway through the next week, a startling burst of music pierced through the lazy afternoon air. We peeked out our window to see an inflatable Santa bouncing in the street, and a large group of “elves” huddled beneath a shady corner of the street. Shortly after, we watched as young children came out of every nook and cranny, creeping into the town center. You could just see it on their faces, the anticipation bottled up beneath their incredibly composed little cheeks. Santa was in town! Literally. One by one, “the elves” called out the name of the families and their little ones to come up to their workshop and to receive their gifts. It was an incredible feat, to understand, that this local organization called “The Friends of Christmas” knew the names and ages of every single child in the village. Our children included. Nearly 400 kids were given gifts that afternoon, and each of the families also received a large bag full of pantry items that included numerous necessities, like: flour, sugar, oats, pasta, rice, lentils, and cooking oil. We were completely stunned and amazed. We had never seen anything like this, and coming from a far from wealthy community, we could not quite make sense how something like this was even feasible. But, in times like this, you just don’t ask question. You simply allow yourself to be completely and utterly overcome by the wonder of the season.
As if all this weren’t already enough to blanket us in the Christmas spirit, a few days later we caught wind of an all day event in honor of the children. Bright and early, according to Ecuadorian standards, balloons and tents and music once again infiltrated our humble little village by 10 am. Soon after, sleepy eyed kids tumbled into the streets, hopping and buzzing with glee. Clowns and characters trickled in through the bobbing heads of children lined up for free popcorn, shaved ice, and ice cream. Mickey Mouse and Santa Clause, even a Christmas Fairy danced and teased the children beneath the unforgiving mid-morning sun. Soon after, the kids gathered round for fun and games and contests galore, in their best efforts to win toys and candy and even crowd recognition. Our 4 year old daughter was the first to run to the front, eager to participate in something like a dance-off for little girls. I was nearly left speechless, as I watched in awe as my little girl flourished and flitted in the limelight. My light-haired princess immersing herself with the ever-graceful Latina girls, all on her own accord with zero influence from us. The crowd roared with pleasure when her turn came, laughing and cheering and prodding her on, each as hopeful as the rest that our little white girl would be crowned Queen of the contest. She did indeed win her heat, and she beamed with pride and delight as she was awarded the cutest little toy doll.
Over the next few days, our daughter blossomed as she relished in the attention she had gained through her dancing success. She made many friends and admirers at that Christmas celebration, and her “crown” was the talk of the town. Her confidence soared as little girls from all over the neighborhood, flocked to come and play with her. This kind of cultural immersion was the best kind of Christmas gift we ever could have imagined.
There was yet another afternoon street party on the day of Christmas Eve, inviting the kids once more, to engage in games and gifts and music. This time, our kids played on the sidelines, huddled with a group of kids they know call their friends, paying very little attention to the organized event. They were fully engaged in playing, side by side; age, gender, nationality, and language holding no consequence to them. The group even retreated from the sun-filled fun a little early; preferring quiet and shade cover over the hot and bustling street scene. We couldn’t help ourselves but to award the whole bunch with a special Christmas treat of Oreo Batidos…something a bit like a milkshake. Our children played the day, evening and night away; running, screaming and riding bikes into the early night hours. The excitement of the day had them struggling to go to sleep on the night before Christmas. It wasn’t the presents they anticipated so much, but rather another day of fun and games ahead with their group of new friends.
My husband and I did stay up late, wrapping a few presents and stuffing two wool socks full of candy and a traditional, wooden toy top. The kids leaped from their beds squealing, just the same as all kids do on Christmas Day. They were plenty happy with just two wrapped presents each, but just as we suspected, their new toys were quickly forgotten in lieu of playing outdoors with the same group of kids they had come to adore.
Christmas was different this year. That is for sure. We are different this year. Now Christmas has a whole different perspective. It was honestly so much more than we had ever hoped for. So much better than any Christmas we have ever had before. We are so Hopeful“>hopeful for what the next year will bring!