It’s never easy spending the holidays away from home. Away from family and friends, far away everything I normally associate with Christmas. It was only the second time I had done it. The first time was when I was living in Argentina. I ate cow tongue for Christmas dinner that year. I don’t recommend it.
The Christmas celebration began on Wednesday the 23rd around 5 pm. I joined my host family and we headed over to Chilete to the host dad’s parent’s house. I fell asleep in the car on the way but I was abruptly awakened when a couple of huge rocks rolled down the mountain and hit the top of the car. I thought we were being shot at. Fortunately we weren’t, and not much damage was done to the car. When we arrived, I was greeted by even more extended family that was visiting from Cajamarca City, as well as Trujillo, an even larger city about 4 hours away. All in all there were about twenty family members there.
We started out the evening by attending a Chocolotada at the nearby church. Basically, a chocolotada is a social event that consists of distributing hot chocolate and panetón (fruit cake) to children of the community. Fruitcake may be a joke in the states but it’s no joke here. It’s an essential part of Christmas and is seen as a luxury. It ain’t Christmas without Panetón. (Shout out to Brittney.) At this chocolotada there was also a kids dance competition in which the kids were dancing to “Mueve el Toto”(move your butt) and I just couldn’t get over the situation. The host of the event, who looked like she got her outfit at an adult costume/lingerie store, complete with red knee-highs, heels, tiny red skirt, and a Santa hat, was prancing around cheering the kids on as they gyrated their hips to “yo se que te gusta, yo se que te encanta…sube y baja…no eres santa” (I know that you like it, I know that you love it, go up and down… you’re no saint). Now I don’t consider myself to be a very religious person but the combination of this kind of dancing in a church with the paintings of Jesus’ face in the background seemed just a tad bit inappropriate to me.
After that interesting display, we went back to the house to hang out and open gifts, or rather watch everyone open gifts-secret Santa style, since the family is so big. At one point in the evening, I guess one of the kids noticed that I was the only one not holding a present and exclaimed, “oh poor Sarita! The only one without a gift!” My host mom quickly dismissed the comment by saying “tomorrow we’re doing another gift exchange at our house with our family”, meaning that is the immediate family. Not long after 9 pm, we headed back to Magdalena. I was relieved they had made it an early night because I had a feeling I wouldn’t be getting much rest the following days.
The next day, Christmas Eve, people started coming over around 10 am and lunch, cuy (guinea pig), was served a few hours later, which I opted out of. I got many inquisitive stares and even more questions and comments as to why I didn’t want to eat the cuy. I first politely declined at first but then people then began to become pushy, as they often do. They needed to know why I didn’t want to eat it. “No thank you” was just not an acceptable answer, nor was “I have an upset stomach”. Finally, starting to lose patience, I said, “I just don’t like it. I had guinea pigs as pets growing up and I just don’t like to eat them,” I explained. This concept was difficult for some to understand. The grandfather stared at me, bewildered, and then started asking me about how big the guinea pigs I claimed to have were, thinking I was confusing them with hamsters. I confirmed their size and assured him that they were in fact guinea pigs, but that I had hamsters as pets in the past as well. I got handful of confused and disgusted looks shot in my direction. Then the host mom decided to join the discussion. “Just eat it!” she interjected. “They are rich with vitamins and very tasty!” As this point I started to become frustrated. “That may be true but the salad I made the other day was also tasty and rich in vitamins and you wouldn’t even try it!” I shot back. She left it alone after that.
After lunch everyone began to form the “drinking circle” and at first I stayed and chatted a bit to be social. After repeating several times, however, that I was not interested in drinking, I left the circle, leaving people even further confused. Instead I joined some of the family members who weren’t drinking to take pictures in the plaza. One of which was Dian, the host aunt who lives in Trujillo, teaches aerobics and had a French manicure. “Me caes muy I bien”, (I like you/I think you’re cool) she told me. I told her I felt the same.
After our photo session, I talked to my real bother and dad on Skype. I brought my laptop around the house and introduced them to various members of my host family. My host grandmother was the first to say hello. She thought my dad was cute. My my host cousin was next asking them, in Spanish, (which they do not speak) If they had set up their Nativity scene yet. I interpreted what he had said and both my brother and dad looked very confused and weren’t really sure how to respond. “Have you set up your nativity seen yet?!” he demanded. “Um not yet, but we will..” my brother lied, sounding somewhat embarrassed. Then one of my host aunts popped in and told my dad (in Spanish), “Jesus was going to be filling you house with warmth”, or something along those lines, and then looked at me to interpret. I tried to do so without laughing because my dad is probably the least religious person on the planet, I didn’t succeed.
Next came the gift exchange. I brought down my bag of gifts for the immediate family and as I was going to put them under the tree one of the cousins called out to me “are you traveling somewhere?” “No”, I answered. “Just a few Christmas gifts.” She looked confused.
My gifts were actually a big hit with the family. I bought the dad, sister, and mom shirts, which they all put on immediately, and I got Monopoly for the little brother, which he was very excited about. When I went to give the grandmother her gift (panetón) she asked coyly, “Is this from your dad???” Everyone laughed.
Dinner, pavo (turkey) was served at midnight, followed by panetón and hot chocolate. I left the party and snuck off to bed around 3 am.
Christmas Day the festivities continued. There was a drinking circle, which started at around 10 am, which I once again did not partake in, but I did manage to lure a few aunts and cousins away to do Zumba with me in the living room. In the end, there were about 10 of us, including the 4-year-old host niece. It was actually a lot of fun.
By the time Saturday rolled around, I was looking forward to getting some much needed rest and exercise. As I walked downstairs for breakfast, however, I was informed that it the host uncle’s birthday and family was on their way over to celebrate. As I returned to my room I debated trying to get a quick workout in before people started coming over or just start getting ready. When I found a scorpion in my sports bra, I took it as a sign to postpone my workout until later.
We had pato (duck) for lunch and while we were eating, I noticed that one of the host aunts, Mari, the one who’s 30, was sunburned and had tan lines from a bathing suit. Intrigued, I asked where she got them. She told me that she had gone to the beach in Pascasmayo that was 2 hours away. She said that they were planning on going the following day if I wanted to join them. I of course, said yes.
Although I was thoroughly exhausted from all of the celebration and socializing, I overall had a pretty good time, and I didn’t for one moment feel left out. I was asked about how Christmas was celebrated in the U.S., about the snow, and about my family, and how they were doing. At one point, I even got out a photo album of family photos my brother and sister-in-law had sent me and shared it with my host family. They seemed genuinely interested. Everyone in the family really made an effort to include me and make me feel like part of the family. I was grateful for that.