Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Colombian Christmas

In Colombia the big Christmas celebration takes place today on Christmas Eve. The streets take on the air of a carnival as people throw open their doors, blare their music and come out to greet their neighbors. One of the best memories I have as a kid was running around with other kids every evening for a week leading to Christmas. We'd make "cascabeles" or rattles out of flattened bottle caps and we'd travel from house to house singing Christmas carols in front of elaborate nativity scenes in each living room. There would be entire towns with tiny houses lit up by strings of tiny lights. There would be caravans of camels traveling from town to town, and hills with sheep and cattle. We'd follow the progression of Mary and Joseph towards the manger, and off in the distance, the three magi would also be traveling guided by the star of the East. Some houses got so carried away that the nativity scene took up most of the living room.

For our singing we'd receive candy every night, and on Christmas Eve, the last night of caroling, we might get a small gift, adding to the excitement over the greater gifts to come. Because the nativity scene was the focal point of the holidays, we had no Christmas tree or gift exchange under it. What we had was the promise that Baby Jesus would be born at midnight, and he would bring along a gift for every child. So we kids went to bed scheming ways to stay awake so that we could catch a glimpse of the holy infant as he performed the miracle feat of simultaneously being born and delivering toys to every sleeping child in the world. We awoke on Christmas Day to search for the gifts at the foot of our beds, hidden somewhere under the covers.

Today my heart is heavy with remembrance and missing as my family in New Jersey will continue the tradition of celebrating on Christmas Eve. There is a tree now instead of a nativity scene, but tonight they will still sing Colombian Christmas carols and grandma will still make typical Colombian delicacies, such as Natilla (a sweet polenta) and Bunuelos (fried cheese balls) and brevas (fig stew). I'll miss the chaos of organizing a buffet for about 30 people, and the noise of everyone talking at the same time, and the joy of watching the new generation of babies growing up into toddlers, and the gratitude that my 95-year-old grandfather and my 89-year-old grandmother are still with us. Tonight I'll be here in St. Croix having a quiet evening, but I will certainly be there in spirit!



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