Christmas in Chile

This Christmas Eve morning, I was contemplating how much Chile has changed the way that I experience Christmas. Celebrations are truly culturally based, and although it is a struggle to accept and adapt to some of the differences, I find that my life has become enriched and blessed in the process.

As with many European countries, Christmas in Chile is celebrated on the Eve and not the Day. Dinners begin late, and presents are exchanged at midnight. For most of my adult life in the US, I was usually going crazy on Christmas Eve, doing last minute wrapping, baking and other preparations for the Christmas Day meal. However, my private tradition was to sit in front of the tree, to enjoy the peaceful serenity of the transition from eve into early morning. It was always a very spiritual time for me, and I relished those moments of quiet observance.

As an expat, I greatly miss being with my family and sharing in our own traditions during the holidays. We were very fortunate to actually enjoy spending time together, without the conflict and drama experienced in other families. Our individual lives were so hectic, that it was wonderful to slow down, catch up and relax.

However, since it is difficult to be home for Christmas, we have created our own blend of old and new traditions. Beginning with our second Chilean Christmas, our home has become haven for those in similar circumstances. Our inn is always open.

For this third Christmas in Chile, we are celebrating on Christmas Eve as plans were speedily made to spend Christmas Day and weekend at one of the many mini resorts that dot the vicinity around the Chillan volcanoes. This was going to be our most unusual Christmas yet.

“Unusual” is probably the word that best describes many of my current holiday experiences. In moving to Chile, all of the seasons have been flipped, and it is taking time to grow accustomed to the changes. In many respects, I feel as if I stand outside of time.

It still seems strange to be celebrating the holiday during the onset of summer, rather than winter. This morning, while standing in front of the kitchen window to prepare the Christmas Eve feast, a gentle, warm breeze caressed my face, rather than the bitter cold Arctic wind. While Christmas movies can make me feel very nostalgic for freshly fallen snow, I am thankful to not have to cope with bitter winters, icy roads and snow up to the rooftop. Nevertheless, I must admit to missing the hushed silence and glistening blanket of white once in awhile.

It is quite a shock for this North American girl to see summer grills, patio furniture and tents being marketed along side artificial trees, ornaments and twinkling lights. I still struggle with getting into the mindset of Christmas, when the sun is shining and I’m wearing a casual summer dress. It isn’t until the potted pine trees are brought in from the balcony and decorated that I come to terms with the holiday.

My favorite “terms of the holiday” is our removal of the intense commercialism associated with the giving of gifts.  Although I had always despaired the loss of Christmas’ meaning in the midst of competitive giving and overspending, it was impossible to escape the trap in the U.S. Many a Black Friday found me standing in a deep line, with a cup of Tim Horton’s, waiting impatiently for the mall to open.

In Chile, we have tapered our gifts down to small ones given as part of a name drawing. Monetary limits are set at “dos lucas,” which is the equivalent of about $4-5, and there is such a rewarding feeling to find an appropriate small gift. Fortunately, many of the city plazas are filled with booths selling handcrafted wares. Also, the gallerias feature many small Mom and Pop gift shops. Gifts do not have to be grandiose to be appreciated.

Also, the frenzy of cookie baking has been greatly diminished. Instead of almost a dozen different types, I choose two. Baking is a pleasure that I indulge in frequently, so we never feel deprived by the limitation.

Pan de Pascua is the preferred holiday dessert in Chile. This dense, fruit-laden bread is too delicious to elicit the exclamations of horror of its North American cousin. Also, the influence of German baking is found to grace the dessert tables.

Our real joy has been placed in sharing a wonderful meal with friends, students and family here. During the week prior to Christmas, we held a dinner for the students in the lab (photo at top). One student had chosen Indian as the theme for the dinner, and I was most happy to comply. Although I had greatly tapered the heat, and had completely eliminated peppers from one, some students were overwhelmed. Even the cumin and ginger in one pepper-less dish proved too much. This will indeed be a Christmas that they’ll remember for a long time. Italian has been requested for next year’s meal.

What is most surprising about Christmas in Chile are the similarities. While the religious significance of the holiday is first and foremost, Chilean homes are arrayed much as they are in the U.S. Many homes have Christmas trees, colored lights, garlands and stockings hanging from the mantle. I was also surprised to see “icicle” lights hanging from housetops and windows.

Santa Claus, in the form of Viejo Pascuero, also makes his rounds on Christmas. Our adopted nephew, Adolay, has heartily embraced this role for our Christmas dinners. Although, we tell everyone that gifts are not necessary, Adolay is often toting Viejo Pascuero’s bag. He has such a beautiful soul that shines brightly at our midnight dinner table.

Although, I feel sadness for being apart from our family back in the States, I know that our Christmas will be heartwarming, and filled with laughter and joy. Such a wonderful blessing in life!

Written Christmas Eve Day

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