Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in Chile, a Jewish foreigner observer's tale

Christmas is afoot in the southern hemisphere, as it likely is in your corner of the globe. This hopefully answers the age-old question, "When do they celebrate Christmas?" once and for all. I'm not sure who the speaker was in that case, but I have it carefully filed next to the question "What language will the baby speak when it's born?" once asked by a long-deceased family member (and they are many) with regards to a family's child who was to be born outside of the United States.

To which the answer is of course, December, and none, in that order.

Christmas is many things to many people, and who am I, a nearly-nonobservant Jew to comment on the peculiarities of how a holiday that ostensibly has nothing to do with me is celebrated? But I am here in the heart of the city as the Santas (which comes up as misspelled, why? can there be only one?) sweat, and fragile wrapping paper is taped into bag-shape into which to place the gifts that people have purchased for their family and friends. For you must not try to use the wrapping paper as you have used it in your country. It will rip. For reals.

And purchase they do, as evidenced by this glowy, noisy (phone) photo I snapped the day before yesterday (Dec 22nd) of the first floor of the downtown Paris (formerly Almacenes Paris) on Banderas and Augustinas at about 6:30 PM. I was helping a friend pick out some gifts for his nieces, nieces being something I know quite a lot about.


And people were buying up a storm, including this gent who purchased a bicycle which some clever checkout person wrapped in plastic bags. You know, so no one would know what he was carrying.


Or maybe it's just that Chileans really like to wrap things (presents excepted, as these go in bags made of wrapping paper), and who am I to comment on this, as did I not once purchase a saran-wrapped dresser? (Answer: yes)

Christmas is much more than presents, of course. It is also holy and celebratory and religious and giant trees and oh my word, the food and drink.

The most popular seasonal drink in Chile is called cola de mono (lit: monkey's tail), and it's like eggnog and kahlua and cream got married (or didn't), and had a baby. In a manger. Or not. (ow, my aching blasphemy!). It's basically condensed milk, alcohol, instant coffee, nutmeg, and an egg yolk or two if you like. There's also cinnamon and cloves, and if you're lucky, it's delicious. And if you're not? Well, you can always pour it out when you go outside to get some air, because people, it's been 90 plus degrees out during the day, and the Santas (plural) are sweating, and everyone is bustling this way and that purchasing supplies so aggressively that the dry goods store was out of brown sugar yesterday when I went to go pick up the coffee for the wedding (not mine).

Which maybe explains why I bought a kilo of cherries and a kilo of strawberries from the neighborhood fruit peddler who stopped in on a friend's house (got to get supplies while they are hot!) while I was dropping off the coffee and meeting the gringo family and making plans for today, when for the first time ever, I will spend Christmas with a Chilean family (and their American soon-to-be nuera (daughter-in-law), though Chilean tradition assures that they have thought of her this way ever since their son first brought her over for onces (evening meal/coffee).

My reasons for never having spent Christmas with a Chilean family before are various, but they probably all come down to it being difficult to prise my hardwon "outsider" identity from my suntanned and calloused hands. I hesitated mightily upon receiving the invitation, feeling alternately like an interloper and a loser for not having people with whom to spend Christmas. And then I realized, I do have people. They invited me because they want me there. And despite religious differences and the fact that I have never met 9/10 of the people that will be present, I will go.

And I'll be sure to toast you all with my cola de mono. I hope you have a peaceful holiday with your people. And that you hold a latke fest in honor of the day if that's your style. It's way too hot here.


Audrey said...

We got to Buenos Aires a couple of days ago and felt like country mice in the midst of the Christmas shopping frenzy and malls here.

My mother/grandmother do have family here in Buenos Aires (I've never met them), but we opted instead to enjoy Christmas Eve with an American woman we met in Guatemala who is here with her family. After so many months on the road in S. America, we're just looking forward to being with some other Americans and speaking full sentences in English : )

Eileen said...

I can't imagine the kind of shock that is to your system over there! Enjoy speaking full sentences. Maybe we can even try for paragraphs when you guys get here. I'm guessing you'll travel down into Patagonia and then back up through Chile? Let me know your plans, and I hope I don't miss you! I'm out from the first week in Feb to about the 2nd week in March. Email me and let me know.

Enjoy all the pretty consumer goods (from afar!), and stock up on waterproof gear before heading south (if that's your plan). Hope to see you guys soon!

Annje said...

Random bits: That photo of the mall makes me twitch. I despise holiday shopping. My husband always fashions a wrapping paper bag if I ask him to wrap something--it's ingrained apparently. I once had someone ask me if my husband spoke Spanish really well, being from Chile and all... uh yes, his Spanish is awesome, so native-like.

I'd tell you to drink some cola de mono for me, but it sounds like you are drinking for a few other people as well... so it may be too much, of course, the more the merrier.

Merry x-mas!!! (in whatever sense you'd like to celebrate it)

Richard said...

Mmmm. Cola de mono sounds yum. It's just a pity that nobody in Khartoum does alcohol. Or Christmas in fact.

I'll be raising a coffee in toast and hoping you have a great Chilean Christmas!

Bystander said...

I am not a fan of Cola de Mono. I like my café au lait for breakfast and without alcohol.
We are set for a barbecue tonight: Argentine beef (sorry Eileen), several salads and baked potato. Lemon ice cream from my mother's recipe, if anyone can fit it.
Doesn't everyone make wrapping paper bags for their presents? Who knew.
I hope you enjoy your foray into a Chilean family Christmas! Happy whatever to everyone!

Shark said...

I'm led to believe that a great part of the Jewish community does indeed celebrate Christmas.

It is the American branch of this community, that is generally responsible for giving the world the over-commercialised, consumer panicked Christmas that we now 'celebrate'. They own a great chunk of the companies that Americans buy from as well as the advertising companies that propagate their crap.

It's also grossly over-sentimentalised by Hollywood and TV executives, which, guess what, are not official members of the JC club either.

This lethal combination of consumption mixed with sentimentality has spread like a disease across the world.

It's a shame to that people in the US have been brainwashed into saying Happy Holidays and not Happy Christmas. Who's responsible for that, I wonder?

Sharon said...

Christmas over here drives me crazy. Really crazy. It makes me want to go away to a secluded place with no people.

That being said, I love cola de mono, or at least the cola de mono my mom makes. One year she kept making it until february, due to popular demand.