When I arrived here, everyone told me that Christmas in the U.S. is a much bigger deal than it is Peru. From my experiences here, I find them to be pretty similar, with just a few minor differences – the Peruvian touch.
The biggest differences are that Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, and that everyone (every school, business, institution, home, etc.) has a nativity scene. The nativity scene is more essential than the Christmas tree here…while in the U.S. you might see Christmas trees without the nativity scene, here you might nativity scenes without the Christmas tree.
While everyone does it a little differently, the essentials for Nochebuena are Panetón and hot chocolate (flavored with cinnamon). What usually happens is that the family gets together on Christmas Eve, eats a huge meal, drinks hot chocolate and munches on Panetón, until midnight, when they put the baby Jesus in the manger of the nativity scene…and then the kids run outside to set off fireworks and rockets. A lot of families stay up way past midnight celebrating into the “madrugada” or early morning. Christmas day is a national holiday here, (which makes a lot of sense, because everyone needs to recover from Nochebuena!)
This year (and last year), my family celebrated more like I had done in the U.S. – we had a pretty low key Nochebuena, and then we had a bigger celebration on Christmas day because that is when my oldest sister was able to come into town.
For Nochebuena this year, we went to an aunt’s house and had a medium-sized meal (while it was a large meal for me, it was medium-sized compared to a typical celebratory meal here,) and, of course, we ate Panetón and had hot chocolate while we waited for midnight (and also waited for my aunt to come home because she works at the hospital and got called in to go with a patient to a hospital in a city 2 hours away because they didn’t have the treatment the patient needed here. But that’s another topic.) At midnight we went outside to watch the kids setting off rockets and fireworks…it sounded like a warzone!
On Christmas day, I spent the morning (until 2pm) helping prepare the huge Christmas meal. It started with the typical chicken soup (caldo de gallina) as a starter, and then we had a huge and delicious turkey, yucca, potatoes, creamy apple salad with raisins and nuts, spinach salad, and rice (always). You will not have a Peruvian meal without rice…except maybe ceviche. Maybe.
My mom also had made mashed sweet potatoes – something she had learned from the thanksgiving meal that the other PCVs in my site and I had shared with her and the other families this Thanksgiving!
Most adults here say Christmas is for kids. There’s Mother’s Day for moms. Father’s Day for dads. And Christmas for kids. (Yep, those of us adults without kids are a really weird thing for most people (a topic for another day), so we don’t get acknowledged.) So, the gift-giving at Christmas is usually just for the kids. But luckily, my family has decided to do Secret Santa the past two years, so the adults draw names, and we each give and get one gift. (I love it…when I only have to think about one gift, I can put a lot of thought into it and get a really good gift, whereas I really struggle to get everyone a meaningful gift when I buy for everyone. But I digress.)
This year all the kids got something with wheels…the 3-year-old got a tricycle, the 6-year-old got a bicycle, and the 8-year-old got rollerblades.
And then we had Secret Santa, which was pretty great and low key, until…my dad had drawn my oldest sister (who is 2 years older than me), and he gave her a bicycle! It was the cutest, funniest, sweetest thing ever. She shed a tear or two, and I’m pretty sure she was more excited about her bicycle than her 6-year-old daughter was about hers!
So, for me, Christmas here is actually pretty similar to how I celebrated Christmas with my family my whole life. So why do so many Peruvians and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) say that Christmas is a bigger deal in the States? Of course I will not leave you without sharing my theories:
- Christmas movies. There are tons of them, and a lot of what Peruvians know about the U.S. comes from Hollywood (yep, the image of Americans is that we are all wealthy, sex-crazed, work-aholics, thanks to Hollywood), so Christmas seems like a real big deal to Americans just because there are so many movies about it, and not so many movies about other holidays.
- In the states, Christmas tends to be one of the bigger holidays of the year (advertised like crazy (even BEFORE Thanksgiving!), tons of movies about it (as I said above), secularized and celebrated by the majority, even non-Christians). In the US, I can’t really think of another holiday that would be bigger, generally speaking, given the media attention Christmas gets in the States, so it is our biggest holiday – or among the biggest…
- While Christmas is celebrated in a similar manner here, it is dwarfed by the celebrations of other holidays. Compared to the other celebrations that they have here in Peru, Christmas is a pretty low-key family celebration…meanwhile Independence Day, Semana Santa, and the town anniversary and the day of the patron saint are huge, town-wide parties that last up to a week, and all have multiple parades, concerts, fireworks shows and tons of festive activities.
So these other celebrations are like a combination of many of our holidays: New Years Eve and 4th of July (for the fireworks), plus Thanksgiving (for the parade), plus state fair (for the activities), and Christmas (for the decorations they put up all over town). And so, as a Peruvian or a PCV, Christmas appears like a pretty minor holiday here.