The hands of time swung again…
For the second time in a dozen years I moved, this time to Argentina, where I experienced Christmas in yet another country with its own set of traditions. Here there is intense, heavy summer heat. Jasmine, lilac and blue wisteria blossoms, crimson and bougainvillea, reminiscent of my Pharaonic homeland, fill the air with the scents of summer. Outdoor fires heat barbecue "asado" grills near lavishly spread outdoor tables, in readiness for large family gatherings, amid the sounds of revelry bouncing in a domino effect from house to house. "Kiosko" stands, poised for the busiest time of the year, line the sidewalks of the plaza square, stocked to the hilt with fireworks and firecrackers, and excitement is everywhere, spoken, shouted, and sung in yet another tongue: Spanish.
We discovered (after the fact!) that the entire country erects Christmas trees in their homes on the same day: December 6. Besides being Saint Nicolas's birthday, that is the day of the Virgin Mary, celebrated with processions throughout the nation.
That first year, we missed the boat… Finding the kind of tree we wanted, when most people use artificial trees, was a real challenge, so we took our quest for a fir to the local nursery. Though small, our tree was a live pine; miraculously it has survived through the six moves we've made since coming to this country. The American practice of sending Santa to shopping malls has broken ground here, but Santa isn't as lavish in his gifts. Christmas is mostly religious and family-oriented, with the "big" gifts reserved for a later date.
That first Christmas when we left for midnight mass, we were met with a surprise. We found that our little church had spilled out onto the fragrant plaza, which had been sealed off to motorized traffic to make room for the open-air celebrations. There was a majesty to celebrating Christmas under the night sky, the celestial ceiling linking us to distant loved ones. Before the service had ended, an explosion of light, color, and sound had started in an escalating display of fireworks that didn't let up till dawn.
My early-to-bed, early-to-rise boys teetered between exuberance and dismay. "Ooooh, this one's gorgeous!" was interspersed with, "Will Santa's sled catch fire? Won't the fireworks scare him away? How will he make it to our house? Does he even know we've moved to Argentina?" and then, most rending of all, "Mom, what if Santa goes to our old house in the States and doesn't find us, will he take our gifts to someone else?"
Bedtime had come and gone, but this Santa's helper couldn't get to work. Nothing would induce the children to miss the sky show that put Fourth of July fireworks to shame. We sat mesmerized on the yard's swing, gazing at the smoky night while our dog was driven to a frenzy of panicked racing with each bang that resounded overhead.
On January 6, the three Wise Men traveling from afar arrive at the largest plaza in the city on their camels, sparking immense excitement among adults and kids alike. That evening, Argentinean children leave their shoes outside their front door, along with some grass, water, and carrots to feed the camels. They are rewarded by a night-time visit from the Wise Men, whose camels generally wreck havoc within people's homes, but are readily forgiven because of all the loot they bring in with the mess!
Now, for the sixth consecutive year, I'm gearing up to celebrate another Christmas in Argentina, still mentally reconciling my notions of snuggling by a fireplace with the inappropriateness of Santa's winter suit in the sweltering heat, and thinking of the lessons learned in the wake of his sled as it charges from continent to continent. Gone are the days when people were born, lived, and died knowing nothing but the thin slice of life they were born into. In our world of shrinking borders and cyber knowledge, our children's futures are painted in a multi-faceted rainbow of mingling races and peoples, and one of the largest life lessons they need to grasp is tolerance and acceptance of others.
Who knows, maybe Santa, too, will need to adjust. Will he show up in a red bathing suit this year?