by Sara Dykman
Christmas comes but once year, and like most holidays it is filled with traditions. Growing up in Kansas, Christmas started weeks before the 25th. Thanksgiving would kick off the mayhem. My family would put up a plastic Christmas tree and our growing assortment of decorations, buy popcorn, visited Santa, and look forward to food, presents, and a break from school.
For me Christmas was going to my grandparents’ house to gorge on my grandma’s huge Christmas Eve dinner. Every year it was a Christmas feast that started with amazing buttery rolls and ended with pies to satisfy everyone’s tastes. ´For me Christmas was opening up presents and putting on a fashion show using the recently discarded wrapping paper. For me Christmas was running downstairs on Christmas day to discover our tree in a flood of presents. For me Christmas day was eating breakfast my mom would prepare, and then usually making the three hour car trip to visit my mom’s side of the family.
Being away from home for Christmas inevitably means missing traditions that make Christmas what I know it to be. I knew Christmas would not be the same in Colombia, away from my family, the cold, and the traditions, but I knew that with a bit of luck we might be able to celebrate Christmas the Colombian way. So as Christmas approached I didn’t wish for a white Christmas, lots of presents, or even pie. I wished for a fun place to stay, to learn some of the traditions of a Colombian Christmas.
Leading up to Christmas we had been lucky enough to participate in some pre-Christmas traditions when staying with families, the Bomberos and the Defensa Civil. We had gotten to sing carols (more like mumble) around a tree, eat Christmas cookies, and enjoy the many manger scenes. In every house, every fire station, and every Defense Civil we have seen these elaborate manger scenes. I am accustomed to the simpler manger scenes with baby Jesus, Mary, three wise men, and a few selected farm animals. In Colombia every manger scene sits within a large village scene, and beyond the key players there are fields of sheep, palm trees, camels, horses, houses, you name it.
We had been able to participate in these moments using a simple approach: force nothing, expect nothing, and see what happens. Christmas was no different, and so when we stopped for orange juice and a break in the town square of Zipacon we had no expectations. We would be happy to eat an exciting meal cooked in a hopefully kind of clean hotel room.
It was Christmas Eve and Zipacon had that lazy feel of a town without time. People wandered while Christmas music quietly filled the plaza through the churches blown out speakers. Jose sold orange juice alongside a man selling grilled corn. We bought both, and asked the men about places to stay for Christmas. Jose suggested a place, and even though it was early we decided it would be worth it to stop early in a small town than to continue on to a bigger (and thus less welcoming) town. Of course all of the places he could think of were all ready full, and that was when we suggested his house. He warned us it was a small house, but we were welcome to stay.
We said yes, and ended up celebrating Christmas with Jose, his daughter and her two young daughters, his two sons, and a steady string of neighbors that came and went. But first we visited with Jose at his juice stand.
Jose is in his fifties, but seemed older. Maybe it is because in February his wife died. He talks about her a lot and maybe it is the reason he isn’t doing much for Christmas. Maybe he seems so tired because his work is demanding and relentless. Every morning at 1:30 am he wakes up to make bread for a local restaurant. After making bread he heads to the town square to sell orange juice and coffee. Whatever it is, I hoped sharing Christmas would help all of us.
After selling juice till the afternoon, Jose was ready to pack up his business and lead us to his house. It was true that his house was small. The doors led into a room brimming with shelves, chairs, and a giant bread oven. The baking trays, prep table, and bread roller are placed awkwardly and the room took on the feel of a maze. We meandered the tight spaces to find a small counter and and stove. Then we crowded into the bedroom of the two room house to drink soda and watch TV and discuss what we wanted to cook for Christmas dinner.
We suggested to Jose that we could help cook a more traditional Colombian Christmas dinner, or we could cook something less traditional and share. He seemed happy to have some folks volunteer to cook and said that he would eat whatever we cooked. We inventoried his kitchen, we toured the supermercado, and took a head count. There would be nine people, the kitchen was more like a walk in kitchen, and the grocery store was a great place to buy last minute items more than entire shopping lists. If felt like an episode of Dinner Impossible (a TV show we have learned to love in South America where a guy pretends like he is Tom Cruise and has to cook a lot of food with limited resource). Jose did have an amazing oven for cooking bread, and so, with our options limited, we decide to go with pizza and crepes (the crepes were our French biking buddy Vivi’s idea).
Pizza!!!???? Crepes!!!!???? I too was worried. I imagined three foreigners coming to my house for Thanksgiving and announcing that they would be cooking Chinese food. Certainly I would like the meal, but the whole time I would be looking for mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. For this reason (and because I was trying to eliminate mistranslations) we confirmed multiple times that pizza would work. Then we went to the store and bought what we could.
Making the pizza was an event in itself. Jose’s two grandkids, Valantina and Natalia (ages 6 and 5), helped flatten the dough and add the ingredients. I had to order them into the bathroom several times to wash their hands. They would get distracted by the box of 20 baby chickens or the kitten, and then return to the pizza only to rub their hands in the dough. Luckily they were adorably cute and thus easily forgivable. We were able to cover the smudge marks with sauce and toppings, put the pizzas in the oven, and open the apple wine without much to do.
Jose’s family enjoyed the pizza. I saw several of them go back for thirds without us insisting. We of course cooked for nine cyclists instead of 3 cyclists and 5 normal people, and thus had A LOT of pizza. They looked at us like we were crazy when we started in making crepes for dessert.
After a rather non-traditional Christmas meal, we sat on the bed in the small bedroom and watched TV. Valantina and Natalia played with the kitten until they fell asleep, and Christmas kind of faded into just another day. We were all tired and no one really wanted to go to the town square and dance and drink till the wee hours of the morning. Anyway, Jose had to wake up at 1am to start making bread. We wished each other a Feliz Navidad, and fell asleep.
In the morning Valantina, Natalia, and their mom, Sandra, took us on a walk of the town. We visit the cow-mowed park and wander along the quite stone lined foot paths, before visiting Jose at his orange juice stand. Jose is so happy to see us, and thanks us again for staying. I hope we were able to ease his mind this Christmas, help him fight his shadows, and enjoy Christmas. It seems like we have.
I know that I enjoyed Christmas. I enjoyed seeing another side of Christmas, where the food and gifts are hardly thought about at all. I enjoyed sharing cultures, and participating in another culture’s idea of Christmas. And while it might not have been the Christmas I am use to, it was a Christmas I’ll never forget.