Some people are social conservatives; I’m a seasonal conservative. I insist that my family strictly adhere to every holiday observance, from putting the angel on the tree on Christmas Eve before attending the Christmas pageant at church, to stuffing stockings for every member of our family even though the youngest is over 30 and therefore a few years past believing-in-Santa age, to eating the traditional vassilopita on New Year’s Day. But this year, my second married Christmas, we would be visiting my husband’s family in Nicaragua, so it was the first I’d spend away from my natal family in over 35 years. This year I would answer the question: what does a Christmas without snow and my sister look like?
Here in Nicaragua, the weather is beautiful, we’ve been attending nonstop parties with the most fun relatives, and Amalía has been held by so many people that I don’t think her diaper-clad butt has touched a piece of furniture since she got here. But despite all the joy of being with Emilio’s family, it was hard for me to muster the Christmas spirit at first. There was no snow or crisp winter air. There were Christmas trees, but they’re all faux and perfectly decorated as if by a professional, not aromatic pines covered in ornaments you made in 5th grade art class, like a tree should be (although the mini Martha Stewart in me was wildly impressed by a tree draped in live calla lilies). There was no sister Marina to sit with me and write letters to Santa. And there was also no cell phone, since mine was stolen on my first day here, and, often, no wi-fi to collect cyber Christmas greetings. I was quickly turning into a Grinch.
But then Emilio’s Tío William, a man who refers to himself as a walking happy hour, mentioned that he was going to be riding around from nativity scene to nativity scene the following evening to check out the installations, and he’d be bringing his bar with him (and a driver, fear not). And thus a new tradition was born: Nacimiento Tailgate. (I’d appreciate it f you could stretch the words out over 6 syllables and clap three times at the end: Na-ci-mien-to Tail-gate, clap, clap, clap!)
Wine and folk art? This sounded like my kind of holiday observance. So we bundled up Amalía and followed our leader to the first Nacimiento, on the grounds of a school for at-risk youth. You have to Nacimiento Tailgate at night, because that’s when the nativity scenes are lit up, and music is broadcast over the scene. This nativity had everything in the Bible, it seemed, from Herod’s castle to a manger awaiting “Papa Chu” (or maybe it’s Papachu), which is what people call the baby Jesus here, I’m not exactly sure why–Emilio speculates it’s because Chu is a nickname for the name Jesus (as in “Hay-seus” for the honkies out there). Other families were Nacimiento-ing (if not tailgating), spotting scenes and images from Biblical literature (“that volcano is the inferno” I heard a grade school aged boy say), and popular characters from folk songs, such as the little donkey who is the star of the Nicaraguan Christmas song “Mi Burrito Sabanero” about a plain little donkey traveling back and forth to Bethlehem.
Our next stop was in a private home, where, each year, the family puts together their Nacimiento in a different way, adding different characters. This year they had Roman centurions along the side and a fisherman reeling his catch up from a fishing hole. It was like visiting the Neapolitan creche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Christmas tree, one of my favorite New York holiday traditions, where angels and wise men mingle with Neapolitan villagers going about their daily business.
We had to end our tailgate there, because the littlest tailgaters were getting sleepy, but the next day I saw another Nacimiento in a relative’s neighbor’s home. The most moving part was that, until the 25th, he covers Papachu in the manger with a cloth bearing the image of his deceased father.
By now, I’d forgotten my lost cell phone and missing wifi; it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. One thing I’ve always loved about Christianity is the emphasis on a little baby as a sign of joy and salvation. This year, with my own little baby in my arms (and in everyone else’s) I felt this human connection even more so. At mass on Christmas day, Amalía’s Abuelita took her up to touch the statue of Papachu before the priest set Him in the manger, now that He had finally been born. After the mass concluded, a couple brought their own three-month-old baby up for a blessing and rested her on the altar table, where she lay in ray of sunlight looking like a living Nacimiento.
Later that day, Tío William took us on another adventure, to a Purísima at the home of his driver. Purísimas are celebrations of the Virgin Mary and are usually held in early December when the Immaculate Conception of Mary (a belief held in Catholicism but not in Orthodoxy) is observed. There was an altar to Mary, much singing, dancing, and shouting back and forth, and the setting off of fireworks. There were also favors–not goodie bags but goodie buckets filled with fruit, fermented barley drinks, candy, and other traditional offerings. I was surrounded by mothers holding baby’s on their laps, and I remembered something one of Amalía’s said to me earlier in the week. Holding the baby, she said, “You guys are so lucky, you get to see that smile every day.”
I still miss snow, but that is what Christmas looks like to me now–a grinning baby and a smiling mother. And in another Christmas miracle, my husband was able to fix the Wifi so we could Skype with my family and share Amalía’s smile on Christmas day.