When we were first planning (in the loosest sense of the word) our South America trip, the initial intention was to return home in the middle of December. There were a number of factors which led us to make it longer, and personally I’m very glad we did. But one of the big hesitancies in increasing the timescale, was the fact that it would mean missing Christmas at home. For both of us, it would be the second time in 3 years that we’ve been in the Americas for Christmas. After spending about 90% of my first 22 Christmases in Miton Keynes, it makes quite a change. Hard for us, hard for our families. But that’s what we decided, and so it was to be a first married Christmas thousands of miles from home, with only each other for company. How does a South American Christmas differ?
Well, at least for us, the core doesn’t change at all. Christmas is an occasion to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, what he came to Earth to do, and how his coming represented the central part in God’s plan to save us from sin. It gives time and space to think about and reflect on the miraculous nature of his birth, and the message of hope and peace that he brings to a very troubled world. Christmas (as a celebration) isn’t mentioned in the Bible, it’s very unlikely that Jesus was even born in December, and the festival we now know as Christmas was once a pagan festival. All true. But I think it’s a great thing that we spend some time every year reflecting on the coming of our Saviour to the world. This is as true, and as possible to do, in Santiago as in Stoke, in Vina del Mar as in Vauxhall. It gives such a greater level of meaning to all the other stuff that goes on at Christmas. It is very sad in my mind when ‘Merry Christmas’ becomes ‘Happy Holidays’, because you lose the truth and joy that the (true) Christmas story brings into the world. I hope that this Christmas has given you at least the opportunity to reflect on whether there is something worth investigating about this man who came to Earth and claimed to be God.
But while the core reason for celebration doesn’t change, obviously some stuff is different. I’d be lying if I said this Christmas has felt exactly the same as all others. For example, while over the last few years I’ve been to at least half a dozen carol services per Christmas, this year we only went to one, at an English speaking church. We’ve spent Advent travelling across Argentina and Chile, and then Christmas itself in and around Santiago. Here, Summer is approaching, basically every day has been brilliantly sunny, and above 25 degrees. For the most part it’s much more pleasant than 7 degrees and drizzle (though I must admit we were jealous of the snowfall).
But it just feels weird to be celebrating Christmas when it’s hot outside. I think this has quite a big effect on how it’s celebrated. The narrative in the Northern Hemisphere is that it’s cold and snowy outside, and that Christmas is a time to be spent inside with family and friends, tucked up cozily around a log fire, enjoying a respite from the darkness outside and tucking into lots of good food while watching repeats of Only Fools and Horses. That doesn’t work here. It’s lovely being outside, and it doesn’t get dark until about 9pm. People are much more likely to be having a barbecue than sitting inside roasting chestnuts on an open fire (whatever that actually involves). I’m sure for anybody from the Southern Hemisphere this is completely normal, but for me it just doesn’t chime with my cultural experience of what doing Christmas means.
Interestingly, because lots of recent Latin American culture seems to copy much of what comes from North America, we’ve still seen a fair amount of snowman and reindeer decorations and plenty of other Christmas paraphenalia that wouldn’t last 5 minutes in this kind of heat.
Another big difference is that here Christmas is primarily celebrated on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day (or what we saw of it), was very quiet, and not much seemed to be going on at all. We went to church on Christmas Eve, then spent the rest of the day with a family in Santiago with whom we have mutual friends in England, who very kindly invited us to join their extended family celebration. After spending the afternoon and early evening relaxing by the pool, we finally got round to eating Christmas Dinner at 11.15pm! Nobody else batted an eyelid at the lateness. In hindsight, this kind of behaviour is probably why Christmas Day isn’t a very big thing… Still, I can report that Chilean red wine washes down roast turkey very nicely.
But although there were stylistic differences, I think the thing that threw us more than anything was the ‘people’ element of Christmas. We’ve both only ever known Christmas spent with our families, often with extended family too. My only Christmas without my family was 2 years ago in Nicaragua, but then that was spent with Evie’s family. This time, for most of December we were just hopping from place to place on our own. Instead of spending a couple of hours opening dozens of presents surrounded by people, these were our meagre pickings for this year.
Incidentally, even getting this stuff for each other was hard, due to the complexity involved with doing things independently of each other (one metro card, one room key, one mobile phone so no chance to coordinate meeting, etc). Added to the fact that we have to carry anything we buy for another month in already stuffed rucksacks… We gave ourselves 2 hours at a big mall to divide and conquer; looking for “small, lightweight gifts that don’t cost too much money”…
Christmas is also usually a time for catching up with old friends when you go home, and going to lots of Christmas parties with friends in the run up. That side of it, we’ve also completely missed. Apart from a few notable exceptions, we spent most of our time on our own, meeting lots of people, but not people who already knew us.
But please, don’t cry for me, Argentina. We were very fortunate that we weren’t completely isolated over the Christmas period. Thanks to modern technology, we could Skype both our families on Christmas Day, watch them open the presents we had bought them (in my case, hastily from Amazon, sorry) and get a taste of what was happening at ‘proper’ Christmas back home.
We were also very lucky that this period of our trip was when we’d be very close to a number of mutual friends. Andy & Bethanie Walker & family very kindly put us up for a few days at the start of Advent. We stayed with Pato, Dagmar & family just before Christmas, and will be doing so again for New Year. Christian, Paula & family invited us to spend Christmas Eve at their house, which involved a huge, lengthy and very entertaining family gathering. And friends who I had met once in England 4 years ago, Diego & Sabrina, spent a day taking us around Santiago and making us feel very at home. We’re incredibly grateful to all those who invited us in to their homes to spend time with them & their families.
I won’t say this is the ‘true meaning of Christmas’, some relatively (on a global scale) wealthy young people making use of contacts to enjoy Christmas with others. It isn’t. The true meaning of Christmas can be summed up by Matthew 1:23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).’ But it is the acceptance of the fact that God came into our world through Jesus, and a desire to orientate lives around it, that enables us as humans to show true love, and true hospitality. We’re very grateful for how we’ve benefitted from that over the past couple of weeks, and feel like we’ve learnt a lot from it. On a human level, Christmas felt quite different, but because of this, definitely didn’t feel worse.
We’d like to wish you all a very happy, if slightly belated, Christmas!