The last post addressed the general Christmas season in Riobamba. Now, I will go into my Christmas, how I merged my traditions with those of Ecuador and how my family celebrated Christmas.
First, I’ll be honest and say that it was harder to be away for Christmas than I thought it would be. Especially because, a few weeks before December 25th, things were a bit rocky in my house. I seriously considered switching host families. Plus, I spent a considerable amount of time either sick with a cold or with some kind of stomach thing, and as we learn in Med-o-Lark camp counselor training week, kids are always more prone to homesickness when they don’t feel well. I’m happy to say that things with Reyna have improved and I do not want to change families anymore, but being away from my real family and friends during Christmas made me miss them. My other volunteer friends, Alice and Felicia, felt the same way. The weekend before Christmas, we had a little English-speaking Christmas party! It was fantastic- Christmas carols hummed in the background, we ate Christmas treats from Sweden, England, and the US that we had all done our best to cook with limited Ecuadorian ingredients, we chatted, and we watched Love, Actually, one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies.
My contribution to the Ecuadorian Christmas was the American tradition of baking cookies. Ecuadorians really do not bake much. I thought that maybe it was just that Reyna wasn’t into baking; her oven functions as more of a storage space than a kitchen appliance and she had no flour or measuring cups on hand. But, after describing this phenomenon to Alice and Felicia, I learned that their families used ovens as cabinets as well. My Ecuadorians-don’t-bake stereotype was confirmed when I searched a few kitchen supply stores for measuring cups and measuring spoons, only to find that they don’t exist here. But this didn’t keep me from giving those in my host family a taste of US holiday spirit! Over the last few weeks, I have cooked no-bake cookies (which were the easiest to fake, because the measurements didn’t have to be that exact, since no baking was required), sugar cookies (these tasted alright, but kind of failed because my estimations of the ingredients didn’t work so well), and chocolate chip cookies (these turned out pretty well!) I spoke with Reyna earlier in the month about gift-giving here, trying to get a feel for how it worked. I’m used to spending around $20, more or less, on each family member, plus buying things for some friends, but this Christmas, I never would have been able to afford to spend like that, so I wanted to know about how much I needed to spend. She said it was more about being together, that the gifts were not very valuable. I offered to cook many cookies for them, and to make them a nice Christmas day breakfast, and she said that would be a wonderful gift!
Christmas Eve, I started on my chocolate chip cookies, an American classic. Since chocolate chips don’t exist here, I had to make my own by chopping chocolate bars into little pieces. Reyna’s son, Juan Pablo, watched me do this and asked if I was going to crush them and melt the chocolate. Poor dear is clueless of the magic of chocolate chips.
I had to adjust the ingredients because of the high altitude, adding a little more liquid, baking powder, and reducing the sugar. When the dough was ready, with all the appreciation in the world for what I had made, I scooped a bit onto my index finger and savored the taste. Then, I looked at Juan Pablo, this 25 year old man and asked “So, have you ever made cookies?” “No, never!” I then gave a grown man cookie dough for the first time in his life. If, by April, my students know no more English than when I came and my Spanish is still at a basic level, my time here will be justified by the fact that I introduced an adult to the wonder of raw cookie dough.
Reyna’s family LOVED the cookies! It made me very happy.
Another tradition that I dragged with me into my Riobambanian Christmas is the singing of Christmas Carols. Of course, there are carols here too. They’re called villancicos (bee-jan-see-coes). But I’m a sucker for the songs that I know, so I was often listening to the English Christmas carols I had in my itunes library. I taught my students a few carols. I realized, after the fact, that I should have started teaching them earlier, because many of the last few days of school were devoted to preparing for the Christmas program, so they didn’t really learn the songs very well. One of the classes in Guamote sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at their program, in front of all their parents! Here’s a clip of them singing. They start out super confused, because I think they had forgotten it (and, with this class, I didn’t teach anything but the chorus), but after about 20 seconds, they remember the song! Also, they say “and a happy new you” because our Good Morning song has the words “good morning to you,” and I think they couldn’t get that phrase out of their minds… Even with its flaws, the video makes me smile!
Finally, my celebration of Christmas night/ day.
Christmas Eve, there were some problems with the chicken (which was being cooked in a store- Ecuadorians and their complexes with using ovens!). It was supposed to be ready for us to pick up at 6:30, but it wasn’t ready until about 11 pm. While we waited, we relaxed with the family, drank some wine that I had bought (gosh, I miss red wine!), and… I slept a little.
Finally, the chicken arrived (“Wake up, Tricia!”). Even though it was a Saturday, I had woken up at 5:30, since my body is used to that now, so I was exhausted and felt more like sleeping than eating a huge meal, but I ate what I could. Here’s my plate:
We sat around the table, enjoying the highly anticipated chicken, for about thirty minutes. Then, afraid I would fall asleep into my plate, I tried excusing myself and going to bed. “No, we still have to open the presents!” I was sure we were going to open them the morning of Christmas, not Christmas Eve! “Really? We’re doing that tonight?” “Yes!”
So, we were up until about 12:30, opening presents. Here, the presents were much less of a big deal than they are in the US. In addition to baking, I gave Reyna and Anita Julia framed pictures that I had taken of their family- they loved this. I liked that being together was a more important part of the holiday than buying presents the receivers would be awed and delighted by. It reduced the pressure to spend a lot, but was equally wonderful and special. My favorite present was an Ecuador-made purse 🙂 After all the presents had been opened, we took a few pictures around the tree.
By the time I finally went to bed that night, it was hard to sleep because there was some sort of concert in a nearby park, and speakers were blaring the music. There were also fireworks blasting, of course. It was definitely a different kind of Christmas. One I will always remember!