A Nativity and Christmas without Snow
Contributed By Carmela Melero Hooker, Young Women general board
Peru has always been a very religious country that celebrates Christmas. But more important than a Christmas tree is preparing the nativity and dinner together. There are large and small nativities—Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, the Wise Men, the animals, and the whole village.
The nativity is assembled in many public places, all decorated with beautiful Christmas decorations, especially the star. In Peru, it is summer in December and the weather is hot. It is hard to move in the chaos. Christmas music is heard everywhere, and bakeries offer baking turkeys and pigs. Millions of turkeys and panettones are sold. Panettone is said to be a European tradition, but it is also a Peruvian tradition of bell-shaped sweet bread with raisins and colored, candied fruit. It is eaten only in July to celebrate our national anniversary and December to celebrate Christmas. Every home has at least one panettone, but there could be more. In Peru there is no Christmas without panettone.
The last Christmas shopping is done on December 24 and the stores are crowded. All homes have their tree and nativity. All homes and shopping centers hang their Christmas decorations, and many lights illuminate the city.
Putting up the ornaments at home is a serious business. We need to find old ornaments and buy new decorations as well. Tree size is important—the bigger the better. They all are plastic. In Peru, snow does not fall at Christmas since it is summer, but we try to imagine falling snow as elsewhere in the world. We like the idea that Santa Claus comes from a very distant and cold place. Christmas is celebrated with much excitement and much noise. We also have hot chocolate although the weather is not cold. We like it. Fireworks go off from early evening until late.
I remember as a child on December 24, my relatives would gather in the home of a family member. The heart of the family was my grandmother, and her children gathered around her with their own families. This tradition was so strong that everyone waited until the next day to visit their other families. Everyone brought something for dinner and arrived one by one to leave many gifts under the tree and the nativity. After dinner we all gathered in a circle and one of my aunts or older cousins would distribute the gifts, which could take a long time.
The gifts from our Catholic godparents were the nicest. We would open all our gifts at the same time after the last one was distributed. We were excited to see what we had been given and what everyone else had received. We had never seen so many toys to play with. It was amazing to see the kids so happy.
We were very anxious for Christmas morning. The gifts we received later at home were by special order in a little note put on boots for Santa Claus. These were very serious and nobody should see them but us. They would later share them with friends or cousins. We knew Santa Claus would deliver our gifts that night, but we had to go to bed so that he could come to our home. Once I stood on the stairs waiting all night to see Santa Claus coming, but at about 4:00 a.m. I was so sleepy. So I went to bed, and I never got to see him. I only saw the presents under the tree the next day, and so I tried again each year to discover Santa Claus, which I never did.
Nostalgically, I remember those Christmases so well. The most important thing was being together as family with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. From the early hours of the night we had seen our mom wrapping many gifts, with names for each of the family members. We had big bags to take home all the gifts we had received. On Christmas Eve, after eating the dinner of turkey, tamales, pork, bread, chocolate, salad, punch, applesauce, rice, mashed potatoes, dried fruit, and fresh fruit, we waited for midnight.
Once we began to hear the fireworks, we knew there were five minutes left, and then when we felt stronger and stronger noise in the heavens, we knew that there was just one minute left. We would begin counting backwards until at midnight we would greet each other with a hug and kiss, wishing everyone “Merry Christmas.”
I was not a member of the Church at that time, so it was hard to have a spiritual moment or a family home evening. But now that I am a member, I would have loved to share Christmas with my family, especially remembering the Savior.
The happy moments of Christmas could also be accompanied by sadness for those who had passed away. But then the children's happiness would always change the sadness. We used to dance and laugh late into the night until each one of us would slowly say good-bye and go home. The next day we would all visit other families and eat what was left over from the night before. I remember with joy those moments. The next day many families would go to the beach.
Now that I have my own family, we enjoy new traditions. From Venezuela, I learned to prepare Christmas dinner the day before, where all the family enjoys being together, sharing responsibilities, preparing food, and laughing. It is such a great family time. My mother-in-law taught me another tradition from Spain called “Tortitas de Noche Buena” (Little Christmas Eve Cake). It is made from a dough of flour and eggs, which is cut into thick strips and then fried in oil. They were placed in a dish and covered with honey. They are amazing and especially wonderful the next day.
My immediate family are members of the Church now, and we gather to make our own live nativity scene where we dress up as all the characters. Children are the animals. As we read the story, all the characters act out the passages of scripture which are read. Children enjoy Christmas in a more significant way and then receive their gifts to open that night. They enjoy being together and do not forget that Jesus is the most important person in the Christmas season and why we celebrate it as a family. I miss that feeling as a girl, eager to receive gifts and be with my cousins, but now Christmas is more meaningful to me.