We knew this holiday season was going to be different than we were used to; for one: we were far from home, and two: we were away from Israel for the first time. I was thrilled to be missing the consumerist frenzy that is Christmas at home, but the down side was, there would be no tree, no cookie decorating, no holiday parties, no festive lights, and no family.
Part of experiencing a new culture is discovering how they spend their holidays. For us, this meant it came time to explain to the little boys the real reason for Christmas. Jovani vaguely remembered the Jesus story since he went to an Episcopalian preschool, but it was Judah’s first time to hear of it. That may sound surprising, but we are secular and living in the U.S. means the Christmas celebration is generally about getting new toys and gifts. Thanks to Judah’s fascination with them, the boys have been to more churches here in the past three months than in their whole lives at home. We found numerous churches in Loja, but one of them had the most fantastic nativity scene that I have ever seen. It had the usual Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, three wise men, and various cloven animals in a barn, but it contained so much more. It was like they built many different miniature biblical towns, there were colored lights that changed from day to night, waterfalls, steam rising from cauldrons, and many moving parts. We were all fascinated, I kind of wish I knew more about the bible to better understand what the scenes were depicting.
I seriously downplayed Christmas this year since I didn’t want the boys to focus on Israel not being there, so it wasn’t until the middle of December that they began to notice Christmas decorations in Loja and ask me when Santa was coming. In Ecuador, Santa still isn’t a big thing. In the cities more people are succumbing to the commercial aspect of the holiday, and some even put up Christmas trees. Middle and upper class families often buy toys for their children, but traditionally Christmas here is about going to midnight mass, eating a family meal afterwards, and when gift exchange occurs it is generally a gift of candy or other small trifles.
The boys gifts would have to be small, really small, and I wasn’t quite sure what my toy options would be in Loja, so I made sure to pick up a couple of fake Lego minifigures while we were in Cuenca the first time. There ended up being no need to shop so early since Loja had some toy stores. I got a chance to slip away from the boys one afternoon before Christmas and buy a couple more things at the large toy store I had seen next to the Super Maxi grocery store. I just needed to find a Star Wars Lego set and The Best Power Ranger Gun Ever (my kids don’t make lists, they ask Santa for one thing). Unfortunately the Power Rangers haven’t made it to Ecuador yet, so a tiny Nerf gun and a bit of imagination had to suffice. Then I found the Lego section. Once I saw it I then understood why there were all the weird Chinese knock off Legos that I had seen in many small toy shops in Cuenca. The Legos were more than double the price than in the States! I choked down my cheapskate tendencies and bought a small set despite the price tag. Things like fruits vegetables, gasoline, land, and water are very inexpensive in Ecuador, but decent quality clothes, toys, electronics, cars, and meat can be twice as expensive as in the U.S.
It was important to me to stay somewhere that had a family that we could get to know a bit and that might take us in for Christmas. So we were very lucky to find the Madrigal de Podocarpus Reserve and the Tapia family. The three siblings invited us and another American family whose children are attending the school for Christmas dinner at the preserve. The dinner was an interesting blend of different kinds of foods since the other American family is vegetarian. The little boys enjoyed the mac n cheese and Joaquin was pleased to see pork on the table. I enjoyed simply being among new friends on Christmas Eve.
New Year’s is celebrated much differently here than in the U.S, they still shoot fireworks and party like us, but there’s more to their celebration. Around Christmastime in Loja I started to see these large dolls appear in different store fronts. They were made of newspaper and dressed in old clothes, donned with a plastic mask for a face. I asked someone what that was all about and they explained to me that on New Year’s eve (they call it Año Viejo or Old Year) people make or buy these large effigies to burn. The dummies are a representation of all the negativity from the old year and are burned at midnight. Sometimes people write down their problems or worries and put them inside the doll to burn them away and leave them in the old year. Cool idea, right?
Here’s where things turn weird. So, the dolls are usually male, and on New Year’s Eve the ‘widows’ of the dolls come out to mourn their scorched husbands. The ‘widows’ are young men dressed up as women they parade around dancing and partying in the streets like cross-dressers on sixth street, wearing tight skirts, make up, and stuffed bras. They then commence to stop traffic and ask for money. The traffic gets crazy with all the road blocks and it takes forever and a pocket full of change to get anywhere. The kids get into it too. They dress up in whatever costume they have and sit in front of their houses with a rope pulled tight across the street like a road block. It was so much fun to walk around town today and see the festivities. This is the most interesting Ecuadorian holiday tradition that I have come across. I’m just glad I’m not driving anywhere tonight!