A bit about how we did things when I was a child:
Like many Latin American families, we celebrated Christmas by going to church for the midnight service, staying up late to open presents on the 25th in the wee hours of the night (I am talking 12 am and later) eating the entire time (pasteles, lechon asado arroz con gandules- google it you'll get it) and going out on parrandas (caroling with jibaro style music at all hours of the night regardless of the weather and being fed insane amounts of sweets and great food) after opening presents. For several years this was taken from us as I explain below. I come from a large family, so we did our best to regain our Christmas as we became teenagers. Yet, age, distance and just growing up in America won. For the most part, my littel families doesn't stay up until midnight for presents. We open presents like most Americans do on the morning of the 25th, and we don't go "de parrandas" anymore. This makes me a bit sad at times as I long for those traditions. My brothers still keep this tradition alive since they married into more Latino families than I did.
When Christmas went away:
Christmas was taken from me as a young child. My dear grandmother passed away on Christmas Eve. While my parents did their best to keep Christmas a fun and joyous event, it was forever changed the day grandma passed to be with our Lord. I could see the sadness in my mother's eyes every year at Christmas after that. Because I was small, I became confused about how I should feel about Christmas. My grandmother was a safe haven, a secret keeper, a quiet place, my refuge (not that I grew up in a nightmare home but when there are so many of us, it can be overwhelming). We didn't put up Christmas trees for a very long time after her death and I cannot blame my parents. This seems to be all that I can recall… no Christmas trees. The holidays right after my grandmother passed have been locked out of my memory forever. I only have memories of my older teen years at Christmas and of the evening of her passing. Till this day I cannot hear "Silent Night" in Spanish without having to swallow back a huge lump in my throat or pretend that something is in my eye. You see, my sister and I were scheduled to sing "Noche de Paz" (Silent Night) at our church on the Christmas Eve that my grandmother passed. Because my parents did not want to upset anyone, they asked that we stick to our schedule and sing at the church. I will never forget my older sister's face as we sang in front of the congregation. I had to continuously look at her to find strength. If she wasn't going to cry, then neither would I. And, when I thought I would lose it, I would look down at her shoes. They were silver and shiny. She sang beautifully as she played the guitar and never missed a beat. I can't say the same for me.
I struggled with Christmas for a very long time after that. Grandma was a refuge for me and when she was gone, my refuge was gone too. Yet, I do recall that the spirit of Christmas slowly found its way back into our lives even if weakly at times and even if at times we were desperately lacking. Mom struggled with Christmas yet put her feelings aside so that we could enjoy this holy day. She would bake, write elaborate Christmas plays for our church, sew beautiful dresses for us and send us on parandas (caroling Puerto Rican style). Yet, I could see right through her and cried silently with her every Christmas. Even when in 2000 my husband proposed on Christmas Eve, I let a tear fall for my dear grandmother. I wish she could have met my husband. Since my grandmother's death, Christmas was "present", but the joy seemed to be small, broken or missing pieces.
I found the joy of Christmas again the year my daughter was born. I was completely overwhelmed with joy. Picture a perfectly decorated Christmas home; a chubby infant napping near the fireplace; a husband who rivals Griswald himself and a thinner me (LOL). It was by far the most peaceful Christmas I had ever had. I will never forget Christmas 2004. It gave me hope that perhaps the Christmas spirit was stronger in me than what I thought.
Every year since then, I have tried my best to have a wonderful Christmas and cultivate that joy that I found once again. And, it is not through material means that I do it either. I do my best to invest in others. I do my best to spread good cheer. I do my best to smile when I hear Silent Night in Spanish even if it creates a lump in my throat and I do my best to remind myself that my grandmother received the best Christmas present anyone could ever have. In biblical times they did not celebrate birthdays but rather deaths since it was in death that the person received new and eternal life. So, I remind myself that I have real reason to celebrate. After all, grandma is partying in heaven;) She got to meet her Savior in person and dance in the heavens above on Christmas day. It was indeed a holy night for her and I shouldn't be saddened by her departure. Instead, I will celebrate Christmas with even more fervor, for she received the best gift of all: eternal life.
Christmas Today (2011):
After having children I realize how important those Christmas traditions are and I try to incorporate them into our lives today (even if it meant keeping the kids up at all crazy hours). How do I balance my American rituals with my Puerto Rican ones? Its a bit crazy but we try. 2011 was a big Christmas year. Despite a visit to the ER due to illness, we were able to come together and revisit our little traditions (especially since Mami and Papito were in town).
Dec 23: in the ER but all is well- I can move even if it means shuffling around.
Dec 24th Christmas Eve: Wake up as late as the little ones let us, take very long evening naps and head to town for the family event: Midnight church service, super duper late second dinner, open presents. We missed the singing- the parranda- but there is always music in the home of our childhood. Our father did his best so that those that did not sing, would play an instrument. Cuatros, maracas, guitarras and more would come out and bombas and laughter would ensue (seriously look up these terms on google - they are in Spanish). Arrive home at 4 am, exhausted but happy.
Dec 25th: Wake up at 7:30 am!!! Yawn!!! by a soft warm hand on my face telling me its morning. Look across the bed and see the other child tapping daddy on his feet softly as to wake him up. Despite illness and financial stress, were are greatly blessed with more than enough gifts that so many generous and wonderful people have given us.
Dec 25th : Its 1pm and the inlaws are arriving with "el recalentado" - left overs from their Christmas Eve dinner: What a spread! BBQ Ribs, Rotisserie Chicken and so much more. Open presents, laugh out loud, eat some more, play pictionary (laugh to hard and almost pee myself).
Jan 6th: Our last event of the Christmas season…. 3 Kings Day! This is celebrated in Latin American countries more so than Christmas. On the night of the 5th the kiddos leave oranges, water and anything else for the camels along with a letter for the 3 Kings. If the Kings find that the child is a good one (and they always are) they leave 3 presents. In our home, they always leave things the kiddos need. Sometimes if the kiddos are extra good that year, they leave toys. We wake up at 7:30 am on the clock (my kids have internal clock settings and never miss the time even when sleep deprived). I get to complain about how the camels (the kings come in camels as they did biblically looking for the Baby Jesus), eat my plants, make a mess in the living room with the cuddle blankets, leave orange peels everywhere and sometimes spill water. This year they weren't so bad. Last year they even left little brown presents all over the carpet (made from coco, white claydough and some imagination). In the evening we try to have someone over for dinner and a ROSCA - a round bread with a tiny baby Jesus in it- if you get it you host the next year's 3 Kings Dinner. This marks the end of our holiday season and the day the tree comes down.
That is it…. this is how we merge American and Puerto Rican in our home.
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