Christmas Heat

The giant Christmas tree in downtown Tacna, in the foreground there is a statue of Santa and a reindeer that leaps up into the sky.

There’s snow powdered on the branches of the Christmas tree. The sugared aroma of chocolate caliente calls to me from the kitchen, a chunk of panetón ready to be dipped into the tasty beverage. Christmas music plays in the background. And while there may not be a fireplace, my host family has turned on the television set and a yule log burns on screen. 

Sweat drips from my nose as I hang the last of the ornaments with my host sister. It’s at least 80º degrees Fahrenheit outside and feels even hotter in the house; we’ve been unable to get a cross-breeze going even with the back door and living room windows opened and I feel more sweat trickle down my neck. I’m going through the holiday motions but I don’t feel the connection that I normally would at home, the stereotypical excitement that I have felt tingling in my chest as holiday tunes play on the radio or as I wrap a gift. It’s not cold! Where are the mittens, the scarves, the shivering toes??? I’m in shorts and sandals and the idea of trying to gulp down a scalding cup of cocoa does not have me thrilled. 

A photo of neighbor's houses on our block. A small dog sits on the front step of a brick house, decorated with christmas lights and garlands.
Our neighbors getting into the Christmas spirit. 

The market streets of Tacna that normally sell clothing and sports equipment are overrun by string lights, fake snow, and Santa Clauses of all sizes. Everything here is plastic and an imitation; there will be no scent of a “real” Christmas tree as we sit together on the sofa. Instead, as I move around the tree I am struck by the smell of dust and plastic in the summer heat, a smell that seems to clash with what my eyes observe before me. Half the world celebrates the Christmas season in the heat of summer. Yet the traditions and the way in which people celebrate a holiday all over the world, once again, are heavily influenced and even dictated by Western culture. 

A photo of the giant christmas tree in downtown Tanca, with the arch of Tacna in the foreground. People mill about and visit with each other.
Tourists and locals alike take advantage of cooler afternoons to come to the city’s center.

But even as Tacna follows the mandates of commercialism, Peruvians continue to put their unique spin on the holiday. There may not be much caroling here, but I think any caroling group could easily be out-sung by a group of teachers at a noche de villancicos. Perhaps not in singing ability, but in enthusiasm and volume absolutely. Here we also sing Rodolfo el reno and Noche de paz (Silent Night), but there’s always the crowd pleaser Burrito sabanero one of my personal favorites Cholito Jesús and of course the cumbia navideña that has everyone on stage and off clapping and moving to the beat. 

Christmas day itself, the 25th of December won’t be celebrated with much fan-fair. But noche buena, or Christmas Eve? That’s where the magic truly happens. For many, there’s an evening mass and then the family and extended family all gather together and the true test begins: dinner will not be served until midnight! Kids run around, people steal snacks and drink from the kitchen, and at least in my family’s case, there’s usually a very strongly worded “discusión” that gets dinner moved a little earlier, say 11:30. Regardless of my hunger levels, the time passes quickly. At midnight, we’ll eat if we haven’t already, then open up gifts. Think we’re done? Not quite. We may make rounds to visit other family members and friends, stopping by their houses for a quick hello, kissing everyone on the cheek, sharing a story or two, and then moving on to the next home. There are fire crackers in the street and the heat that comes up from the asphalt makes me feel as if it could be midday, my body discombobulated by the lateness of the hour. The joy I sense this holiday doesn’t come from the snow all around me (real or fake), it does not spring from the presence of hot chocolate or candy canes (or the lack thereof). I realize that I have given into the biggest, most commercialized cliche of all: this really is the most wonderful time of the year. It matters little that I am with a family that is not my own, that I am breaking a sweat yet again, or that everyone around me is speaking in a different language. The rowdy love that I see before me is what Christmas is all about. 

¡Feliz navidad desde Tacna!

Maggie and I pose in front of the giant christmas tree with ice cream cones in hand.
Maggie and I enjoying ice cream cones and holiday decorations
Maggie and I sit on top of a stone seat that reads the year 1879. The giant Christmas tree is lit up behind us.

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