‘Twas the night before Christmas and all thro’ the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a…BOOM!
Oh, wait, this is Paraguay and the night before Christmas is when all of the excitement happens. When we had asked Paraguayans how Christmas was celebrated here, they said that it is celebrated more on Christmas Eve, and some people still kept up with the custom of visiting nativities set up in various families’ homes. And finally this year we experienced the real deal.
Our Christmas story began Christmas Eve morning, around 8 a.m. Alba (one of the cooks from the children’s soup kitchen)’s family is one of the few families that has continued the tradition of building an elaborate nativity full of fresh flowers, tinsel, and lights, which is then surrounded by a lot of food as an offering to the Christ-child. When we arrived at Alba’s mother’s house, four men were building the initial frame for the nativity.
At first the men seemed leery of the two nortes watching them build the nativity. I don’t think the building of the nativity is usually a spectacle for folks. Eventually they seemed to become more at ease, we shared tereré, they began to banter more in Guaraní, and Allison jumped in and began to help prepare the flowers and greenery that were being arranged and wired to the structure.
Eventually one of Alba’s sisters came by with a plateful of sopa paraguaya as the lunch hour approached. We greedily devoured a couple of squares which whet our appetites, and we decided it was time to get going and prepare some lunch. As we were leaving, one of the brothers came after us and asked with a puzzled expression if we weren’t going to stay and eat lunch with them. Once they convinced us that we wouldn’t be intruding, we humbly accepted their invitation. We chatted and ate and chatted and ate some more!
We were invited back later that evening when the nativity would finally be finished with all of the trimmings. We went home to rest up and returned to their home around 10 p.m., a soft light emitting from the room containing the nativity. People were seated in chairs outside, talking amongst each other. Upon entering the room we were greeted by, not the simple arrangement of fresh flowers that we had left, but a nativity garishly festooned with tinsel, lights, shimmering stars, beads, candies, and other treats. Doña Alba sat serenely by and welcomed us in. Soon her sister and mother came by to offer us a traditional crunchy white cookie and something to drink.
Everyone was waiting for midnight, and as the hour approached children were in the street lighting fireworks, and the adults sat and talked and ate in the cool evening air (a sharp contrast to the heat and humidity of earlier in the day). On the stroke of midnight everyone gave a whoop and a holler, fireworks boomed, gunshots cracked, and there were hugs all around. It felt more like New Year’s Eve rather than Christmas Eve. We did head inside the house for a few minutes to make sure any stray bullets didn’t find us. Once it seemed safe, we all went back outside and continued to eat and talk with Alba and her family until 2:30 a.m.
Christmas day was much less of a to-do. We slept in, had a leisurely breakfast, and read Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. Later that afternoon we Skype’d in to the Christmas gathering at my brother’s house to be with our family for a bit and hear about their Christmas celebration that was quite different from ours this year. It was wonderful to be included in Alba’s family Christmas and an experience not to be forgotten. However, we very much look forward to this coming Christmas that we’ll be able to celebrate with our families once again.