I'm Dreaming of a {Cactus-filled} Christmas

For me, Christmas has always come with specific climate expectations and fixed traditions. There has always been chilly weather and lots of snow, making iconic songs like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Winter Wonderland” seem perfectly appropriate. I always make Christmas cookies with my family, decorating them on my mom’s large, brightly colored fiesta-ware plates at our kitchen counter. I always watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my family on Christmas Eve, and my dad always makes soft scrambled eggs on Christmas morning.

This year, however, I am spending Christmas in Arequipa, and Christmas in Arequipa is a little different from Christmas in Wisconsin.

Being that Arequipa is in the desert and only experiences a few days of rain every year, there was no “White Christmas” in the forecast, unless I decided to spend Christmas day on the top of one of the neighboring volcanoes (which almost always have snow due to the extremely high altitude). But Arequipeñans make their own winter wonderlands, decorating the city with colorful, twinkling lights and large lit-up candy canes. To me, the lights look a little strange, offset with cacti and palm trees, but the juxtaposition is nice in its rarity.

In the Plaza de Armas, the main social plaza of Arequipa, there is a massive Christmas tree—not an actual pine, as they don’t have those here, but a large green cone decorated with thousands of changing lights—that is lit up every night. It makes rainbow shadows on the towers of the Cathedral and the passing street vendors selling popcorn and ice cream.

In place of the Christmas cookies I am used to, Peruvians eat a bread called Paneton with hot chocolate. Paneton is a sweet bread that originated in Italy but made its way to Peru and the majority of South America. It is filled with lemon zest and candied fruit, but also comes in other varieties like Chocoton, which is made with chocolate instead of candied fruit.

The nativity scenes here are amazing, and people wait in long lines to see them. There is a large, elaborate nativity scene in the Plaza de Armas, and some of the nativity scenes are even mechanized—many families take tours around the city to see them all. Unlike the nativity scenes that I am used to, however, Peruvian nativity scenes do not include baby Jesus until the 25th of December to signify the birth of Christ.

Whereas Christmas Day is more celebrated than Christmas Eve in the United States, it is the opposite here in Peru. Christmas Eve is filled with Paneton and family gatherings, and Peruvians save their best meal to be eaten at midnight. This meal usually consists of turkey, ham, and Peruvian favorites like cuy—guinea pig—and rocoto relleno—stuffed spicy peppers. The midnight meal is accompanied by fireworks, lit in the Plaza de Armas and set off on rooftops all over the city. Pop renditions of classic Christmas songs play in the grocery stores and shopping centers, and friends organize an “Amigo Secreto” or Secret Santa. Carolers, or "adoradores" as they are called here, go door-to-door visiting houses and singing Christmas songs or "villancicos."

For me, Christmas here in Arequipa has been a mix of things I am not used to—like the absence of pine trees and hot weather everyday—and things I am used to—like the incessant playing of Christmas songs and an overabundance of sweet treats. Though there are things about my home that I miss at this time of year, it is nice to be in a foreign place and find things that make you feel like you are home. It is also nice, however, to experience new traditions. It allows for the necessary reminder (that we all need from time to time) that your basis of understanding and your definitions of normal aren’t the only good or correct lenses through which to see the world.


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