Christmas Spirit

In the small village of Chugchilán, near the volcanic crater lake of Quilotoa, our hostel owner José was busily filling hundreds of bags with animal shaped biscuits and sweets to give to poor children. An Ecuadorian Santa of sorts, and boy-done-good of the area, he urged us all to go to the village Christmas party. Starting at 4pm, it featured the brass band of Sigchos (in their almost matching grey bomber jackets), a 'traditional' dance of school girls in ponchos, jeans and boots, and a pageant of 'Princesitas'. The latter, a tradition of this village in particular, was a sort of miniature debutant ball. Dressed in enormous frocks, these tiny girls paraded around the playground on the arm of their equally diminutive cabellero, as their name, their parents´ names, age, favourite flower, colour and singer were announced. They then sat as still as china dolls, remaining onstage for the rest of the show.

Three hours later, a vat of canelazo had appeared, the princesitas had disappeared, and a few lone members of the band from Sigchos hung around, trumpets hanging limp at their sides. Despite the cold, and the clouds clinging to the houses, the village danced and drunk away. Indeed, the party didn't seem stop for days; our 4am bus two mornings later left tardily, after several drunk villagers banged on the door enough times to wake the sleeping driver inside. Meanwhile, a fight nearly broke out in the playground, the canelazo vendor packed away, and a pick-up truck offered numerous sleepy families a ride home.

The bus journey to Chugchilán had been equally eventful. 'Christmas shopping' takes on a whole new meaning in the poorest province of the Ecuadorian mountains. Clambering over potatoes, pans and objects in festive wrapping paper, we lodged ourselves and our rucksacks on the back row. Soon four more passengers joined us in the five seats, owing to an unresolved ticket dispute over who had the last seat. Later, getting people, and chickens, off the bus proved equally problematic.

 In Cuenca, Christmas dinner really is a dinner; the whole family gathers late on Christmas Eve to eat turkey and (what else?) rice. There were no presents in sight, only a large artificial tree. At midnight, everyone kisses or shakes hands, welcoming in Christmas Day in the same way that they bless one another at mass. No paper crowns, not so much food that you wish you'd worn maternity trousers, and no Christmas crackers. Bad jokes supplied solely by Tom.

 Christmas Day is equally tranquil. The little children wander around content with the toy bought for them by their grandparents. For us, boardgames were replaced by card games, and a long present-opening session with an ice cream in the park.

Christmas really is not about presents here. Ask a small child what they want for Christmas and they probably won't have an answer ready. But it also might not be quite so much about the family. For us, Christmas is the one day of the year when the family always gathers. It's also more or less our only national party. In Ecuador, with more saints than there are days of the year, Christmas is just one of many family days, and one of many parties.


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