In Chile, Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena. This is the night that Christmas is celebrated with family, usually with a big meal and gifts for the children brought during the night by St. Nick, who is known as Viejito Pascuero.
In years past, I’ve had invitations to join Chilean families for dinner. One invitation was for dinner at 8:30. I figured that was the “arrival time,” which in Chile is only a suggestion, meaning dinner might begin around 10pm. The other was for “midnight.” Midnight? For a big Christmas meal? You’d have to wake me up to eat it.
I remember talking with my Spanish teacher, Vivi, about Chilean Christmas customs when she was a child. She said that in September for Fiestas Patrias, Chilean Independence Day, they received new clothes. An entire outfit from underwear to shoes.
The family would gather on Christmas Eve for a big meal, usually meat with side dishes. The children were put to bed “early,” around 10:30, but not before putting their new shoes outside the bedroom window so that Viejito Pascuero could fill them with chocolates and other sweets as well as money. Siblings received money proportionate to their birth order. The oldest received the most. The youngest, the least. Vivi was the youngest.
Only the children received gifts from el Viejito and there was no gift exchange between adults.
The next morning, the children were up bright and early to open their gifts from el Viejito which had been left under a pine Christmas tree which was adorned with lights and fragile blown-glass ornaments and topped with a star made from the same delicate glass. The tree remained up until at least January 6, Epiphany.
On Christmas Day, the adults relaxed while the neighborhood kids played outside with their new toys or went swimming in the local pool. Christmas is in the summer in Chile.
In contrast, when I was growing up, we exchanged gifts within our family and we were visited by Santa Claus. I don’t know if this is a US tradition, but my mother loved Christmas and wanted to make it as grand a celebration as possible.
We usually had a big tree, similarly decorated to Vivi’s. I can still remember all the beautiful glass baubles we inherited when my grandmother passed away. I loved to sit and look at the glowing lights and glittery ornaments on the tree.
Every year, my sister and I could barely wait for Christmas Eve. All day long, while mouth-watering smells wafted from the kitchen, we had to bide our time until we could first eat a light supper, usually of sandwiches or soup. My mother liked to build the suspense, so all the dishes had to be washed and put away before we finally gathered in the living room to open gifts.
In reality, I always knew what mine were beforehand. I was a super-snoop and, while my mother was having her afternoon nap, I would search for my gifts. If she had already wrapped them, I was very careful to open them without ripping, wrinkling, or tearing anything before peeking and putting them back together again.
I’m sure that she knew what I had done, but we played the “don’t ask-don’t tell” game. She pretended that she didn’t know I’d been snooping and I pretended to be surprised every time I opened a gift.
When all the gifts were exchanged and opened, we went to bed, still with a sense of excitement, because St. Nick was going to visit while we were asleep.
On Christmas Day, we found more gifts waiting under the tree. These were not wrapped. My mother always claimed that Santa Claus was too busy to wrap gifts, but I always wondered why the elves didn’t do it.
She would cook all morning, a huge Christmas meal and, around 2pm, we would sit down to eat turkey with cornbread dressing, potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie. Afterward, we’d spend the rest of the day in a sugar-tryptophan haze.
May your Christmas be merry and bright. Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!