Pop-Up Christmas

And I Worried About Being Away From “Home” For The Holidays…

Christmas is my favorite time of year. The sights, sounds, smells and events of the happy holiday have always excited me. As the years passed, I grew disenchanted with the commercialism and constant barrage of pre-sales, last-chance campaigns and “you gotta have it” pitches.

This year’s Christmas started out as an uncertain holiday for me, as it will be the first December 25th I haven’t spent with my precious children. I fixed that by moving our celebration to the day after, when they will join me in Cuenca. But I wasn’t sure how to build the spirit thousands of miles away from all that is familiar. I needn’t have worried!

People in Ecuador are primarily Roman Catholic; which accounts for about 94 percent of the population. That took care of my need for a spiritual connection right away. While I am not Catholic, the true spirit of the season comes first here, with no hint of crass commercialism. There are some 52 churches in Cuenca, with each celebrating the season in its own way. Because of that, I discovered I was in a city that celebrated with what I called “pop-up Christmas.”

On a daily walk, I sometimes found that turning a corner meant waiting for a parade to pass. Cutting through the town plaza might lead me to a sudden holiday musical performance. Strolling past churches often meant participating in a spirited fiesta.

Not once have I felt like an outsider. Cuencanos have been welcoming, kind and generous. Expats are swept into local joyful celebrations as quickly as anyone else.

The city is into Christmas decorations, but there are few Christmas trees in homes. High school students I work with in after school English classes tell me they celebrate Santa Claus with gifts, but stockings are generally not a holiday fixture. It’s about Baby Jesus, they tell me. It is his day. Wow. I can’t even remember the last time I heard that in my Texas hometown.

In fact, Jesus is such a part of the holiday celebration, that daily parades take place in his honor, almost in rehearsal for THE parade on Dec. 24.

The smaller parades include floats and costumed children, horses and musicians, colorfully dressed dancers and always, a symbol or representation of the Christ child. All the neighborhoods present their own parades, as do neighborhoods throughout Ecuador. Then, each of them will join the 8- to 9-hour street parade composed of tens of thousands of celebrants known as Pase del NiƱo on Christmas Eve.

There are many other things going on, of course. The river is brightly lit with multicolored bulbs and quaint figures of fish, angels and sledders; a wonderful place for evening walks. Nearby plazas add more and more decorations as Christmas draws nears and vendors are outdoing themselves to present beautifully crafted sweets and chicha, the local holiday drink.

So I’m looking forward to my first Christmas in Ecuador with joy, now, and anticipation. And wait, I just found out that while the Christmas Eve parade is the main event, it actually kicks off three months of celebrations, continuing through Carnaval in February.

Whew! Better buckle my seat belt!