Swept up in Xmas, dustball that I am!
And sold to Solstice — stuck in a solar turn.
Somehow the pause allows both flow and dam
Sim’ltaneously, like the like of ice and burn…
I believe the sun has not gone away to death
But wheeled again, causing a silver breath.
–Jack Collom, Dog Sonnets
The Solstice brings “Fool Days” or “Daft Days,” remaindered from the ancient Roman Saturnalia.
With the appearance of Christianity, the commemorations of Saturn, god of sowing and husbandry, who taught the people to till the ground and to make laws, were integrated into Twelve Day celebrations. In some parts of Europe, it’s believed that the weather on each day of the twelve is a token of what to expect in the corresponding month of the coming year.
On Christmas Day, we were loaded with presents, American toys and goods from the U.S. relatives. This way our aunties and uncles hoped to fix us in what they considered to be “our” culture, though we had almost no experience, let alone memories of anything much American — and little need for or interest in the stuff. The gifts were piled under tall, skinny, oxygen-starved Christmas trees. There was once a gangly behemoth that fit nowhere except the front hallway and soared past the second-story landing, where my father climbed a ladder to secure the angel on top. It wobbled there dangerously until after Epiphany when the shedding tree was dragged into the yard.
Like most non-indigenous families in Bolivia, we had an elaborate nativity scene bought in the mercado. Ten-inch figures made of paper mache and painted in thick, vibrant colors stood in a wooden barn around the baby Jesus, who lay on real hay. There were the Three Kings, a shepherd boy, horses, a cow, llamas, and golden chorus, with one “den mother angel,” as my mother called her. It was my job to arrange this crèche in front of the fireplace, which was cold, because it was Summer Solstice below the equator. The house was filled with flowers and poinsettias trucked into La Paz from the tropical Jungas region.
In December, the crops have recently been planted, the corn, potatoes, yams, rice, beans, quinoa, and peanuts. The llamas have given birth and the babies frolic like cartoon lambs. The Aymara farmers and the poor have little time for holiday cheer beyond church, and the dances with which each turn on the calendar, each event is greeted. Among Andean natives, dance is prayer.
On the Altiplano at Christmas, groups of city children — like the Highland guisers at Halloween — dress in costume and play drums and other instruments on the street for gifts of food and money. We waited for the villancios by our garden gate. I wanted badly to join them, but we were never allowed.
Tonight is la noche buena, Christmas Eve.
On this night, when I was a child, we dined on traditional Irish stew with oysters from the can, sent to my mother from my godmother Clara. She’d also sent bayberry candles and cans of cranberry sauce — or “crane-berry relish,” as early Massachusetts Cape Coders called it, for cranes were first spotted by settlers feasting on the berry. For dessert there was our cook Susanna’s miraculous flan.
I wish you all Feliz Navidad.