Christmas is an amazingly huge holiday here, although the way Peru parties you´d think every holiday is the biggest holiday ever. For Christmas here, instead of the usual decorated Christmas tree (although a few people in my town had the small fake ones they decorated) most people make Nativity scenes in their homes. It seems pretty easy, my coworkers made one in the office and I watched – it did involve finding the box of Christmas stuff, then putting some special brown paper covering over some boxes that formed a few steps, then putting the figurines of the three wise men, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and a bunch of animals. They also have some fake brown straw and little fences to approximate the manger. And of course baby Jesus, although he is kept clear until midnight of Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, the tradition is that EVERYONE (babies, old people, etc.) stays up Christmas Eve until midnight, at which the stroke of 12 a.m. a toast is made, and then they commence to eat a huge Christmas dinner. The dinner always features none other than fruitcake (pannetón). It is really funny how much they love it here, and serve it to all the guests (me) like it is one of their most prized dishes. A volunteer friend told me he tried to tell his host family how much of a joke fruitcake is in the States by describing it as “something you give to your old aunt for Christmas, who may or may not give it back to you the next year” – and evidently they got a little offended, so he gracefully saved himself by following it up with “But no, the fruitcake HERE is much better than it is in the US” (it tastes the same).
Anyways, usually the dinner also includes pig and/or stuffed turkey, as well as hot chocolate and more champagne. The funny thing is most people here just keep drinking after the first toast on Christmas and get trashed to celebrate. Also, after the dinner is when all the presents get opened as well. They aren´t ornate or anything, dolls, clothes, toys are frequent – mainly the kids get presents. I got a pair of soccer shorts and t-shirt from the wonderful family who invited me to spent Christmas Eve with them, which was awesome because I needed more clothing. I left early to head home, and it was 3 AM – most people stayed up most of the night talking and celebrating with family and friends.
Christmas day is most of the same, that is drinking and hanging out. I actually went into the city and met up with some of the volunteers there to celebrate, and we went to the touristy beach to hang out and relax. My Christmas morning was spent on the bus next to a drunk Peruvian man (it was 9 AM) who thought I was from Brazil, and kept telling me how important tourism is and that I should go to Cusco because he kept forgetting where he was in the conversation. But the day was fun, and I spent the night in the city hanging out with the volunteers and a bunch of random travelers from random places who were all in the same hotel as us.
New Year´s Eve was another experience in and of itself … this again started at midnight, when the Peruvians burn life-sized dolls in the streets. The dolls usually are wearing old clothing, may or may not be made to represent political figures, and are doused in kerosene and burned at midnight to symbolize eradicating the old year and cleansing everything for the new. The other traditions practiced here include eating 12 grapes for good luck in the next year (for some reason eating them under the table is better); wearing something yellow, preferably underwear (but you can´t buy it, someone has to give it to you); and if you want to travel more in the next year, you pack a suitcase and run around the block with it. I did none of them, I wanted to make a doll but as previously said I really didn´t want to burn my clothes because I kind of need all of them, and of course it´s not too great for the environment either.
So instead we walked in the streets and watched people burn their dolls, then at midnight had some hot chocolate as well as champagne, more fruitcake and crackers, and conversation with the family. Then around one or two, we headed out to paint the town red (but that expression doesn´t translate, I tried and just got puzzled looks). This consisted of hanging out in the Plaza for awhile, then entering the dance that was held at one of the local elementary schools. Inside they were selling beer, so we got a box of it, then proceeded to basically dance in a circle around it, to prevent anyone from knocking it over and breaking the bottles (although two got broken during the night), and as well so we could do the Peruvian drinking custom of sharing one plastic cup and we all drink out of it. So yeah, pretty much the majority of the town was in the dance; and I left early and it was 5 AM. Most people stayed up until 7 and saw the sun come up. Crazy people.
The next day pretty much the whole town went to the beach, and jumped in the ocean to combat the hangover. The day after, my coworkers finally showed up again (basically between Christmas and New Year´s, no one came to the office except for me because, well I´m living there) and of course instead of working we took the leftover beers to the beach and drank them there.