We have many traditions in my family: The baby Jesus in the front room, the ornate tree, the nativity scene, tamales, pupusas, pan de chumpe, opening presents at midnight christmas eve, but more than any single thing we do, it’s the feeling of familia that makes Christmastime special for me.
Early in December or late in November, my Mami sets up the Christmas tree with los jovenes. Some years it’s with me and my husband, but as we live 500 miles away, lately it’s been with her grandchildren who are now old enough to bring out the huge boxes from the garage. They spend hours bringing out a lifetime’s worth of ornaments and lights and create a beribboned masterpiece that marks the center of our Christmas celebrations. Mami’s house is a modest track home with a living room too small for the tree, the mountain of gifts, and the crowd of people that will arrive Christmas Eve, but we all cram in, because this is the place that feels most holy and most right.
This year there will be 26 of us, and that’s just me and my siblings and our kids, not the extended family that lives in other states. It will be LOUD. There will be yelling. But not usually the mad kind, more the high-energy Latina kind that means us women are in the house and we are having a good time. We will cut each other off mid-sentence, our words cascading over one another’s, our voices blending in a cacaphony of laughter and gossip. We will be squished onto too few chairs and too small couches. There is no room for personal space, with five, six, seven of us, overlapping on a couch meant for three people. Our arms will wrap around waists, heads will rest on shoulders, fingers will interlace. It’s not just a hug and kiss hello or goodbye; it’s all night long.
We become like children on Christmas Eve. The engineers, teachers, doctors, business people that we are become just sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. We don’t talk about anything important, no politics or religion, just our lives, which are, really, most important. We celebrate new babies, and commisserate about lost jobs; we joke about boyfriends and listen to complaints about stolen cars, cross-country moves. Sooner or later stories of life in El Salvador, will be retold, wistfully, humorously, with a sense of longing and promise. Multiple versions of the same story will be told and each one will be true. The night will last into the next morning, and yet it will still be too short.
In year’s past, before my babies were born, I’d stay long after the midnight present opening. It was a flurry of paper and too many gifts. But as a kid I didn’t care about consumerism or money or anything. I just loved the excess, the wildness of it all–cake at midnight! Presents everywhere! Every once in a while, someone will bring a friend over for Christmas Eve. Then, as now, there would always be extra gifts my mom had prepared for these last minute guests. No one was allowed to leave without a gift, or to feel less than welcome. Even though our tradition has changed as I’ve gotten older, and new little ones have been born, the feeling of being welcome and the generosity that permeates the house is still intact.
It never matters if someone is fighting with someone else. With six siblings, that’s kind of a given. It’s Christmas and we are together and we know that with a family as large as ours that that is a miracle in itself. So while I know this may not be a cultural trait, per se, it is what was makes me most proud of being Salvadoran. We don’t keep a polite distance, or keep our voices down. We don’t shake hands. It’s Christmas and that means that we will give and get enough affection to last us the year.
My elder daughter is two and a half this year–old enough to understand some things about Santa and gifts and Christmas. I think the night might be a bit overwhelming for her since we don’t live near much family. Her “normal” is just the four of us at home and a few friends, not the tribe. So I’m prepared to give her some quiet time when she needs it, but I suspect that she’ll be awed by the happy chaos. I hope that she will remember, as I do, the deep deep feeling that comes from being surrounded by an army of people that love you unconditionally, that accept you, and that are waiting with an excitement that can’t be contained to hug you, kiss you, feed you, and celebrate you. That feeling, which can be tasted in the turkey, savored in the wine, and smelled the minute you walk in the door, is the real spirit of Christmas.