I used to think I celebrated a different Christmas than everyone else. My Latino Christmas existed, in my head, outside of the carols, Tv specials, and delicately brushed murals of Santa. That white Christmas on Coke bottles and commercials was never like the one I had at home.
The smooth melodies of Frank Sinatra’s Christmas songs couldn’t enter my house even through its slightest cracks. That New York glitz and glam that permeates “American” Christmas couldn’t be found at my house, no. Instead, the special time of year that everybody talked about looked again Latino.
For my family and many other Latino families, the premier event of the holidays is Christmas Eve, a fact that many classmates and adults in my life are shocked to hear initially. Referred to as Noche Buena, the day before Christmas is when the bulk of the festivities are held. Family comes over in droves; special food is cooked and music plays all day.
My Christmas starts when the smell of tamale masa wakes me up on Christmas Eve. When the cumbia songs of my mother’s youth fill our home, I know it’s a special day. The anticipation on my niece's and nephew’s faces tells me there’s something to look forward to tonight. Alone, my father, stubborn in his aging years, hangs lights outside on the roof of our mobile home. You could track him by the footsteps he makes while fastening all the wires. The younger kids in the house believe it’s Santa moving about.
But with gifts being over 12 hours away, what else is there to do on Christmas Eve other than get ready?
Well, there’s a lot of catching up to do. I rarely get home during the year, but at Christmas, I’m present. I hear stories I used to hear as a kid but with adult ears. Uncles update brothers-in-laws. Sisters update Grandpas. Everything that is shared that day is a story, some laughs, or more food. As a kid, it was all about the presents. I’d meticulously count the hours as they passed by. Each hour was two 30-minutes gone, four 15-minute periods survived. Whatever math I needed to do to make the wait seem shorter, I’d do. I’d rush through the whole day, paying no mind to my family in my quest for presents.
As a 20-something, I reflect and see how much I took for granted the wonderful holidays I had the privilege to experience. I’ve learned to cherish the people around me. The passage of time is visibly clear in adulthood. Even my dog has gray hair now. So, I pay extra close attention to the stories shared with me. I’d take notes in my journal, but that’s not how my elders learned to tell their stories. Oral storytelling is the backbone of my Christmas. Themes of family, community, love, and integrity are poignant, no matter if my grandmother or my cousin is speaking. The words of our family, our experiences in life, and the life of our elders are the decorations of our Christmas. If you come to my house on Noche Buena, you won’t see many decorations, but you’ll feel them.
I used to long for a Christmas tradition. I wanted the fruit cake everyone seemed to hate. I wanted to wait to open presents until the 25th. I wanted ugly sweaters and eggnog. I wanted bad romantic comedies and Charlie Brown Christmases. For the longest time, I looked at other people’s Christmas with jealousy, perhaps stemming from wanting to belong. A lot of my youth centered around the pain of being excluded from my environment for how my parents and I looked. At Christmastime, the pain became near unbearable.
It wasn’t until the passing of my grandpa that I realized the importance of embracing one’s own traditions. He’d show up on our front porch, bowlegged as always, ready to talk to my mom for the next few hours about his musings on life. A talker through and through, he spoke mostly of work and his younger days. At Christmas, he was the life of the party, especially when it came time to open gifts. He’d chant “que se la ponga” or “que me lo preste” when anyone opened a gift to inject energy into the room. It got the children to get excited over new clothes.
Everyone chanted, but his voice pierced through everyone's. My grandpa, having worked miserably for most of his life, had the most fun knowing that people were getting gifts that year. For as much as the consumerism of Christmas can enter toxic levels, it brought a smile to my grandpa’s face that there was something under the tree for everyone.
I remember the first Christmas after he passed. The day looked the same as any other Christmas we’ve had. But when it came time for presents, we didn’t hear his patented chant. The sound of his booming voice coming was something we didn’t know we’d miss until it was time to open that first gift. Eventually, we learned to chant in his place; but that silence during the first gift, I’ll remember forever.
It took me many years to appreciate how my culture defined Christmas in my home. It took a tremendous amount of reflection to understand that Christmas is not a set experience I’ve been missing out on. Instead, it's something I've been ignoring in efforts to conform to my environment. Embarrassed, I once was of my mother’s indigenous recipes. I hid my language to belong. To me, belonging was about rejecting what I am to fit in the spaces I wasn’t welcomed. The feeling of otherness came in and out of the calendar year. But at Christmas, my differences were on full display.
I know now the Christmas spirit can be Latina (or Latino). The holidays, not just Christmas, can look like me. Sure, the holidays can be cliche. Christmas can look like a lavish tree with a shining star on display. Or it can look like a plate of fresh cookies set out for Santa.
But it can also look like an endless pot of tamales, having about 10 (or more) of them throughout a night of dance and games of lotteria. It can smell like a fresh tortilla and it can taste like a michelada. It can sound like countless stories of our elder’s youth told over the dinner table.
I love having non-Latino friends over for the holidays. I give them a tour of my family and their culture with pride.
“This is my mom’s cooking.”
“This is my dad’s maize grinder.”
“This is who we are.”
My guests take time to learn the proper pronunciation of the words they’re learning. They try speaking Spanish to my parents in their graciousness. In their brief visit to my home, I revel in the fact my experiences and my culture are worth learning about, and most importantly, worth enjoying.
Hector Salas writes for Voces Unidas. He is a graduate of Colorado Mesa University and grew up in Rifle, Colorado. Hector writes about politics and power concerning Western Colorado.