Christmas Eve, 2015
This morning I came down to see the kitchen in chaos. Nacatamales, a meat-stuffed cornmeal dish cooked in banana leaves, were stacked to the ceilings and in an enormous pot on the stove simmered the torejas, french toast soaked in sweet, honey-cinnamon sauce.
“Are you sure you won’t come with us?” they asked me. They were going to La Paz, where their cousins lived, a plan that had only come into focus a few days ago, after I had already accepted an invitation to spend Christmas morning with a group of volunteers and ex-pats.
“I wouldn’t be back in time,” I said, trying to snag a piece of toreja and burning my fingers in the process. “I wish I could go!”
The boys ran downstairs at that moment, Paolo running in front of David, who was still nursing a skinned knee. “Cookies for Santa!” they yelled, which I had promised them yesterday, and we started to clear banana leaf fragments off the table to put together the over-priced sugar cookie mix.
It’s been Christmas here for a while now – without Thanksgiving to divide the holiday season, the malls all put up their three-story trees in October. Last week, we put up our Christmas tree and decorated with ornaments and garland. Fireworks, a Christmas staple here, have been sounding all night for months.
All of this, though, has felt familiar, but not-quite-right. Nacatamales and torejas don’t seem like Christmas food. My church has barely mentioned advent. It’s so warm my cheeks burned after less than an hour outside – if it feels like Christmas, it feels like someone else’s Christmas.
When we finished frosting the cookies, the boys ran to finish packing up their clothes and games. I helped drag suitcases and pots of food outside, hugged and kissed everyone, and waved as they all climbed into the truck bed.
“What a shame,” Doña Juanita kept repeating, and asking if I was sure I would be okay for the night. She doesn’t believe that I eat unless she puts a plate of food into my hands, and the thought of me passing 24 hours without her made her anxious. I promised again and again I could take care of myself, I would be sure to eat, and that I’d enjoy my Christmas morning the next day. And then they drove away and it hit me like I’d swallowed something heavy that I was alone.
I have the house to myself. It seems so much bigger empty. I’ve closed and opened the fridge a few times, closed and opened my books a few times, and tried to write, but I don’t want to write.
I’ve never been alone on Christmas Eve before.
My friends are with their families. My neighbors have left and locked up behind them. I want to go to church, but I’ve been told the holidays are the most dangerous time to go out, and it would be dark, and I would be alone. I want to call home, but they’re preparing for the Christmas Eve service. I eat one of Santa’s cookies and wonder if I should pretend the day isn’t happening at all.
I don’t want someone else’s Christmas. I want the Christmases I grew up with – the changing of seasons, bulky coats and hats, Christmas songs on the radio and a trip to the Christmas tree farm. I want the slow procession to light the advent candles and the rush to catch up on our felt advent calendar that we always forgot.
I want the boxes dragged up from the basement, the cardboard ornaments we made in preschool that no one has had the heart to throw away, those handpainted wooden trees and whatever ornaments we or the cats haven’t shattered. I want tinsel and cookies and dad practicing his flugelhorn for Christmas morning.
I don’t care about the malls and their tinselly displays, but I want that feeling of walking through them and suddenly noticing little things for my brothers and sister’s stockings, things that will make them laugh on Christmas morning. I want the bell ringers outside, and the spirit that tells us to dig deep into our pockets. I want the countdowns. I want cookie exchanges and caroling. I want to be home in the room I grew up in.
I want the Christmas story that I’ve heard so many times I can mouth the words along with the reader. I want O Come, O Come Emanuel and O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Holy Night, all those songs that begin with "O" because our mouths are still opened in shock all these years later, barely daring to believe what happened that night. I want the shepherds and the wise men;I want the miraculous; I want the magnificat.
I want the hush after the Christmas Eve service as we wish our friends the best, put on our coats and step out into flurries, singing Christmas carols on the ride home and rushing inside to play board games while our parents heap things on the table in the next room to wrap.
I want us crowded into a single bedroom, the youngest so excited about tomorrow that they can’t sleep. I want us waking up to an alarm when it’s still grey outdoors, sneaking downstairs together to see plump stockings and brightly colored boxes around the glowing tree.
I want the cinnamon rolls in the oven early enough so that as soon as their smell begins to fill the house, mom and dad come downstairs and we flip on the lights, eat more chocolate than we should, delight in the thoughts we had for each other, fiddle with new toys, crack open new books, open the new family board game.
I want the trip to our aunt’s, the same big meal we have every year, turkey and cranberries and bread and pies. I want to marvel at how much my cousins have grown, hug my grandmother, and watch my brothers and sisters tease and taunt each other with the fierce and sassy love we have for each other.
I want to come home late. I want it to be snowing. I want to see our house from down the street by the one string of lights we’ve twined around our lamppost. I want to know that there’s nothing to do tomorrow, nowhere to go, that I’m already where I need to be.
Christmas looks different this year. But all those things I want don't make it Christmas, any more than nacatamales and fireworks make it Christmas here. Just know that here in the quiet of an empty house I am dwelling on the same words that you are:
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.