Could It Be the Fumes from Cotopaxi, or the “Cocaine Tea”? Either Way Christmas in Ecuador is Very Special
Having been an expat family for the past four years, we are used to going with the flow and celebrating holidays in new ways, skipping treasured festivals completely, and learning about new holiday traditions. For example, each Christmas in Argentina we participated in the elaborate tradition of staying up late and keeping our tired kids awake until midnight, then sneaking in the presents and pretending Santa had just flown off – followed inevitably by the frightened screams of our sleepy toddlers who apparently were not at all overjoyed when faced with the reality of a strange fat man sneaking around our house at night.
This past holiday season found us on the road, overlanding from Argentina to Montana, USA, and we spent Christmas in the small, beautiful country of Ecuador – specifically, the Galapagos Islands. Being so isolated in such a seemingly lost world, Christmas seemed like a world away. It wasn’t until we came back to the mainland that we were surprised to discover a new Christmas tradition we had never heard of – the tradition of creating an elaborate nativity scene – or “pesebre” in the home.
It was quite by chance, or rather, through the kindness and openness of a stranger, that we came upon the most souped-up nativity scene we had ever seen. While waiting for our mechanic to come back from his lunch break, we headed across the street to a little hole-in-the-wall lunch joint that offered a $2 a plate lunch special. As it was raining and we didn’t have the foresight to bring our raincoats during rainy season in Ecuador, we weren’t too picky. But we knew that you can never go wrong with a cheap lunch special throughout Peru and Ecuador as they include a delicious soup, a fresh-squeezed juice, a huge plate of rice and a bit of meat and salad. The kids are bound to eat something and it’s always plenty of food for cheap.
We were welcomed by a warm and inviting grandmotherly woman named Aida who brought us an extra bowl of soup for Coco, some cups of popcorn while we waited for our meal, and offered candies to the kids if they finished their food (I’ll take it). When she came to our table towards the end of our meal and offered to take us inside her house – which was attached to the little restaurant – to see her nativity scene, we almost declined. But she had been so nice with Eva and Coco that we didn’t want to say no.
What awaited us inside made us gasp – an entire long wall of her house had been literally transformed into a tiny winter wonderland, complete with an ice skating rink, a snowy mountain with a polar bear in a cave, a tiny German village, a boat floating in a real pond, and a battery-powered train set… all accentuated by thousands of tiny LED lights. This was a nativity scene? But where are Jesus and Mary? Oh wait, there they are in the corner, inside a barn made from real bark that she had commissioned to be made from a local carpenter. Oh, and right next to that there was Jesus’s workshop, full of rough pieces of wood and tools. Um, wow doesn’t quite cut it!
Needless to say, Coco and Eva wanted to touch everything, but luckily Aida ushered them towards the mechanical Minnie and Mickey mouse and we noticed that her entire house was literally transformed and we could have just walked into a Christmas store. There were collectible porcelain holiday figures imported from the US, a giant Santa scene in the fireplace, a snowman (girl actually) swinging from a pine-branch swing, and of course, an amazing Christmas tree. If I thought we had escaped Christmas, here it had found us!
Seeing this amazing display reminded me of the oddball neighbor that would spend months on his outdoor Christmas light display. Except this display was indoors. In talking to some local friends from Quito, I discovered that installing an elaborate nativity scene in your home is a treasured tradition in Ecuador. In fact, Quito boasts the largest nativity scene in South America, which is created each year on a hilltop overlooking the historic center. The display includes 400,000 lights, 9 giant glowing figures including the illuminated statue of the Virgin of the Panecillo, and 45 glowing trees. I think Ecuador is officially the world-champion of nativity scenes!
What over-the-top Christmas traditions do you participate in, or have you seen, that inspired your holidays?