As a child, there was great importance associated with celebrations at this time of year. They seemed to mark a sense of profound security in life’s goodness. The celebrations were special, extraordinary in how they knocked us out the routine, but also comforting in familiar symbology. The scent of pine from the Christmas tree, the glow of colored lights against the cold and the snow, the fantasies of elves and flying reindeer, and so many other icons touched upon the exotic and the familiar at the same time. As a child, I most certainly believed that these celebrations and their cultural expressions were timeless and immutable. I guess I assumed that the expressions were the celebrations. But now I know this isn’t so. Living in Honduras, the familiarity of the symbols is lost, yet the extraordinary character remains. Now that these expressions are so different, what exactly are we celebrating?
Obviously there is no such thing as Thanksgiving here because the pilgrims took a more northern route. There are a sufficient number of US citizens living in Honduras that the holiday does not go completely unnoticed. In Tegucigalpa at the US Ambassador’s compound, they have a big celebration. But we are as far away from Tegucigalpa as from Plymouth Rock so that doesn’t help us any. It is kind of difficult that the special Thursday is just an ordinary Thursday here. Because of that, we decided against celebrating it on the actual day. With a group of folks from Colorado State University doing a cook stove study, we celebrated Thanksgiving on the following Sunday. We had turkey. The Colorado people picked him out of a rafter (incorrectly called a gobble or flock), and he was summarily sacrificed for our culinary pleasure. We did have all the right fixings, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie, but nothing ever quite tastes like it tastes back home. It was a nice day. We sincerely gave thanks. But, there wasn’t any football, and the Frosty the Snowman Special did not air.
It is school graduation season here because the school year runs from February through November. This is probably a more reasonable schedule; no splitting calendar years. Still, it seems weird to be celebrating academic milestones when the hint of Christmas is already in the air. Because the great majority of children don’t even get to high school, the graduation celebrations even at the youngest levels are filled with as much pomp and circumstance as you’d expect at a university commencement. Our bilingual school kindergarten graduation was such an experience. In full cap and gown, each graduate’s name is called. The graduate, the graduates’ parents and witnesses (godparents if you will), approach the honored guest table and sign their names into the official record book. Imagine how long it takes a five-year-old to sign his or her name. It is interminable. There are hundreds of these celebrations throughout the Frontier Region of Intibucá where we live. Unfortunately, for many of these children, it will be their only graduation. We are working to change that, at our bilingual school as well as at the others.
Then there was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most of you probably don’t celebrate this. We, however, live in the town of Concepción, so we celebrate the town’s ‘fiestas patronales’ for the eight days leading up to and including December 8. This year it was initiated with a parade. Shoulder to Shoulder entered our ‘carroza’ (float). Of the six entrants, we happily took fourth place in the competition. Believe me, it was a relief not to come in last. We also entered a candidate to become the Queen of Concepción. Unlike our experience of the float, she was coronated Shoulder to Shoulder Queen of Concepción. The week long fair also featured a ‘Rueda Chicago’ (Ferris Wheel) as the major amusement ride. It towered over the town in the otherwise empty gravel field at the town’s entrance. As the ground is not at all level there, its four legs were propped up onto four tree stumps. It wobbled and rocked as it spun at a much more accelerated rate than most Ferris wheels. The policeman standing next to it assured us that it was completely safe. Honduran policeman are well known for their integrity, so we enthusiastically climbed on. Since you’re reading this, it all turned out well.
It seemed like Christmas got seriously started right after the fiestas patronales. In fact it started on December 17, the ‘aguinaldo,’ or the nine days before and including Christmas Day. It started quite brilliantly at 4:00 AM in our little town with extremely loud fireworks, followed by a tone-deaf band, followed by fireworks, followed by a band, etc., ad-infinitum. And here I have my most difficult time. What do fireworks have to do with Christmas? But here they are as ubiquitous as not having water or losing electricity. It just doesn’t put me in a holiday spirit. There are no carolers here, no chestnuts roasting on open fires, and no stockings hung by chimneys with care. So I’m left asking with Charlie Brown, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Well, we’re on a plane tomorrow morning bound for New Jersey. There, we’ll do an interview for a local television station in Princeton. We’ll then visit a friend in Brooklyn. On Christmas Eve, Laura’s daughter Emma will pick us up on her way from Norfolk, VA to Massachusetts. With a week of visiting friends and family, I’m sure we’ll get a good dose of New England holiday tradition. I think, in the end, we celebrate the beauty and wonder of life; our own and the abundance of it all around us. Whether it’s with hot chocolate or tamales, or for that matter with the crazy fruit cake, celebrations are about how good life is, and how good we are one to another.