I stepped inside from our balcony to grab my camera and suddenly heard a loud boom, this one much closer than the others. I whirled around just in time to see the flash of light fading into the thick, damp summer air and a few wisps of smoke rising off the hot pavement just outside the gate to the US Embassy.
Cheers erupted and several other bright flashes continued to dot the Buenos Aires skyline. It was midnight on Christmas Eve and all seven of us huddled on our tiny balcony on the twelfth floor to watch the Porteños usher in Christmas with a traditional citywide display of fireworks.
Sweat dripped down my temple as I hurried to set up my camera. I positioned myself between two strangers-quickly-turned-friends and took my shot.
After the impressive display, we returned to our seats around the living room. Scraps of a mismatched meal lingered on the tables amongst our mismatched company. We had one gal from Germany, two guys from the UK, and two other visiting Americans. Less than forty-eight hours prior, we didn’t know any of them.
You see, in Buenos Aires, Christmas Eve is a pretty big deal. Everything shuts down in the early afternoon and the Argentinians congregate with family to supper together. With only a few exceptions, most restaurants close down until midnight when the younger Porteños head out to meet up with friends at the bars after their family celebrations. The few restaurants that remain open for the entire evening cater to tourists and expats by offering an expensive fixed menu option.
The day before Christmas Eve, Tom and I still had no reservations and could not find any at an affordable price. Apparently these restaurants book up early. We struggled through our first day of Spanish class, and in our broken Spanish we met five others that despite our many differences, had at least one thing in common: we all faced the prospect of celebrating Christmas with no family, no friends, and no food.
So what were we to do? Well, throw a party, of course!
So on Christmas Eve morning, with only a few hours till the shops closed, Tom and I sent out an email invitation to the classmates we had met the day prior. Then we split up our shopping list and hit the town. I felt like we were on an episode of Dinner: Impossible.
Tom went to the market, pastelería (pastry shop), and enoteca (wine shop). I headed to the carnicería (meat shop), fromagerie (cheese shop), panadería (for empanadas), and verduria (fruit and vegetable stand). Not knowing exactly how many people would accept our invitation, we just started grabbing food and drinks without a lot of thought. We met back at the apartment, dropped the bags of food on the counter, and started slicing, dicing, chopping, and prepping.
Bling! Bling! One by one, the alerts on my computer announced the arrival of an RSVP and the transformation of another classmate from a mere acquaintance made over “hola” and “cómo se llama usted?” to the type of friend with whom you spend your holidays.
Friends, family, food, drinks. I hit play on my Christmas playlist, put the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on silent in the background and for the first time this season, it began to feel a little like Christmas.
The city certainly shuts down for Christmas, but outside the shopping malls, its really lacking in the traditional holiday spirit that I'm used to North America. Santa’s heavy red coat, winter pine trees, and warm cinnamon-flavored drinks look plain silly juxtaposed to flip flops, bikini sales, and summer dresses.
And don’t even think about playing holiday music! Melodies to dashing through the snow and tunes about Jack Frost nipping at your nose don’t describe Christmas at all when it’s a sweltering ninety-nine degrees outside.
Even Christmas Eve mass was held outside on the grass in the park next to our apartment. People arrived in sun dresses, sandals, and hats, like they were showing up to a summer BBQ.
So with no tinsel, no tree, and no presents, we celebrated our Christmas with food, drinks, fireworks, and of course, our new friends. And in true Argentinian style we stayed up with our adopted family till the sun rose on Christmas morn.
We certainly missed all our friends and family back home, but we feel blessed to have had the opportunity to experience a very unique Christmas with new friends.
Merry (belated) Christmas everyone! Cheers!
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!