cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feliz Natal

Merry Christmas

For a while i decided to pretend that it wasn't even Christmas time since comparing the Christmas that i know to the Christmas here is a very difficult task. I have no Christmas tree, no lights, no candles, no garlands, no fancy table settings, no fancy dinner, no Christmas music, no fireplace, no pizza on Christmas Eve, no five-star Christmas morning breakfast, no eggnog, no excited atmosphere and no family. So, if that's Christmas, then how can i compare a completely different event to it? I can't. Trying to do so is simply asking for saudades; longings.

Stepping out of your zone, moving out of your country is hard on many fronts, as we expats blog about ad nauseum. But there is something about the big holidays that are hard to handle. Particularly when you hear a Portguese "Jingle Bells" that has absolutely nothing to do with the real song. Is it wierd that it makes me angry? Aren't cultures supposed to have their own ways of celebrating? I'll admit, longing for what i know and love has made my view of the holidays here slightly bitter. Fake evergreen Christmas trees at all the stores, plastic scenes of snow critters, a Santa Clause named Papai Noel, Noel? Brazil's Santa is French? Why is there nothing Brazilian about Christmas here, what the hell is a Brazilian Christmas anyways? Grocery stores full of Italian panetonne? Brazilians eat more panetonne than Italians do. Let's breath. I wouldn't feel so bitter and mean if i didn't miss my own Christmas so much. So, i have to stop missing to see what a Brazilian Christmas is actually like. To do so i have to stop comparing, stop judging, stop scoffing and look at it as something unique. Christmas is Christmas right?

It is extremely difficult to say, "a Brazilian Christmas is like this--" It's like saying that all Americans do the same thing for Christmas, when the reality is that some Americans go to Church and have a big dinner on Christmas Eve, and some Americans go to Denny's for pancakes, some go to the movies and eat pizza, some open present on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas morning, some drink spiked eggnog and some sing Christmas carols all night at grandmas. The same thing in Brazil. I have no clue what all families do during Christmas, the reality is, however, that it depends completely on your economic class. This is what is universal around most of Brazil: panetonne. If there is one thing around Brazil that signifies "the holiday season," it's the large cardboard cubes stacked up like building bricks at every single grocery store. Mountains of panetonne, cheap panetonne. I have no idea how dry fruit-studded yeast bread became the holiday it- food, but it is as descriptive of the season as the head-size chocolate eggs are at Easter.

Aside from panetonne, other signs of Christmas include fake Christmas trees in nearly all commercial and public buildings. Christmas trees are not common in most homes due to the cost of ornaments, lights, garlands etc. And honestly, who wants a plastic smelly tree in their house? This is actually ok with me. Evergreen Chrsitmas trees don't exist because they don't grow here. Easy. So give up the fake ones, or embrace lighting a palm tree. I have not seen a single palm tree with lights, people would rather string lights from the top of a pole downward to form a light "tepee" to mimic the triangular Christmas than to put lights on a live tree. I wanted to see a damn palm tree with lights, Americans love that stuff.

My Brazilian Christmas is not the same as all Brazilian Christmases just as my American Chrsitmas is not the same as all American Christmases. There are many wealthy families in Brazil that can mimic an American Christmas quite well. The key word is wealthy. As with all things in Brazil, having access to things common to middle class America is only available to the top classes. Christmas toys, classy decorations and formal sit down with special food for the season is not really possible for the lower classes and most middle class. For our Brazilian family, Christmas Eve IS Chrsitmas. The night started with some Barbecue, yeah the every-weekend style barbecue. There was a roast chicken, and the buffet style everyday foods of rice, beans, mayonaise salad and farofa. To be honest and fair, this is how many Brazilians "celebrate," and if we are "celebrating" Christmas, why should it be much different than celebrating birthdays or other events? Another thing that effects the style of "celebrating" aside from economic status is the volume of people. No matter how much money you have there is no way you can fit 70 family members plus all of the random friends who show up to mooch around a table. Impossible. Flatware, dishes, champagne cups for all? Having an American style Christmas requirees an American-style family, meaning there has to be crowd control. My family Chrsitmas in the US is intimate, immediate family members. Only my sisters, brothers and parents. That number has grown slightly due to boyfriends and husbands, but that's it. It doesn't extend beyond that. An intimate gathering of 10-15 people allows for an American Christmas. A prom-style dance party with 70+ people to feed does not. So, who am i to compare when the logistics simply cannot compute? In the end it is cultural, and as much as i love the openness and group-style "everyone is family" aspect of the Brazilian family, i prefer the intimate closeness of the American family when it comes to gatherings. Gatherings....

One reason my Brazilian Christmas just doesn't do it for me is that i, personality wise, don't like big parties. I don't. Ask my college mates, attending beer-soaked college parties was never at the top of my fun list, and it still isn't. That is how our gatherings are here. Though obviously not a college party, a large group, lots of beer, people shouting, too many children running around and really bad music blairing as loud as the speakers can go is not my idea of a gathering. This type of party is our generic family celebration, and it works. People have a good time, everyone laughs, dances to the Macaraina (what?) and spills beer all over the floor. The problem is that it doesn't really work for me, and especially not on Christmas. The one thing that i am sublimely lucky for in this matter is that this style of celebration doesn't work for my husband either. We sit back and observe, removed from commotion sitting side by side on a rickety old bench under a knarled tree on the sidewalk thinking about a small cozy sitting room with a fireplace, classical Christmas music on the stereo, my family's annoying dogs pacing back and forth hoping for a crumb of a Christmas cookie, my dad drinking black coffee and my mom mixing together the one cocktail which will put her to sleep.

After eating we had a Secret Santa gift exchange between about 50 people. To be honest, it was slightly frightening. The whole lot were jammed into one rectangular room. The noise was indescribable. Children screaming just to make noise, jumping up and down; chaos spiked with fun. For most of the children, this is the only Christmas present this year. The only ones aside from myself who were frightened by the comotion were the younger children crying on their parents' shoulders. The excahnge took over an hour, with each person standing on a rickety wooden chair that only held-tight by the grace of god and yelling out the name of their Santa. My favorite exchanges were those with beer-in-hand. A few children lucked out with hot wheels, remote control cars and soccer balls, but a few recieved the dreaded clothing. The highlight of it all was seeing how happy the kids were; for people who don't know anything different, their tradition is everything to them.

So what's with all the cookies? There are no Christmas cookies in Brazil. I mean, there really aren't any cookies in Brazil any time of the year. So as an American, I thought it would be novel to introduce the children to the Christmas cookie. I spread it out over three days; hand cutting gingerbread men, baking the most American treats possible--brownies, chocolate chip cookies, ginger snaps, snowcaps, chocolate covered shortbread, peppermint pinwheels and jam thumbprints. Making Christmas cookies was, without a doubt, the most Christmassy event this year. H even helped out on the last day, he stirred the brownies and balled the cookie dough. The cookies were received with awe. That is, the gingerbread men were referred to as biscoitos de Shrek; Shrek biscuits. Aiai, Christmas. I have never made so many cookies at the same time before, 300+ was quite a cookie triumph. Particularly in 90 degrees. My cookie buffet has already been requested for a Christmas party next year. Go me.

So this is my Brazilian Christmas. Nothing like a Christmas i know. Today is actually the 25th, the actual day of Christmas. H and I are eating pizza, watching some old 1960's film and drinking caipirinhas. So i was right all along to not try and recreate Christmas. It's just a day after all. No decorations, no presents, the most non-commercial holiday season i have ever had. Yeah it makes me homesick for the US and my family, but i still wouldn't change my choice to live in Brazil. Brazilian Christmas sucks. But, i get a three day weekend with my husband, sun and a trip to the beach in a few days. This "holiday" season did not consist of shopping trips to the mall or decorating the house, but i finally learned how to drive and finalized my green card status. Life is different, but that's ok. I can still make cookies.

a bientot