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


Anonymous said...

I make tons of Christmas cookies every year. It is the only thing that makes it Christmas, although most years I have been in charge of an intimate family dinner. This year we were with the in-laws and it was pretty much as you described, although with fewer people. I can totally relate with your feelings.

Jim said...

I appreciate the fine line you have walked between articulating the other-ness of Christmas here without dissing Christmas here. Family celebrations are family celebrations.

We just got home from a huge pool party BBQ with endless beer, lots of kids - but no presents (that was last night.) Not very "Christmas" at all, but it was a fun celebration.

Last night we gathered with a few family members and I noted to myself when an aunt's one gift to her husband was a pair of black boxer briefs. That's it. That was Christmas... (R$32)

It's different. I like your idea of making loads of traditional cookies (even in the heat). I have a fool proof Panatonne recipe for my bread machine, but I realize that would not appeal to you. ;-)

Have another caipirinha and snuggle.

Merry Christmas.

(And we're ready for that corn tortilla recipe when you get a chance!)

shelle said...

Hi there! Thanks for your post. We tried the recreating route here, and it went okay. My in-laws are here, so that helped. But we were sooo tired because we didn't do the late night xmas eve thing, but ALL the neighbors did, so nobody slept well. Oh well! Your cookies are so beautiful. My fachineira asked on Wednesday (the 22nd) how much I'd charge for 100 American xmas cookies. I very politely said that it would be impossible for me to make 100 extra cookies in 2 days in 85 degree heat in my tiny kitchen. And there's no way she could afford the price I would charge :-) I'm hoping to post some pictures of our soon. Merry Christmas!

Fiona said...

Wonderful description of Christmas in Brazil for an Expat. Will you be doing the New Years Brazilian style (white clothes, throw something into the ocean and wish)?

Brynn said...

Beautiful and scrumptious looking cookies! They came straight from the table of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

My husband and I celebrated one Christmas in Brazil and that was it. I was willing to give up so much but not Christmas with my family. That was a deal breaker. Christmas is a huge deal in my family and, like with your in-laws, it's just another BBQ in his family. So American Christmas it is!

Enjoyed the post! I'd been going into withdrawal. I like to live vicariously through your extraordinary baking. : )

Merry Christmas!

Mallory Elise said...

thanks guys, nice to know im not just being a winey american :) i think the hardest part is that for me, at least in my family, Christmas is one of the only "big family things" that everyone gets together for and is actually happy to be around each other, so missing that one time that my family is all happy at the same time is hard. So regardless of how we celebrated here in Brazil, i already had saudades. which were made worse by the--barbecue. i'm waiting for a celebration that does not involve barbecue and every human in the family. now that this first Christmas is over, i think i will be more prepared next year, and like Jim and Corinne do, have the big family christmas eve deal, and then start my own thing that I LIKE on actua Christmas day with my "imediate" family here. And then eventually i will do what Brynn does and travel to the U.S. every year for egg nog and christmas carols :D

Shelley my cookies took forever because i didnt have a cookie cutter and i tried to wait until sundown to turn on the oven.

Fiona- i am hoping to go to the beach--somewhere in SP with a few friends even if only for New Years Eve :)

Cláudia Bertolucci said...

Oh man... life is really strange. I'm Brazilian, I live in São Paulo and my family always has that traditional Christmas, with fancy decoration and fancy clothes, food that has nothing to do with summer, countless trips to the mall - which is always crowded, by the way... and I swear to God I would love to have just a simple barbecue with beer. And buying only one gift for Xmas would be a dream come true. Well... I wouldn't go for 70 people and barbecue, but I would love to have a simple and summery Xmas, with no rules, no stress, no formalities. Maybe we could "exchange celebrations" next year... LOL. And I hope you feel better on New Years Eve.

Love your blog.

GingerV said...

My first time to visit and I enjoyed your 'tone' immensely. This year I baked a partial salmon.... yes it was too hot with the oven on, the salmon for 15 cost me R$194. plus Camillo's d in law baked a ham... way too much food. The 'family' was pretty extended but the all had fun but in Portuguese and Spanish - of which I speak neither.

I would like you ginger snap recipe with what you used for ingredients not available.
hope we can work out a get-together.

Jim said...

Cláudia - I LOVE that you have posted the inverse experience!

There is no right way...

Mallory said...

Claudia you are MORE than welcomed to come and take my place next year! but you will be frightened...i forgot to mention this family is from Bahia?! tee hee. but next year, like i said, i will go with the whole barbecue deal-eo and then the next day have my wanna-be-fancy traditional Christmas and start my own new tradition :)

Ginger i will send you the ginger recipe, i suppose you are talking about corn syrup, which you can find but it's hard. i didnt have any on hand so i melted brown sugar, sugar and water together for a faux syrup :) and grated fresh ginger instead of ground, which was actually better.

Cláudia Bertolucci said...

I'm having second thoughts... LOL. Just kidding. I wish you the best of luck. FELIZ ANO NOVO (Happy New Year)! :)

Nina said...

My mac was not letting me post! As always your photos are to die for, only screaming how damn good your cookies are!

Lady, I feel you. Christmas state side just doesn't compare for me either to Brazil. I just went on pretending, until Sunday I just felt sick because it was party to party to party to party, etc...... with so many people. I went home and laid down, then cried. Kinda overwhelming.

Anyway, new years at the beach will make up for christmas in Brazil.

Unknown said...

OH boy... You said it girl. I'm so happy I spent Christmas here in Canada (even though w/o my husband, sad) ... but the tradition and appreciation for the tradition was what I was missing the most about last year's crappy-ish Christmas in Brazil. crappy for me because it wasn't the same. And Christmas for us is the most important holiday, I would argue.
I'm sure Brazilians who have special carnaval traditions wouldn't want those to change either... It's totally fair to want whats familiar on these family oriented holidays.
Don't worry, you and your cookies are still cute!

Mallory said...

thanks for all the responses my expatties :) it's nice to know that it is not just me or my family, but rather it is just the fact that Christmas is really important for....North Americans in general, and though we can transfer our life to another country, we are really sensitive about Christmas. It was difficult writing this one for fear of coming off as saying "ugh, my barbarian loser family does not know how to do Christmas" because that is not my intention or thoughts. so, i beeive there is a collective agreement that Christmas, for North Americans, must be done up there. and if not, then there AT LEAST better be enough real wine to get through the evening ;)

Glória Paiva said...

Hello Mallory!
I´m so sorry to hear that you X-mas in Brazil seemed to be disappointing.
But allow me to be more optimistic and introduce you my point of view. I have lived in Europe and I think that X-mas is X-mas, and each one celebrates how they can. I see many poor people gathering (in small families) to eat a special dinner on the X-mas Eve. Some wealthy families make barbecue, others cook a turkey. Mine has Brittish influence and we cook turkey and cakes, only with the closest relatives. Should we celebrate with feijoada and caipirinha just to make a "true Brazilian Christmas"? Should there be a rule for it? The Panettone taste was brought by Italian immigrant families to Brazil. People like it. People buy it. It´s a culture mix of different influences, a reflex of Brazilian culture. People create really new recipes too - just look for them. Some habits we "imported" from Europe, yeah; and some were created here. But America as an ex-colony did exactly the same...
Give X-mas another chance in the South America next year... :)
A Happy 2011 for you.

Mallory Elise said...

Hi Gloria, hope you had a great xmas. I tried really hard with my tone to not put donw the Brazilian Christmas as an entity in itself. i know there are traditions and families have fun, and it's all they know. BUT my point with this post was simply MY brazilian christmas as i know other regions, other types of families and other economic conditions make for different celebrations. In the end, the truth is that nothing can replace or come close to the family tradition you are used to and cherish.

Danielle said...

Man, I'm so sorry that you're so angry. Maybe you were just angry that day and aren't anymore, but that was the "tone" that I got from this post.

I think it's sad for you, because if you had been (a) a little more honest about your feelings (i.e. you missed your family and your traditions rather than "Brazilian Christmas Sucks") and (b) a little more open minded about your definition of tradition (things are essentially the same-- food, family, gifts, drinks), then maybe you would've enjoyed yourself a little more.

In the end, it sounds like it was more your personal preferences that disagreed with your in-laws' personal preferences, rather than "Americans do Christmas right" and "Brazilians do Christmas wrong".

And at the end of the day, if that wasn't the kind of Christmas that you wanted, and if your husband didn't like big parties either, why didn't you guys plan something else on your own?

I hope the rest of the holidays are better for you.

Glória Paiva said...

You´re abolutely right when you say that, in the end, nothing can replace or come close to the family tradition you are used to. And I forgot to say that your cookies are really cute and look delicious. This is something really nice - trying to mix up the nice things from traditions, here and there, when we get to know other cultures. :)

Toasted cheese and coffee said...

biscoitos de Shrek... hah, goes well with black coffee.


Sierra said...

miss you mal mal! the cookies looked jealous of the little kids that got to eat them hah

Lolla said...

Just the other day I was writing to a friend in Brazil and telling her how much I miss my brazilian christmas. Being a brazilian expat in Europe, when I first arrived I was sure I was in for some sort of life changing experience, that all my winter holidays would be white and traditional and, for the first time, I'd experience "the real christmas" as I had always seen from the cover of the christmas cards.

And then I did. OK, it was different and I liked it. But now that the novelty factor is gone, I would very much prefer to spend these days in my old home in Rio, doing our sort of christmas.

I find strange to read so many expats describing brazilian christmas as some sort of "beer and barbecue pre-carnival by the swimming pool" affair. I have spent over 2 decades of my life in the country and can honestly say I have never experienced such a thing. We had turkey, christmas trees, fairy lights, christmas movies on TV. We swapped gifts and christmas cards. We even dressed as Santa for the kids and left some milk and cookies (yes, cookies!) for him before bed. I seriously thought that was how it was done all over.

I cannot forget the year when my parents broke a bit of our fence just so I would think Santa had gone through it with his sledge. A sledge... on tarmac?? Oh well. I was only four and fully bought into that story. Next year I didn't even believe in Santa anymore, but my last xmas as a "believer" was wonderful.

All I can remember from my childhood is my mother already up and getting the turkey ready for the oven when I woke early and full of excitement on the 24th, the smell of cinammon and condensed milk (used for our traditional xmas desserts) in the air, an old vinyl record, treasure from the late 70s, playing christmas songs, my father baking chestnuts and snacking on dried apricots... Honestly, not much different than what we do here in the UK. Except we have late dinner on the 24th instead of the christmas lunch, which I actually prefer, as we have more time to get ready and build up excitement and the next day it's *still* christmas! :)

I miss the gentle rain that used to fall on christmas, every year almost without fail. As a little girl, I used to say it was "our snow". I loved the tradition of getting new outfits for christmas *and* new year's, and my mum fussing over my clothes and brand new shoes. I LOVE the tradition of getting just one, special gift, instead of thousands; to me it slightly waters down any excitement or meaning. I prefer brazilian desserts, too - never got the taste for the heavy english christmas pud/cake (altough I do like the ritual of showering it with brandy and setting all ablaze!). I miss people wishing everyone a happy christmas, instead of here where people tend to hide in family clusters, sometimes ignoring neighbours, extended family or even taking the seasonal step of being nicer to strangers.

I understand your frustrations because I feel them, too. Only with me it's the other way round. But that's how things are, we will *always* hold our references close to our hearts, it's our personal traditions, our childhood memories, that will forever be seen with rose tinted glasses. I do not believe the european way of making christmas (copied by most of the colonies, including the States) is the "right" one. I used to think so, but now I know better - the right one for YOU is the one who makes you see the world with children's eyes again. You will NOT get that with a celebration that is so removed from your own childhood.

Wish you a happiER christmas this year; maybe a visit to the US will be in order? ;)