Normally, Christmas makes me think of cold weather, quality time with extended family, and holiday gatherings. But our first Christmas in Cuenca was a little different. We did have holiday gatherings, but we didn’t have any family time or cold weather. The time with family we certainly missed, but the cold weather not one bit!
The first signs of Christmas appeared right after Cuenca’s independence day festivities on November 3rd, when some people start to put up their trees. But we weren’t quite ready to start celebrating Christmas until after Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving in Ecuador??
Thanksgiving in Ecuador? Not exactly a national holiday here :)! However, with the 5,000 or so US expats here, many restaurants around town hosted Thanksgiving dinners. Of course, schools were still in session on Thanksgiving, but after hours we got together with friends to celebrate.
A local restaurant hosted a Thanksgiving dinner as a fundraiser for a local charity, and we went to share a delicious meal with friends and dance to live music afterwards. No celebration in Ecuador is complete without dancing, even if it is just gringos!
With Thanksgiving under our now-too-tight belts, we were ready for the Christmas holidays. With no extended family around, this Christmas was to be all our design. So we asked ourselves, what did we want to make our part of our Christmas holiday?
I gave a talk to a group of students at the University of Cuenca about Christmas traditions in the US. In my preparation, I did a quick survey of Facebook friends, and it turns out lots of us have similar traditions like:
- putting up a Christmas tree
- decorating the house
- reading Christmas stories by the tree
- watching Christmas movies
- baking Christmas cookies
- driving around and looking at Christmas lights
- getting together with loved ones.
As it turns out, we did all but one of those this year. And, we even started a couple more Christmas traditions here. Can you guess which tradition we left out? Hint: We don’t have a car!
“Should we get a Christmas tree?” was a question I asked myself for a couple days. There are no live Christmas trees to be found here in Cuenca, so I was afraid that buying one would be wasteful and not very environmentally friendly. We brainstormed ways to make one, but in the end I decided to spend the $17 and buy a fake tree. I’m so glad I did.
When I got home with the tree I felt inspired. It’s crazy that an artificial tree that came out of a box made it suddenly feel like Christmas time. The girls were sooooo excited too! Seeing their elation made it so worth it.
Our tree looked a little bare with only a string of lights on it and two ornaments (thanks, Mimi!). So, I called up my enthusiastic and crafty friend Teresa about an ornament making party. After a night of crafting ornaments and sipping homemade eggnog (YUM!), our tree decorations were complete. I loved this tradition of getting together with friends to make special memories and an ornament too.
Ali was happy to put the first gift under the tree. She got a special surpise for her sister.
Notice the little nativity scene under our tree. Serena decided we needed one, and crafted one from recycled goods we had around the house. I think the girls were inspired by watching the animated movie “Estrella de Belén” (Star of Bethlehem) at the movies.
Our tree made for a happy, festive, and fun backdrop for our Christmas holidays in Cuenca.
I love cookies. I love to bake them and also to eat them. And, I love to give them to others. So, this Christmas would have no shortage of Christmas cookies or Christmas cookie decorating parties (three in all!).
The girls started off with a trial run of cookie making. Our holly leaf cookies turned our pretty tasty even without the berries (we couldn’t find any red hots here).
We also got together with some friends for some serious cookie making and drinking hot spiced wine. Thank you, Jen, Eric, Jackson, and Cole for having us over! I have my new favorite sugar cookie recipe now.
My girls love The Nutcracker ballet. They watched it on YouTube last Christmas at Nana and Grandpa’s and fell in love with it. We’ve listened to it off and on throughout the year. So, when I saw the fliers around town, I knew we just had to go.
The girls were so excited. Ali dances as the Sugar Plum Fairy every day and wants to be a professional ballerina someday.
We all loved the ballet. It was all of our first time to see The Nutcracker live. I think this might be a new annual Christmas tradition.
On the way home from the ballet, we enjoyed the Christmas lights over the river.
There is a Christmas song called “Peces en el Río” (Fish in the River), so the decorations along the Tomebamba RIver are very fitting.
The city of Cuenca had beautiful lights around town. However, here people don’t decorate the outside of their homes or apartments with lights. So, even if we had a car we wouldn’t have driven around to look at any lights this year.
What Christmas isn’t complete without a Christmas program? Ali and her preschool put on a sweet Christmas show called “Saving Christmas” (Salvando la Navidad).
Ali and her classmate practiced for weeks. She was especially excited because she got to be the first one to sing in her group. Interestingly enough, all of the songs were in English.
Ali had absolutely no stage fright. She was so confident and glowing on stage and loudly sang out her part in the song.
Afterwards, Serena even got a picture with Santa (we couldn’t convince them it was the REAL Santa – I wonder why?)
We had quite a few gatherings with friends during the holidays, but one of our favorite holiday gatherings was the Christmas party in Serena’s class.
At the start of December, each of the parents was asked to write 24 little notes to their children. The teacher then shared them with the students every day of December as a sort of Advent Calendar. I thought this was such a special tradition. How often do we take the time to write 24 little love notes to our children? On top of that, the teacher read them in front of the whole class, so the other kids knew how special their classmates are.
On the day of the Christmas party at Serena’s school, we were welcomed by one of her classmates who reminded us that at Christmas we receive a lot of gifts but the best gift of all is spending time together with family. We couldn’t agree more. Having so much slow time together as a family has been one of the most special parts of our time here in Ecuador.
Serena was super excited to have mom and dad in her class and to give us the gifts she made for us. We parents also gave our kids a card that we made for them.
A couple of surprises awaited us at the Christmas party. First, Serena made some really sweet gifts for us… a snow globe and two coco locos (crazy coconuts) which were pretty much the most adorable homemade chia pets.
Second, every child had at least one parent attend the party. At our elementary school in the US, we were never invited to attend events at the school during the work day. And if we had, I can’t imagine that every parent would be able to come. Here in Ecuador, parents are equally busy with work schedules, yet they were able to carve out time to be with their kids at school.
The third surprise was that every parent took a moment to tell their kids something special about them in front of the whole class and other parents. We were second in line and totally not prepared! But, it’s never hard to tell Serena (and Ali too) how awesome they are. Many tears were shed over the sweet words of each family.
The party was complete with a visit from Joseph, Mary, an elf, Papá Noel (Santa), and Mamá Noel (Mrs Claus)
We ate snacks and sang songs together. Here’s a snippet of us singing the traditional Christmas carol I mentioned earlier “Peces en el río” (Fish in the River):
The last surprise was a Christmas carol that the kids sang to us in English.
With all these fun holiday celebrations, we were ready when December 24th finally arrived. Check out our next post!