It’s Christmas Day. It’s also my seventh Christmas in El Salvador. I will try to explain why Christmas is both green and blue here. Green, as opposed to the familiar white Christmas, is the predominant color of the environment. We have no memories of white Christmases past, no culture of Santa with nine reindeer (counting Rudolph) landing his sleigh on snow-covered roof tops or coming down chimneys with a sack full of toys, no Frosty the Snowman with eyes and buttons of carbón and a carrot nose, and no carolers bundled up with their own red noses glowing as they sing the familiar traditional songs of the season at front gates and doors.
Although we are in the early phase of our six-months of winter, the town and the rural areas are verdant with brightly colored flowers everywhere. Oh, there are some houses behind tall iron or chain link fences that are strung with colored lights and through open doors you might see un arbolito de navidad, a small Christmas tree, and an occasional nativity scene. Television has influenced this poor nation with visions of sugar plums (large screen TVs, a 125 cc motorcycle in every living room, “American” clothes, and a hand-held communications device) dancing and sprinting in many folks’ heads.
Christmas is NOT a big day here. The 24th is what is mostly celebrated as Nochebuena, the good night. We know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th and most likely wasn’t born in December or close to it. The date was chosen because it was nine months after March 25th, the day ascribed to the angel’s annunciation to Jesus’ mother Mary. The Catholic church reckoned the 25th to be the day of Christ’s Mass in 336 A.D. while Constantine was emperor in Rome. What tradition has passed down to us is that he was born at night. So this mass was celebrated between sunset and sunrise, hence the night before the proclaimed date of Jesus’ birth is what came down to us. This of course was before the day was taken over by commercial rather than spiritual interests.
Thus many businesses and offices which would be closed in the U.S. carry on as usual here. People have to go to work on the 25th so they celebrate the night before, Nochebuena. How they celebrate was quite novel for me during my first few Christmases here. Families get together and have a big dinner, usually chicken or a meal they wouldn’t normally have except for holidays and celebrations. Such is the economy in Central America. Then they willingly risk their children’s well-being by setting off an hour or two’s worth of fireworks and rockets. Despite the graphic results they’ve viewed on TV of children with missing fingers, hands and eyes lying in hospital beds, and warnings from police, emergency room personnel, and some of the highest office holders in the land, so-called adults buy in bulk to sell from in front of their houses to their neighbors and friends. Such is tradition in El Salvador. The sound of explosions and debris landing on metal roofs goes on until after midnight or the exhaustion of their pyrotechnics.
Christmas for me can be a very blue day for several reasons. Trapped in the cob webs of my mind are memories of childhood Christmases, Christmases with wives and excited children, the horrors of trying to balance Christmas lists with disposable income, walking trips around Manhattan to see Santa at Macy’s and wondering how he could be on his throne and on most street corners as well, the humongous tree and skaters at Rockefeller Center, lunch at the Automat or Gluckstern’s, and the tragedy of my mother’s decision to ban Christmas in favor of Chanukah. Mostly happy but fading-with-age memories of scenes in which I have only once acted a part in the past thirty years.
Since Margarita has been a part of my life I have typically followed her custom of spending Nochebuena at the Olmedo homestead about a mile and a half from El Refugio in Casa Blanca. There have been times when family members would come a distance to visit with the family’s matriarch, Margarita’s mom, and there would be lots of talk, some of it interesting and easy to follow. Margarita’s sister would be the fireworks supplier and I’d watch powerless to object as my kids lit sparklers and haphazardly tossed explosive pyrotechnics on the driveway with woods and dry leaves on both sides. Once my short interest span kicked in accompanied by lion-like yawns, I would make my way to Margarita’s former shack (now cleaned and the rickety bed made) to try to sleep with the sound of explosions ringing through the woods in competition with Uncle Marcos’ music blasting from his home a rural block away.
My aching, aging legs have kept me from visiting my mother-in-law as often as I’d like. I love her dearly if for no other reason than for having birthed the beautiful woman who is my wife. Last night I was torn between accompanying my family and staying at home. I didn’t look forward to another long walk along the highway and the uphill climb on a hard, rough, rutted and rocky road. I would miss a couple of never-miss TV shows that only air on Wednesdays. Although I knew there would be fireworks close to our house in El Refugio that would probably keep me awake beyond my normal bedtime, at least I had the escape of television and my computer. Due to the proliferation of gang members in and around Casa Blanca and their sudden burst of deadly criminal activity, it is not a place to walk out of after dark if I should choose to leave out of boredom.
But my angel daughter, Adriana, asked me if I were going with them. I asked her if she wanted me to go and she said yes. I hemmed and hawed a bit but thinking of her and how I’ve become more a part of her life recently as she’s grown up I said OK. I told her I wanted to have supper before I left because I was hungry and they wouldn’t eat all the good food they’d be carrying until a couple of hours later. I also said I’d take my bicycle so I wouldn’t have to walk the whole distance. I’d only have to push the bike up the hill for the last 1/4 mile. But in the back of my mind I had decided that if I were not enjoying I’d have a means of returning home in ten minutes’ time.
Margarita and the two kids left ahead of me while I put on my jungle clothes but I passed them on the highway and got to Casa Blanca first. I “hid” my bike on her front porch and remarked to myself how son Juan had made some improvements to the front of the house to afford himself some privacy when he showers. Inside it was typically cluttered with kitchen articles that Margarita has given him since he went out on his own. The bulk of the house was unappetizing and it reminded me of one of the many reasons I would never move to Casa Blanca.
I decided to start walking back down the hill to meet them coming up. I knew Margarita would be carrying three bags of food and what they’d need for overnight and that Luís, a typical Salvadoran male at age twelve, would be empty-handed and Adriana, the spoiled princess, might have something light to carry. I thought I’d meet them at the second turn in the road but when I got there they were no where in sight. I continued down the hill realizing I was going to have to walk back up a second time. I sedated my angst with the thought that this time I wouldn’t have to push my bicycle.
At a slight curve in the road I could see the family including daughter María clustered in the shadows of dusk. When I arrived they were concluding their conversation. Our older daughter gave me a hug and a blessing. She turned to go to her house and we began the climb. I took a bag from my wife with a comment about our son’s lack of respect for his mother and proceeding empty-handed. As I expected, his little sister had a bag but didn’t get too far before handing it back to her mother.
At my mother-in-law’s house they unpacked their cargo and I sat on the porch listening to the chatter. Luís and Adriana played with his cell phone. Mom got a phone call which lasted a while. Margarita was busy sorting out the pre-cooked supper–for which no one was in the mood. Luís found some French rolls and decided to make himself a cream sandwich. Adriana wanted one as well. They had hot chicken and gravy, rice, and a fresh salad waiting for them but they chose bread and cream. It’s like they become semi-savages again once they breathe the air of Casa Blanca.
Margarita saw I was bored so she offered me Pepsi. I wasn’t thirsty and I didn’t want soda. She asked me if I wanted a little more salad. She’d forgotten to put radishes in my salad at home and must have wanted to make it up to me. Whenever I buy radishes they disappear before she makes a salad. Adriana likes to snack on them. But I declined having eaten enough salad for one day. Suddenly the kids decided they were hungry so Margarita set about preparing their supper. She again asked if I wanted anything. I didn’t. The TV had been on with a children’s Christmas program that no one was really watching. It’s like Luís needed some background noise to accompany his torturing his sister. The news came on at 7:00 and Adrian cleared off a chair, placed it in front of the TV and offered me the seat. They all sat on the porch eating.
The news here is not really news and it almost never affects our lives here in “the provinces”. I watched for about fifteen minutes and decided I’d rather be alone in my own house where I’m comfortable. I always have something I can occupy myself with. I can only listen to conversations about who died or was killed and who he was related to for so long. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their relationships. When my mother-in-law turned to verify that Negritos originally came from Africa, it confirmed my need to get home in time to see “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and watch college students and professional people not know on what continent one will find the Republic of South Africa and use all their lifelines to guess Asia. I kissed my wife and mother-in-law and got on my bike. I somehow made it to the highway on the poorly lit double-rutted trail safely passing three young men smoking something suspicious. I wished them Merry Christmas as I turned the first corner and they returned my salutation. Phew! I was happy to enter the highway where there were few cars but enough to light the bike lane so I wouldn’t hit any pedestrians or other bikers. I made it to the house in ten minutes. I cruised past the park and saw maybe two dozen people including kids. Nobody I knew so I went home.
I was able to enjoy “Millionaire” before the fireworks began in earnest. There wasn’t anything on TV to interest me so I worked on my two computers and tried unsuccessfully to connect Adriana’s new mini-tablet to the Internet. When I was ready for bed it was still noisy but I didn’t mind. I was just so tired. I missed my good-night hug from Adriana and missed Margarita beside me. But I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until a little before eight. I could have slept longer. There were no big trucks with growling engines at 4:30 a.m. and no bread vendors squeezing their horns beginning an hour later. Not everyone has Christmas day off. What woke me up was two neighbors with their volume on eight or nine yakking in front of the house. Once again I missed my wife and daughter as I began my day. A little bit blue surrounded by a whole lot of green.