In general, I’m more of a fan of Festivus than Christmas. While I was raised Catholic, I don’t abide by any particular religion or belief system and typically find myself more exasperated than excited about carols, gifts, trees, Santas, and so on.
Nevertheless, this was my first Christmas away from my family. Because of timing, Gustavo and I chose to spend it in Rio together with his side of the family. Originally, the plan was to have my mother come meet us here to spend Christmas with everyone — our parents haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet! — but because the flights were so expensive, we weren’t able to swing it this year.
I was surprised by how emotional I felt without my family during the holidays. We don’t have many specific traditions. Or, at least, that’s what I thought. Normally my mother and I spend it together, exchanging gifts in the morning and eating dinner in the evening with friends or cousins. We’ll often have brunch together, give the dog a new toy, and relax for the day while we’re both on vacation.
Nevertheless, in being exposed to some of the traditions here in Rio, I found a lot of clarity in my own relationship to Christmas and what my expectations are. Expectations I didn’t know that I had, at all.
So what are some of the differences?
Well, first of all, it’s summer here. Being from New Jersey, I am used to a white, freezing cold, “I don’t want to go outside” Christmases. This year, on Christmas day, we went for a walk on the beach and I got sunburned. All the decorations include Santa decked out in his regular North Pole gear, except we’re in Rio and it’s 95 degrees. Can we get the man some bermuda shorts and sunscreen please? He doesn’t have rosy cheeks, he’s getting third-degree burns from the sun!
Also, decorations here are only for Christmas. Because of our cultural diversity in the United States, I expect to see decorations for a variety of holidays, like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. In Brazil, not so much! I actually spent one night showing Gustavo “The Dreidel Song” because he’d never heard it before.
The holiday in Brazil also seems much more focused on spending time with family than getting a bunch of gifts. Christmas decorations didn’t pop up until late November and there were no images of trees stockpiled with boxes underneath. Instead, our local mall had a Frozen exhibit where kids could play in the fake snow. It seemed relatively calmer, less stressful than the holidays in the US.
Christmas dinner is where I find most of my own traditions. As an Italian-American, we still eat some dishes that are pretty traditional to Italy. My aunt typically strives to make the requisite seven fish, but we usually end up settling at four or five. We always have pasta — generally ravioli — antipasto, stuffed peppers, olives, cheese, bread, and turkey. Dessert? Don’t even get me started. There’s cake, cookies, cannoli, etc. And, of course, espresso.
It was so much different here! We ate much later — at 9pm, instead of beginning the feast at 3pm — and had a much simpler dinner. Rice, bacalhau, farofa. A casserole of hearts of palm. Turkey. A few desserts, including my tiramisu that I nearly botched but instead turned into the Brazilian version, “dá-um-levante,” by using requeijão and cachaça as the main ingredients. All in all, it was a short, nice dinner with family as opposed to an epic marathon of eating. I’m not sure if I should blame America or Italy for that, though.
Next year, we plan to spend Christmas in the United States. I’m excited to show Gustavo all of the insane quantities of food we eat, especially the Italian pastries that you can’t get here. We’re also already planning to make rabanada for my family because what good is cross-cultural exchange if you can’t share your delicious sweets, right?