I hate Christmas, but it has a hold on me. I hate the holiday music playing in every store and try to stay the hell away from malls. I hate the TV commercials, especially the ones where someone steps outside and there’s a shiny new car in the driveway with a gigantic red bow. (Who the hell sells a bow that big anyway?) I hate the pressure to spend a fortune on presents. But I also find myself singing “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” in the shower and getting a fuzzy feeling inside when decorations go up along Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park. Does any other holiday inspire so many conflicting feelings?
When I was a child, my uncle would put presents in tiny jewelry boxes and hang them from the Christmas tree. Come midnight on the 25th (that’s when presents are opened among us Guatemalans), my sisters and I would search through the branches for boxes with our names on them to claim our prizes. Our cousins would come over and eat Guatemalan tamales and dance to the radio. We’d try on our sweaters and play with our toys and frown at our socks. We’d stay up until two in the morning and fall asleep in the living room. Then we’d wake up to eat more tamales with my mother’s ponche, a warm drink made out of pineapple, apples, coconut, prunes, raisins, and apricots.
Later, my dad failed to make the mortgage payments on our little white house in the city of Bell. When I was eight, we moved into a cockroach-infested rental on the other side of town. Christmas, like everything else, got a little gloomier. We don’t have cousins over anymore. (We had a falling out with them for reasons that were stupid and frivolous.) Siblings grew up and moved out. My parents got divorced.
My mother, my sister, and I still form an assembly line every year to wrap and cook Guatemalan tamales made out of corn dough, red chiles, prunes, raisins, green olives, almonds, and chicken with a spicy red sauce called recado. My mom still throws all the fruit and love together to make the ponche. But in recent years we haven’t really been able to make it to midnight. Some years, I’m the only one left awake to greet the stroke of 12. There are years when, of the four kids, it’s just my sister and me. We unwrap our presents, eat all the tamales, drink all the ponche–and there: we did Christmas. My mom falls asleep. My uncle doesn’t hang jewelry boxes from the tree anymore.
Maybe that’s why gift giving started to take over. Hanging out together wasn’t going to happen like it used to anymore. That just left the stuff. One year, when I asked for a bicycle for Christmas, my uncle could only give me a chain with a gold bicycle pendant hanging from it. I cherish it today, but, at the time, I was ungrateful. I wanted a bicycle, one I could ride.
I’ve sometimes wondered if Christmas materialism is a lot worse than it used to be, but I’m not sure it is. I recently asked my friend’s mother, Frances Sandberg, what Christmas was like when she was a girl. Frances grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s. “They had advertisements on TV, stores would have things for you to come in and buy stuff,” Frances told me. “I don’t think it’s a whole lot different.”
The only thing Frances mentioned having changed were the department stores that used to put on displays. “They would really decorate the windows downtown,” she said. “I looked forward to doing that, to go look at the windows. They usually had little trains that would run around or something.”
But maybe, I thought, Christmas as we know it was an American problem. This is a consumer society, after all. Erik Alcaraz, my co-worker over at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico in the 1960s. And, yes, Christmas was a bit different there, he told me. For instance, there was no Santa Claus, and families would set up a nativity scene, not a Christmas tree. But that didn’t mean peace on earth prevailed. Sometimes, around Christmastime, factory workers would receive their bonus, called aguinaldo, in a cash envelope on payday. Vendors would be waiting outside with trinkets and toys, and workers would sometimes spend all their bonus money on the spot. Then, three blocks later, realizing that they’d probably overpaid, workers would get buyers’ remorse and turn around to demand their money back. Sometimes, the military had to swoop in and prevent vendors and workers from killing each other–let alone the Christmas spirit.
Then foreign traditions started to seep in. “There was no Santa Claus until the ’70s,” Erik recalled. “That’s when that influence of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree started coming. I remember in the ’60s we’d only put up the nativity, and the ’70s were when we started putting up a Christmas tree next to the nativity.”
“Navidad sucks, vale madre,” Erik said, remembering the year when he couldn’t buy his 11-year-old son the Walkman that he’d wanted. “When you have kids you love them so much, and you can’t explain why. You don’t want them to go through what you went through.”
When I got back from my first Christmas as a college student, some friends of mine in a liberal social-activisty group fell into a conversation about what their favorite presents were. They were talking about things like rare coins and trips to Thailand. I talked about foot cream. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my foot cream. My mother had taken the trouble to get me something she knew I would appreciate. But I didn’t like the look on my wealthier friends’ faces when I shared this with them.
“If I don’t have money for gifts, I don’t give any,” my mother told me when I asked her for her thoughts on Christmastime pressures. “The focus of Christmas for me is to be with people.”
That’s true. Amid all the housing instability and family drama, tamales and ponche were always on the dinner table. No matter what, my mother hauled herself to the grocery store every year to buy stacks of banana leaves, aluminum foil, corn dough, chicken, spices, and fruit. She still does. Then she’ll put it all in a huge pot over the kitchen stove it, mixing it with a huge wooden spoon that she threatens to use on us if we don’t behave. It’s because of my mother that I still have a connection to my family back in Guatemala and my family back in time.
So this year, instead of running around aimlessly at a mall trying to find some stupid $20 thing for my sister or my brother or my uncle or my cousin, I’m going to go with my mother to the grocery store. I’m going to learn how to make Christmas into what it’s supposed to be about: tradition, family, and love.
I’m also going to try to ignore how my mother told me she’d like a computer, an MP3 player, a 52-inch plasma TV, a radio she can use while jogging, and a smartphone. After all, she was joking. I think.
Brenda Yancor is a former intern at Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo courtesy of julio.garciah.