When I was a youngster in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Azores, Christmas was celebrated very differently than it is today, especially in the United States.
For us, Christmas started on the December 8, when all the stores displayed their wares, for it was the day for parents and children to see the Christmas novelties. In my case, I ran to the window displays to see the latest toys, especially the model cars that I loved so much.
It was also time to plant the vetch (similar to lentils) and wheat that would adorn the nativity scene.
At our home, my parents, along with building a nativity scene, also set up a Christmas tree (O Tannenbaum). At the time, Christmas trees were difficult to find, since they were not sold as readily as they are today.
Because my mother was born in Germany, the Christmas tree was an integral part of our Christmas’ celebration. The same occurred at the homes of cousins who had the same ascendance.
Normally set up in the corner of the living room, the tree was decorated with colored balls, ribbons and candles. Underneath the tree, the nativity scene was displayed.
There were no presents visible, for they would be brought by Old Man Christmas and the Baby Jesus. They would show up mysteriously in the room on Christmas Day, much to my brother’s and my delight.
In contrast, Christmas Eve was spent at my grandparents’ home. At their home, Christmas was celebrated in the strictest Catholic tradition, where only a nativity scene was present. A Christmas tree was considered to be a Protest tradition, and therefore not acceptable.
On top of a large table, pushed against the wall, the nativity scene was built from the table top to a higher level where a grotto was made. Usually constructed by my aunts, it was decorated with green moss to depict the fields, red volcanic rock and with saw dust used to make the roads. Along the wall were branches of Japanese cedar, which gave a wonderful aroma to the room. There were paper houses complemented by regional handmade clay figurines.
In the nativity that I still make at home, there are three figurines of the Wise Men on horseback, that are over one hundred years old, given to me by one of my aunts, and that were part of my grandparent’s nativity scene.
At my grandparents’ home, as well, there were no presents visible. Tradition was that the young ones would go to bed early, so that they could be awaken to attend midnight mass.
After returning from Midnight Mass at the Matriz Church, the table had been set and there were all sorts of sweets, cakes, sweet bread, dried figs and walnuts. To accompany the goodies, were, milk, tangerine, and coffee flavored liqueurs, known as “Baby Jesus Pee”, usually made by my father.
In the nativity scene, the Baby Jesus was now displayed, for he had already been born.
At the insistence and with the unrest of the grandchildren, it was time to open the gifts that had appeared under the table where the Nativity Scene was set up.
But before opening the gifts, it was a tradition to drink the chicken soup that had been left on the stove during mass. A few drops of lemon and it was time to savor the chicken soup.
Immediately following, came the emphatic explanation by my grandfather that the presents had been brought by the Baby Jesus. Still to come was the toast with a glass of “Mijinha do Menino” and then the opening of the presents was on, beginning with the younger one’s presents. Since I was the oldest grandson, I was the last one to open my gifts. Happiness was the word for the moment.
We played a bit with our new toys, and the adults enjoyed the goodies on the table. Since everyone was getting tired, it was time to go home, for there were more presents to open.
Upon arriving home, we were awakened once again to open the presents that Old Man Christmas and the Baby Jesus had brought. More surprises, more happiness.
Shortly thereafter, it was time to go to sleep again, for the night had been long. It was off to pee and bed.
And that’s the way it was in my younger days. Merry Christmas!
José Maurício Lomelino Alves
Vista, California 2010