December 22, 2009

Paraguayan Christmas Traditions

As promised, I'm gonna fill you in on the secret life of missionaries in Paraguay for Christmas. It actually gets started a little later than we're used to, but this year we put a tree up the day before Thanksgiving to help us get "in the mood". The week before Christmas (nine days, to be exact), the community starts to celebrate together. We were thrilled that our home was the place they began this year.

This is a Catholic thing, but they asked if they could come, and we were thrilled to welcome them in. Each night up until Christmas Eve, the families of each community visit one home. Usually the nine closest ones to the capilla, or chapel, are chosen. Yes, there's a chapel in every neighborhood. SIDENOTE: Now, when I say community, don't think Bonneau Beach or Powdersville or Knightsville. Think a few blocks. So within every town (Carapegua), there are different barrios (communities) that designate what area of town you live in. We Americans just tend to say, "Behind the Burger King" or "Near the high school."

So they arrived at our home for this first night, and the point is to look at our manger scene (remember the pesebre?) and do a little "ceremony" to remember that Jesus is the reason for Christmas. Granted, there was a whole lot of mention of his mother, but that's to be expected, right? We sang, read some scriptures, and had a little guided discussion on the holiday. Then we served the children popcorn and kool-aid (I found out later that most homes serve sidra, a type of alcoholic apple cider with fruit floating in it). We learned a few new Christmas songs, like the Spanish version of Jingle Bells. It doesn't mention snow, of course, but is called "Din Din Don" to mimick the sound the bells make.

(OKAY, I'm going off on a tangent here, so follow me. I have been enlightened to the significance of the pesebre and feel the need to explain, since my last post highlighted these Paraguayan manger scenes. You know how it is at home--pretty much every house has a Christmas tree, practically every Christian home (and some that aren't) has a manger scene. So when I found out that this is a large part of the Christmas tradition here, I was thrilled to run out and set up a manger scene. HOWEVER, I didn't take into account that things here are WAY different than at home. What we know of Catholicism from living in the US is a whole different world than the Catholicism here, which is a strange blend of idolatry and a bit of dark magic, mixed with the teachings of the Catholic church and the traditions of their Indian culture. And because Momma and Grandma and Great-Grandma all did it, it's a big part of every day life that's not questioned, it's just done. We're used to seeing saints on necklaces or dashboards of cars, or in hospitals, etc. But here, every home has at least one area (sometimes a whole room) dedicated to one or more saints, who stand there as a statue that is believed to actually contain the personification of this saint, and these statues have candles lit to them, incense burned to them, and various chanted prayers recited to them throughout the day and into the night. Hence, to put up little statues of Jesus' family and the stable full of animals is seen by non-Catholic Christians here as idolatry, because they are used to this worship of the ceramic saints. And of course, Mary and Joseph are both saints. I have had to explain our ignorance and the use of manger scenes in the US numerous times when our protestant friends visit and are shocked that we have a manger scene. After the explanation, they seem to understand and none has been offended, but you should see their faces! It makes perfect sense, but never crossed my mind. There are so many cultural things to take into effect with every breath we take here, and quite honestly, sometimes we're just caught off guard.)

Back to the story. The next night, all the families met in the next home and repeat this meeting, with a little different Bible text and discussion topic. It all lasts about an hour. It's called Family Christmas (Navidad Familiar), and you have to give them kudos for trying to keep the focus on the birth of Jesus, rather than commercialism or what-have-you. At home, we'd be discussing how the gifts aren't the main thing, but because gifts don't happen much on Christmas here, there was much talk about how the firecrackers aren't the main thing. I was glad to hear that, because the way they wake me up popping them every morning before the sun's up, somebody NEEDS to remind these kids that the firecrackers aren't what December is all about. ;) I hear they'll be riciculous on Christmas Eve, though!

On the ninth night, after making the home visit, all the families will meet at the chapel and dress the kids for a live nativity scene. Because our community is named after Jesus' earthly father, Barrio San Jose (Saint Joseph Community), it's said that people will visit here expecting to see something more "special" than in the other communities. After the nativity scene, each family shares a dish of food, and we eat together. I CAN'T WAIT! This takes place on the 23rd.

On Christmas Eve, people visit their family and friends, going door to door (I can't figure out how, because if everyone is out going door to door, who's home to be visited?) After dark, they begin cooking the supper--usually grilled beef or pork (asado), and fire-cooked cornbread called sopa. At midnight, the families eat their supper and pop firecrackers. I remember not sleeping much last year, because our girls still wanted to wake up early for Christmas morning.

Here, the celebration is what I just described as Christmas Eve. The next day, the 25th, everyone's resting from the night before and just eating leftovers. If they have transportation, many go take a dip in a nearby stream to cool off.

Everyone who comes in and sees our tree is amazed to hear that Christmas celebrations for us center more around the day of the 25th. I'll let you know how it all turns out, but our prayer is that you enjoy the wonder of it all this year, and remember that it's not all about the firecrackers!!!

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