I remember a picture the other day. It was a picture with my sister and I, in front of a Christmas tree. I couldn’t remember what we were wearing, but I do remember that it was taken in the house we grew up in. It was taken many Christmases ago.
When you move as much as I have, memories are all you have left when important dates come up. Living away from the place you consider home means that you always carry with you the memories of special dates. Christmas in particular is a difficult time for me. I grew up in the mountains of Puerto Rico, where the weather this time of the year is cold, but not freezing cold as it is where I live now. The holiday music is festive, cheerful, loud, at a fast tempo, and is everywhere. Caribbean sounds fill up the air; not the slow, often dark, and to me, sad songs with northern European origins. Christmas music for me is drums and guitars, is tambourine and maracas, is güiro and cuatro. Parrandas fill the nights with music as people gather late at night and go throughout their neighborhoods signing traditional music from house to house. All homes are always ready for parrandas. There’s always food: hot chocolate, crackers, guava paste, queso de hoja (a type of homemade white cheese), and of course, the last home that is visited must prepare an “asopao”, or soupy rice with either chicken or pigeon peas.
Our Christmas tree at home was always humble. I still remember the year when my dad decided to just take a coffee tree and wrap its branches with aluminum foil. We placed lights and ornaments and it’s still the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever had. The tree on the picture I remember was humble as well. We had gone to my grandfather’s farm and cut a pine tree. It did not have the aroma of the fir trees or the spruce trees, but it was beautiful in its humbleness. We put garlands and ornaments and musical lights on it. The tree would not have presents. Ever. Presents were not to be placed under the tree or given on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We had to wait until Epiphany, the Feast of the Wise Men, on January 6th. The day before my sister and I would gather some grass for the camels, place it on empty shoe boxes, and place those under our beds. The Three Kings will leave present then… and we will have a week or two to play with them before going back to school.
When you live in exile, or away from home in any form, these memories are all you have. You remember the holiday, and the music, and the presents, and the food, and the family time. You remember that nothing will go back to what it was. You remember that life goes on and you must adapt.
I found the picture among my things. My sister and I are wearing pajamas. The Christmas tree looks as beautiful as I remember. It brought back all the memories of Christmas past, in the mountains of Castañer, waiting for parrandas and for the music. It is Navidad; it is home.