Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reflections on Christmas - near and far

As the Christmas Holiday Season draws nearer, signs of Christmas are appearing here in Loreto, although, after spending most of my life closer to the North Pole than the Equator, I still find it challenging to get into the Christmas Spirit living on a Beach surrounded by palm trees.  Growing up in Western Canada where there is always snow at this time of year and there are forests of "Christmas Trees", it is not surprising that I have always had quite a traditional view of the Holiday and the iconic images of the season that were in sync with what I saw everywhere around me.  

Needless to say, spending Christmas in the Southern Baja is a very different experience than the traditional northern celebration - but what I have come to realize is that for the local people, whose home this has always been, their traditions and symbols at this time of year are as much a part of their way of observing this Holiday as mine were in a northern winter climate.  However, over the nine years since my first Loreto Christmas, I have noticed gradual changes that go some way towards making the celebration seem a little more familiar to ex-pats a long way from their winter wonderland homes.

Some of these changes may in fact be a result of the larger number of foreigners who now call this place home, as well as growing numbers of visitors choosing Loreto for their Holiday Vacations.  An example of this is the availability of frozen turkey in the local grocery stores.  I think I have told this story before, but on my first Christmas in my new home here in 2005 a neighbor and I drove an hour and a half from Loreto to the next largest town of Constitucion to stock up on groceries for the Holiday Season.  Of course, on my lengthy shopping list was a turkey, along with all the traditional trimmings for Christmas dinner, and although we were shopping in the biggest supermarket within a 4 hour drive of Loreto, I had almost given up hope of finding a bird in the meat department - being used to grocery shopping in North America where big displays of frozen and fresh turkeys are prominent in every store before the Holiday.

But on my final pass through the store I happened to find a smallish frozen bagged turkey in an unlikely corner of the store between the fish department and a sort of delicatessen area, not with the other frozen chickens and similar meats where I had been looking in vain previously.  Just to be sure, I quickly skimmed the all Spanish language printing on the opaque bag looking for confirmation and recognized "Pavo" the word for turkey, which was good enough for me, and, since it was apparently the only one they had in the store, I proudly placed my Mexican turkey in my cart and headed for the cashier.

Jump forward a week or so and as I was un-bagging the now thawed bird to prepare it for the oven I was in for a surprise.  As I mentioned above, it had been packaged in an opaque printed bag and so it was only when I was removing it that I saw that rather than the expected pinkish white skin I was expecting, this bird was a sort of "cafe au lait" color and the texture of the skin was more like leftover turkey than the raw ones I was used to preparing.  After a closer examination of the Spanish printed on the bag and a quick consultation of the Spanish/English Dictionary (that I had forgotten to take with me on my earlier shopping trip) I came to an unexpected conclusion (and added a new word to my then tiny Spanish vocabulary) - "ahumado" means smoked!

Well the grocery shopping options have improved greatly here in Loreto in the years since my first smoked turkey Christmas, and there is now a plentiful supply of frozen turkeys in most of the bigger markets here in the weeks leading up to the Holidays, with some even showing up in time for the American Thanksgiving.  But that is only one sign of the changes I have seen here.  Over the past couple of weeks I have noticed the sudden appearance of Christmas decorations in a number of stores and outdoor kiosks around town, in far greater numbers than was the case only a few years ago.  

While all the twinkling lights, tinsel garlands and candy canes definitely add a festive air to shopping trips to town, I confess part of me still finds them a bit incongruous here in this place.
More recently, extensive displays have also been erected in the town square including a tall symbolic Christmas tree and a "Santa Casita" as well as a stage where a variety of different schools and organizations hold concerts and "posadas" or parties.  At the entrance to town too, there is an impressive light display decorating the many palms and cacti growing in the median of the main road, part of a civic decoration program that has grown year by year from modest beginnings four or five years ago.

However seasonal shopping in Loreto is not limited to decorations.  Here, like everywhere Christmas is celebrated, a lot of the attention is focused on kids, but in a town like Loreto there have not been the department stores and big box toy stores that cater to kid's presents at this time of year.  So several of the grocery stores stock up on toys and other children's Christmas gifts at this time of year.  

In Pescador, the original supermarket here in Loreto, one entire
aisle is now a toy department, but that pales by comparison to the newer Lays market (which opened over a year ago) that has a semi-permanent annex to the store that is now fully stocked with an extensive inventory of seasonal decorations, children's toys and games - Christmas is becoming big business in Loreto!

But there are other signs of the Christmas Spirit coming to Loreto.  A couple of weekends ago an arts and crafts show and sale was held at the Su Casa Hotel on the Malacon in town where a couple of dozen mainly ex-pat artists and craftspeople set up a one day outdoor market.  In addition to several jewelry counters, painters and sculptors there was a Mexican Leatherworker with a hand tooled saddle and other "equine accessories".  A bar was set up with drinks and tasty snacks, and a couple of local mariachies were playing guitars for the mainly Foreign clientele.

Whatever changes there have been in the decorations and ways the Christmas spirit is expressed here in Loreto, one thing has remained constant here for over 300 years and that is the Mission Church and the important place it holds here in this predominantly Catholic country.  Although I am not religious myself, it is clear to me that the church still plays the most important role in the celebration of Christmas for most Loretanos.

And so, as we approach another Christmas here in the Baja, I see the growing influences of the North American commercial Christmas celebration blending with the centuries old Catholic traditions that have been practiced here for generations and I believe Christmas in the Baja may indeed be one of the special parts of "Living Loreto"!