Posted by: Jessie Kwak | December 24, 2009

Christmas in Peru

It’s Christmas in Peru, and the smell of Panetón is in the air. Christmas lights are strung overhead, nativities set up in prominent places in every public building and in many shops, and tinny Christmas carols pierce through the noise of the crowds, the single-note midi tunes that have formed the background of our lives lately. Even in La Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, the high grating sound of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” float through the worshippers.

With all the fake evergreen boughs and garlands, it’s beginning to feel a bit like home, a little hint of the Cascade Mountains transposed onto Peru’s coastal desert and arid, treeless sierra.

A burly shepherd in a nativity

As with anything here, this is an opportunity to sell. Vender stalls have filled with nativity figurines, decorations in gold, red, green, silver, blue. Garlands hang in bundles to frame the stalls like curtains. After dark the booths light up, demonstrating their wares of blinking lights and flashing stars. They shine into the street, radioactive

Street venders are taking advantage of the season, too. Old women sit with canvas bags of peat moss dyed evergreen and earth tones for nativity displays. A man stands at the street corner with a tray of jewel-colored replacement lightbulbs for light strings, and others sit by blankets piled with incense and plastic fruit. In Arequipa, the 400 block of Nicolas Pierola is covered with glitter, bits of shining garlands caught in potholes and trampled underfoot.

Garlands hanging in Arequipa Christmas shops

Everyone tries to sell you Panetón, a tall golden fruitcake sold in a decorative cardboard box. The boxes, glossy reds and yellows, are stacked high in supermarkets and street stalls, and shop girls in skintight red jumpsuits pose with samples for passersby.

What strikes me most are the nativities, the nacimientos. So much work has gone into these pastoral scenes made from colored butcher paper, peat moss and paint, and covered with ceramic figurines. In La Iglesia de la Compañia in Arequipa, water flows in a periwinkle blue river channel that ends in a waterfall. Their nativity captures all life, from a lush palm tree oasis (under which shelters a ceramic doberman) to fertile terraced farmland to the arid desert where the three wise men trudge through sand to reach the new king. Penguins frolic in the river, flamingos wade in the pool, a vulture perches on the cliff wall. Elephants graze beside llamas.

A crowded nativity

Overhead a shooting star flashes pink and orange, but the top row of lights has gone out. Mary and Joseph are sheltered in a cave, looking adoringly at the empty manger. The cave is formed in a snowcapped paper mountain that resembles el Misti.

The manger is empty or covered in every nativity. Tonight is Christmas Eve, and after a special mass Jesus will be revealed, the cloth taken off the cradle, the baby placed in the manger. The carefully crafted nativities will finally be complete, and Christmas will have arrived.

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