From the Children’s Friend, December 1926 –
Christmas Is Coming – Maybe
By Ramona W. Cannon
On a very hot December afternoon three children sat sheltered from the sun near their patio, discussing Christmas and Santa Claus. “Do you think Santa can find us way down here in South America?” asked Elizabeth with a wistful face.
“Never expect anything and you will never be disappointed,” answered Grant wisely. “What would Santa Claus do with his sleigh and his reindeer, when it’s ninety-eight degrees in the shade?”
“Well, the reindeer could swim, couldn’t they? Cows can, for we saw Daddy’s cows swim the river. And the reindeer could swim down the Magdalena to us.” Elizabeth was determined to have a visit from Santa Claus.
“Yes, but sleighs don’t float. The presents would all get drowned.”
Jane came to little sister’s defense. “But we see great big rafts floating down the river, Grant. Santa might be smart enough to put his sleigh on a raft.”
Grant frowned a little at that, but answered, “Well, anyway, he doesn’t, for I asked the boys the other day. They’re not on speaking terms with Santa Claus down here. They don’t hang up their stockings or have Christmas trees, or anything.”
“Oh, dear, I guess Christmas isn’t coming at all in South America,” wailed Elizabeth.
“You never can tell,” said Jane, who had turned eleven and was quite sage. “Personally, I have my suspicions.”
The next day, Innocencio, the launch boy, appeared, carrying out the boat-cushions, the lunch basket, the reed mat and mosquito curtain for the traveling bed, and Father’s suitcase. Then Daddy, himself, kissed the children good-bye, and disappeared up the river in the launch.
“My stars! I don’t believe we are even going to have a daddy for Christmas,” sighed Grant. No ice-skating, no snow-balls, no Christmas tree, no Santa Claus and no Father. That’s a hot Christmas!”
“Hot is the word, my boy,” put in Jane, wiping the perspiration from her forehead.
It was true that the kiddies of Colombia failed to get excited about Christmas and in a general way, very little preparation was being made. How the little Americanos did miss the street-corner Santas – and the Salvation Army pots for the poor – and all the glittering toy departments of the beautiful stores! The stores of Mompos were only rooms in the proprietors’ houses and there were no displays of toys or candy animals or canes.
The servants of the house, however, did not forget that the “sainted days” were approaching. There were at the time five servants in the household – all colored – negro, Indian, or of mixed blood. Joaquin was the house boy. He made many “voyages” to the river each morning, to fill his “olla” or small jar with water. This he would empty into a big jar that stood in the corridor near the kitchen, and that was too heavy to be moved around. It was in fact considerably larger than little Adrian. Do you remember when the forty thieves hid in the oil jars? This big “tinaja” was about that size. Joaquin also ran – or rather walked, and very lazily at that – the many errands of the family, and went to the pasture a mile and a half distant, to get the horses for horseback riding. And he helped to sweep the corridors and patios with a twig broom.
There was Conception, the Indian girl. She swept and cleaned the big rooms each day, carried the dishes in a large basket on her head from the kitchen down the long corridor to the “sala” or living room where the family ate, because it was screened from the mosquitoes. She served the table, washed the dishes, and helped to take care of Elizabeth and Adrian while Mother was being school teacher to the other children.
Jobita was the cook, and in South America, the cook is the cook. Her dignity would have been greatly offended had she been asked to wash dishes. Every morning at six-thirty o’clock she would leave the house wearing a stiffly starched skirt, and go to market. After a time she would return with the basket heaped with the daily supply of liquid bottled lard, meat, yucca, plantains, melons, mangoes, etc. She felt that if the mistress of the house were to be considered a woman of importance, she would not wish her servant to carry home the market basket on her own head. Oh, no! So she employed a boy to carry home the basket on his head, and walked behind him in a grand manner, showing her authority by ordering him now and then to walk with care.
There was also Fermina, who washed two days a week, and ironed two days. There was a certain stint for each day. She counted the pieces and would do no more than the regulation number. Sometimes she managed to extend both the washing and ironing to three days each. Never could she be induced to handle an iron the same day that she washed. “Oh, no, senora; one irons after getting the hands wet and one dies of the lock-jaw.” And nothing could make her believe to the contrary.
Innocencio, too, did odd jobs about the place when he was not busy with the launch.
The servants were more excited than anyone else about the coming of Christmas. They looked forward to gifts – if not from Santa Claus, at least from the mistress of the house. They wanted to make sure that the Americano understood the customs of the country. So the mother of Joaquin came and told Mother that the “sainted days” were coming and Joaquin had been growing so fast that he was splitting out his suit. She carried samples of “drill” from which to order a new one made and named the tailor and the price of his labor.
Concepcion modestly told the senora that the cook needed new hemp slippers to wear to market, and Jobita suggested that Concepcion wanted a new dress to wear Christmas eve when she danced the “cumbia.” Joaquin spoke for Fermina, and Innocencio was absent. Time passed until Christmas was but two days away.
“Telegram, Telegram, Mother!” shouted the children that morning.
The telegram was from Daddy. It read:
“Expect to eat turkey with you Christmas day.”
The children clapped and danced, but Mother looked a little stunned. There were no turkeys in the market place and there was no oven in the house. However, she looked up the Spanish word “turkey” in the dictionary and took her troubles to the cook. Jobita said there were turkeys in the woods.
“Surely, she isn’t trying to be funny,” thought Mother – for the poor servants of South America are always respectful.
Jobita continued. She talked so fast and ran her words together so untidily that it was always difficult to understand her. But at last Mother caught the word “hunter.”
“Why, she has an inspiration,” Mother said to herself, and then began talking about ovens. Half a block away, a neighbor had a big brick oven, according to Jobita.
“Splendid, Jobita. Dispatch the hunter for the wild turkey, and if the neighbors are not baking on Christmas, tell them we should appreciate the use of their oven.”
Next morning Mother sat on a low stool in the outdoor kitchen and stirred candy over a charcoal brazier. One hand was busy wiping off the perspiration that otherwise would have dropped upon the brick floor. The day was so hot that the candy refused to harden and set nicely. However, it tasted good and was something “Christmasy.”
That afternoon Daddy arrived. And Christmas Eve, the older children, dressed in their best, went with Father and Mother to visit Midnight Mass in the big Catholic Church. The choir boys sang and the Priest in high cap and a cape of wonderful old hand-made lace chanted in Latin. There was an altar cloth of purple velvet, embroidered lavishly in threads of real gold. The children had been close to that cloth once and discovered it was so heavy that it required real strength to lift a corner of it. Little boys dressed in flowing robes were swinging incense. The people in the audience walked up and knelt before the priest and received communion – the sacrament. A doll was dressed in velvet and jewels to represent the Christ child. This was passed to the congregation, who kissed it devoutly. Mother could not help shivering, because there was a terrible epidemic of smallpox raging in Mompos, and that was an excellent way to spread the disease.
After Mass the family watched boys in the square tossing fire-balls to each other. They were made of yarn or something of the kind dipped in coal oil and lighted. The young men threw them, blazing, to each other, caught them swiftly and more swiftly sent them flying on their way again.
Farther on up the street the all-night “cumbia” dance was in progress. A number of couples formed a good-sized circle. Each girl held a lighted candle in one hand. The couples would turn round and round, taking short little walking steps and making their way gradually around the big circle,. When a candle burned down, the girl would step out of the circle and someone else would take her place. The wax would drop upon their hands and arms, giving them a white, tattooed effect.
The children retired about two o’clock Christmas morning. Even so they were up betimes that day, with a burning curiosity to see if by some miracle Santa had remembered his “little American friends.” They rushed into the patio on their way to the living room.
“Surprise! surprise!” cried Elizabeth. “I told you Santa would come, and we’ve a Christmas tree and everything!”
Sure enough, the pretty little lime tree in the patio was decorated with tinsel and icicles, and balls and all kinds of ornaments, and South American sweets. And, wonder of wonders – American raisins and stick candy and lemon drops! A little fluttering angel smiled down at the children from the tip-top of the tree. Hidden in the thick branches were dolls and roller skates and knick-knacks of different kinds, and there were candles and candle-holders, too, for Christmas night.
The servants had been out all night, but appeared at six o’clock in the morning as usual. The hunter was there, too, and made a deep bow as he presented the turkey. He went on his way rejoicing to receive an extra tip for his pains. The turkey was plucked as soon as killed, so there was little trouble about pin feathers.
All Mompos knew that the Americanos were cooking this bird for their Christmas dinner. When it was stuffed and in the pan, Jobita carrying it to the neighbor’s, and Mother going along to see that the heat was right, the children of the town began to gather. They marched right along to the oven, which was the upper part of a brick mound that stood about five feet high. Long sticks of burning wood in the fireplace below had produced a good temperature. In went turk-lurk, and then the children scattered. An hour later and each time after that when Mother went to look at the turkey or baste it, the children again formed in line and followed. “It’s like being the Pied Piper,” said Mother. Grant wished there were enough turkey to feed the crowd of them, and brothers and sisters agreed. However, their Colombian friends shared the candies and raisins and tried the roller skates, and played with the balls and modeling clay.
The turkey dinner was a great success. There was a delicious fruit cocktail, made from fresh pineapple, and oranges and the juice of grapefruits which are very sour in that country, and some other fruits that were in season. That was as new and strange to the Colombians as was the turkey.
After dinner the servants went home and everybody slept. Then at night the candles were lighted on the Christmas tree in the garden, and a big yellow moon shone down on a happy family group. There were songs and stories of the Christ child and a prayer of thanksgiving. Yes, Christmas had come after all, and a very lovely Christmas at that!