At home, while the majority of my family sat by our very real Christmas pine tree, sipping hot chocolate, wrapped up in warm blankets, sounds of Christmas music filling their ears, and most likely roasting chestnuts over an open fire, I sat in southern Brazil, living a very different kind of Christmas.
Summer had only just arrived in Brazil and my family, along with every other family near the coast of Brazil, took refuge in our beach houses. Dubbed Bombinhas, the area becomes full of tourists and temporary residents during the summer. As it turns out, living near the coast isn’t enough; every family must have a second home literally on the coast. But no complaints here! My family’s beach house rests comfortably on an isthmus, beaches on both sides. In other words, I spent a great amount of time on the beach.
Maybe it was the excess of Vitamin C or all the salt water went to my head, but I never caught the predicted holiday depression. Brazilian Christmas was another world. Practically everything done in the States, is done on the contrary in Brazil. Here, most families open presents on Christmas Eve, have a Christmas Day lunch, and play Samba music instead of Christmas music. Oh, and since it is summer not winter, the magical “White Christmas” was more of a very “Sandy Christmas.”
But, the importance of family during the holidays was no different. In the days before Christmas, family from all over flocked to our home. The pile of presents continued to grow underneath the un-pine smelling Christmas tree until the day we opened them.
I started Christmas Eve by waking up early to go fishing with my host dad. We drove halfway up a terrifyingly steep and rugged road, and then descended a small trail through the woods on foot. After a few minutes, the trail opened up to allow the view of the ocean. We had arrived at a secluded section of the peninsula, which seemed to be especially designed for fishing lovers.
Even at this early hour, the Brazilian sun shone and sparkled against the ocean’s waters. Distantly below waves crashed violently against large boulders, sending gleaming rainbows into the air. As Charles, my host dad, prepared the fishing lines, I explored the area a little. Sea urchins and barnacles created a thin blanket over the boulders. I spotted scuba divers in the water harvesting oysters and muscles stuck in the crevices. With the prepared polls in hand, baited with shrimp, Charles took me to the lower edges of the rocks. We scrambled against the rugged edges and fought against the waves to arrive at a stunning view.
Emptiness. It seemed like just the two of us and the whole world. It was a calm morning. We spent hours wrapped up in our own thoughts, casting and recasting. At the end of the day all we had to show were a few small fish called “garopas,” too small for eating, and one other fish, which we ate at lunch. Despite the small results, it was a morning spent in absolute splendor and peace.
To understand how different Christmas in Brazil is, picture this: On Christmas morn, when I walked down the stairs, I wasn’t wearing pajamas or looking for my cup of raspberry royal tea as my family prepared to open presents, I was wearing a bikini looking for my sunglasses so my family and I could go to the beach. That day we rotated our time between the beach and the kitchen. Christmas Day was spent in cooking splendor.
The preparations for the oncoming lunch filled the kitchen with the perfumes of grilling shrimp and fish, roasted turkey, chicken and beef, alongside onions, steaming rice and potatoes. Sweet scents filled the room as chocolaty syrups poured over a lime and vanilla cake. I, myself, added the smells of the chocolate chip cookies. In other words, for lunch we all ate like kings without a care in the world.
Just after lunch, we exchanged presents. The joy at giving and receiving presents was evident in the expressions of joy, gratitude and love apparent on all our faces. I felt very much at home as my family and I embraced each other and exchanged jokes late into the afternoon.
That evening I walked with my aunt to the beach to watch the sunset. As the brilliant sun shrank along the horizon, I realized my Brazilian Christmas was coming to an end. I was raised in a place where Christmas means snow on the ground, the smell of pine trees, cloves and cinnamon, the taste of hot chocolate and candy canes, the sounds of Christmas music and prayers, and the feeling of warm blanket around my shoulders.
This holiday season was like nothing I have ever experienced. However, by the end of the day I realized that Christmas is whatever we want it to be and whatever we make of it. It was, as I said, a VERY sandy Christmas.
Grace Livermore is a Cooperstown Rotary exchange student.