Sun streams through the clouds on a tranquil Plaza de Armas, in Cuzco. Women stroll through, their Christ Child, carefully dressed and covered to keep the cold at bay, firmly in their arms. The morning firecrackers have gone off, announcing another day, this one Christmas Day.
People are slowly stirring in their homes after being up till late to welcoming this feast among their family and in joy. At midnight the city broke into thunder. Longer than any natural thunder, it was a roar of fireworks, cherry bombs, and such. As dogs and cats hid and whimpered from the harsh sounds, it rolled back and forth over the city for more than half an hour, a collective roar lit from most houses into the night sky.
Taking the Christ Child to Mass this morning is important. People are concerned to connect it with the sacred words of Mass, and with the holy images inside the various parish Churches and especially the Cathedral. Last night the figures were carefully placed in their creche in a manger scene within the house, often one that represented Cuzco’s mountains, people, and livestock. Today they go to mass before returning home.
Yesterday evening all the commercial ovens in town were filled. Some even started sporting harsh signs saying “Please do not insist. We have no more room and can accept nothing more.” The city’s population has grown and there was no more room in many ovens, leaving turkeys, guinea pigs, and hens stranded.
Even if people have small ovens in their kitchen, they prefer the commercial ovens which on normal mornings are baking round after round of bread for people’s breakfast, lunch and lonche (afternoon tea). Today they have been baking meats, each prepared with a particular recipe by a family and then taken to the communal oven for cooking.
Although I have heard no one comment on this, it is an strong metaphor of the value and importance of social life. People are individuals and live in their particular families, which is where they drank or chocolate and ate sweet bread, especially panetón, last night. But the star of their meal, their collective feast was baked communally in a collective oven, even if it was a private business.
This morning, as midday comes one after another families will stroll to the ovens to pick up their steaming meat. It may be a turkey, if they are following the increasingly prominent national code, though turkey is very expensive (14/S a lb. I am told). Other meats have also been cooking in the oven, the native festive food guinea pig, or the esteemed hen, especially one raised in the patio. You may also find a beef or even pork, although the day for pork roast is New Years.
People worry they might be given the wrong pan of roast meat. Stories about of this happening but if you ask if it happened to any of the people you are talking to it is unlikely they will say yes. The ovens have their system to return to people their own pans and roast poultry or other meat.
Not everyone can afford a big meal today, of course, and it is not the oldest tradition in Cuzco. The Christmas dinner according to what I am told is a growing custom. Many people will have had their meal last night, at midnight: a chicken soup and more. But others will gather in family to eat.
The meal celebrates and creates the unity of family as one of the main social ties in this society and it exalts the norm of joy, of sharing tales, stories, laughter and good food in hopes that joy and good fortune will be the family’s fate as they move forward.