Commentary

What is Christmas in Cusco?

“What do you think of Christmas?” The taxi driver tossed this question to me as if a grenade. You could feel the tension. I had just gotten on board and we had just made our greetings. As he drove to my destination, the intensity in his face belied the mustached smile.

What do I think of Christmas? What could I say without perhaps provoking some concerns he obviously held?

He dropped me near Cusco’s reasonably new mall, the Plaza Real and I went in, the question resounding still in my mind. I went in and heard over the loudspeakers: “Gifts for everyone! we extend our hours so that you can get gifts for everyone.”

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

In the main entrance, a huge, artificial tree rises into the second story through the atrium. At its base, oversized packages of gifts surround a large chair where children and adults, as if children, can sit while their family takes their picture.

It is the image of an ideal Christmas, decorated tree and mounds of gifts such as I remembers from my childhood in New Mexico and West Texas, though it was very different from what my immigrant grandparents told about their countries.

The magic of transformation and splendid gifts, seemingly everywhere around the tree, left lasting memories.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

Large striped and hooked posts covered the sides of the atrium on the second floor, picking up the red and white ribbon wrapped around posts all over the mall. The colors symbolized Peru and a mall Christmas.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

One store decorated their storefront window with a frame of red and white and pictures of white wrapped boxes with red ribbon and bows above a photo of late twenty-somethings around Santa Claus, Papa Noel as he is called here. The male in the group of three has his head on Santa’s lap by a gift, it seems. Really it is on the leg of one of the women whose legs cover Santa’s knees. Not a family, maybe a group of friends or siblings, they express some idea, some image of Christmas.

As if to make sure I get the image, another store across the way has the message “It’s Christmas. Become a Child Again.” It is written in English. Many people, especially those of higher social standing, do speak English, nonetheless the language wrenches me in the Quechua and Spanish speaking city.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

If I am not getting the message clearly, many other stores use images of decorate Christmas trees and dressed mannequins, along with signs such as 2 for 1, or 30% off, to encourage people to buy those gifts for others and, hopefully, provoke the smiles on the faces of the three people in the Santa Claus photo.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

Another sign brings in individualism, at the same time customs and images seem so strongly codified. At the entrance to the Oechsle store it says simply “Navidad a mi manera”, Christmas my way, paraphrasing a Frank Sinatra song that is known here even if in English.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

Unspoken and seemingly unavailable is the question: What if I do not want to buy anything or worry about Santa Clause and only rely on traditional Cusco images and practices? Instead, the obligatory Christmas and the individualism relies on purchases. The nature of the gift seems to be what shows your way.

A sign in the sitting area of Juan Valdez Coffee, across from Starbucks and Chilis— which has an apparent snow man in its entrance. The sign reminds me in case I forget or did not know, “This is what happiness looks like.” The words are beneath an image of a big waffle (not a common Cusco food) with a big scoop of ice cream and some fruit.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

I see, as I walk on, a stand overflowing with stuffed animals simply called Gifts. By it a sign says Tikas, one of the few Quechua words here, and then “Gift Exchange.”

To its side glows a large illuminated foto of a muscular young man in a T-Shirt, obviously not an ordinary one, by the side of words that say “TODO lo que quiero”, “EVERYTHING I WANT.”

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

Is this an advertisement saying here you can find whatever you want, or a command that he is what you shall want? Of course, it is also an idea that the young man should be all that whoever walking by can want.

This is so different from the Christmas of the Santurantikuy market which will be held in the main Plaza on the 23rd and 24th of December. It focuses on items for family’s nativity scenes and the powerful moment at midnight on the 24th of placing the baby Jesus in the nativity.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

Two nativities grace the mall. One is small and is made from origami with a donation box in front. The other creche is larger and filed with lights. It contains a couple, the man dress in a mixture of Cusco and Old World clothes, the woman in traditional Cusco dress. This is quite a contrast from the commercial and modern summer collection dress in the window across from it. Here is a duality of Cusco.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

What strikes me more is the Chusco-style Niño Manuel, the Baby Jesus, in traditional indigenous dress, lying in the manger.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

On top of the two-story Christmas tree, in case I was missing something, the star had words. They simply said Real Plaza, the mall.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)

This all seems to clinch so much of what the taxi driver argued. He felt Christmas was the saddest time of the year. Some kids get very expensive and abundant gifts and very many get nothing, or at best, a cheap plastic toy from China.

He went on about how the city dwellers and elites take pity on the poor and the rural people this time of year to organize chocolatadas where they give them hot chocolate with milk, some bread or panetón, and maybe a toy. The chocolate makes them sick and they are taught a lesson of paternalism and elite condescension. They learn to be dependent.

Wow. Christmas really is not much celebrated in rural areas. The driver emphasized city customs and the mall international commercial Christmas. Nevertheless, he sure made me think.

(Photo by David Knowlton)
(Photo by David Knowlton)
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