Intersections: Christmas in Cusco and Utah, Similar Yet Different

Large Nativity in the Snow in the United States

Large Nativity in the Snow in the United States (Teresa Wilson)

Christmas. What does it mean and how is it represented in different cultures? After reading Cusco Eats posts from Hebert’s Edgardo Huamani Jara “Commerce and Christmas Reign in Cusco” and David Knowlton’s Post “The Christ Child and Other Holy Beings Make a Home in Cusco” I couldn’t help but think of the similarities and difference between Utah and Peru. So last night I headed to Salt Lake City, the capital city of Utah where I looked at the decorations and customs of Utah.

Deciding to take the train in to town, I encountered this little boy with a ‘Cusco’ hat. I thought it was a good omen for my trek into town. Smiling, he told me his mother had purchased it in Peru. He and his family were headed to Salt Lake to see the decorations in the center of the city – Temple Square. It is a tradition for many families from Utah to go to ‘see the lights’ but as we walked around, we met others from far away who were taken in by the sights of the city. There were many accents and languages heard as I wandered through the throng of people gathered in the dark to view the displays. Families and friends were here to share time together in the lightly falling snow.

Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere falls near the winter solstice, so night arrives early. By 5:30 pm the light has left the sky. Leafless trees and mostly leafless shrubs were decorated with many lights, casting a glow by which everyone could make their way through the maze of paths woven through the gardens and grounds of the Temple block. A crèche was the central display, with the Christ child already asleep in his straw bed. In Utah, the child is placed early into the manger and remains there during the entire season – from November 25 until after the New Year. In Peru, the Nino Manuelito doesn’t come to the manger until midnight of Christmas Eve.

Mendivil Manger Scene in the Plaza de Armas Cuzco (Walter Coraza Morveli)
Mendivil Manger Scene in the Plaza de Armas Cuzco (Walter Coraza Morveli)

A narrator recounted the story of the Christ child’s birth, the visit of the wise men and the shepherds. Interspersed with the lights, there were Christmas carols sung by live choirs. Some performances required tickets for attendance, some were groups of Mormon missionaries. Music is a large part of the celebration of Christmas in the Utah.

After taking in the lights, watching couples kiss and even a young man kneel, we headed over to the ‘Beehive house’ for hot chocolate. The former home of Brigham Young, first Utah territory governor has been converted into a tourist attraction. The upstairs of the home is a museum with guided tours, but the bottom floor is a cafeteria where food is fairly cheap and definitely plentiful. Renowned for its rolls, there was also a cauldron of hot chocolate, warm and cheerful. In Cusco, the panetones -bread with fruit baked inside cheer the celebrants in the same fashion.

Leaving the lights and religious scenes behind, we crossed over to City Creek, a large mall designed to incorporate the indoors and outdoors with a ‘creek’ full of fish running down the center. Although Christmas is about the birth of Christ, the basis of Christianity, in the mall we encountered a different domain of Christmas. Here there were shoppers galore. Lots of Galore. We were amazed at all there was under the two full city blocks of shopping that encompass the City Creek mall.

Cusco has the Santuranticuy market shoppers prepare for Christmas, strolling outside or under the protection of white canopies, to inspect the items they will need for their Christmas feasts and festivities. The stores of City Creek, sheltered by rock and glass in high vaulting arcs that span skies and streets had not forgotten Christmas – or at least the reason for the season… if the reason is to buy baubles and trinkets from the far reaches of the globe which are shipped in to Utah and marketed. We dropped by a shoe store, a tea shop, an iPad store, and a lingerie boutique. None of them had forgotten that Christmas was about sales. My favorite (mis)-use of the season was an ad from a dental agency for $500 off wisdom tooth extractions.

United States Style, Nativity for Sale with Christ Child a Permanent Part
United States Style, Nativity for Sale with Christ Child a Permanent Part (Teresa Wilson)

Santa Claus sat in his Santa Lantern and for a price, listened to tiny tots whisper their Christmas dreams into his ear. Dog owners posed for pictures as well, the dogs dressed in holiday attire. Pushing through the throng, I joined a group of people who had spontaneously gathered and started singing. I added my voice to their “First Noel” as it drifted skyward, running counter traffic to the descending snow. Those happy thoughts will join the others from around the globe as we wish each other a Merry Christmas whose cheer extends throughout the coming year.

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