Christmas has always been my favorite holiday.
Despite the blaring music, dreadful shopping trips and expensive responsibilities — I was chagrined to discover how much a Christmas tree costs — the weeks from the end of November through the New Year are my favorite season: lights, events and a sense of peace prevail in Kirkland and in the country.
Since Thanksgiving isn’t an Ecuadorian holiday, I figured I couldn’t complain about skipping it over and going straight to Christmas in November.
To my surprise, the high school celebrated a day very similar to Thanksgiving on the last Friday in October. Called Pampamesa, the holiday is an indigenous celebration of the harvest and Pachamama (Mother Nature, a significant part of the Andean worldview). Literally translated, the name means “table in the pampas,” as it is traditionally celebrated outdoors with everyone sharing a dish and eating together in the grass.
There was a weather advisory for high UV index the day we celebrated, so we had Pampamesa indoors. In Ecuador, classes stay in one room all day except for physical education, and each class has an adviser to manage events like this one. So I went with another English teacher to her group’s party. We served strawberry soda and popcorn while two of the students’ parents apportioned out chicken, hominy, ham and a salad of tossed peas, carrots and mayonnaise. There was also rice, llapingachos (fried mashed potatoes spiced with ají, the Ecuadorian salsa) and humitas (sweet tamales) and coffee. It was a feast.
Though Pampamesa is a far-reaching Andean holiday, it isn’t widely celebrated in Ecuador. In fact, I’m the only Peace Corps volunteer I know of who got to participate in it. Since I didn’t hear about it ahead of time through the Peace Corps network, the way I normally find out about holidays, I didn’t have a potluck item to share. I was thankful to have a place at the table — especially when we ran out of plates! My students’ warm welcome wasn’t exactly like a Thanksgiving at home, but it more than made up for the family, football and conversation I was missing.
By the first of November, the following week, a few family homes already had lights and decorated trees in their windows — as did storefronts and mall displays — but decorations don’t seem to be anywhere near as popular as in Kirkland. And of course, there is nothing here to rival the infamous Seahawks House. Still, it’s comforting to see a little strand of bows and ornaments around the office window at the municipal government building and lights on trees in the park. When I visited Cuenca shortly before Thanksgiving, there were even signs covering the city for Black Friday, mostly in English.
Prior to the holiday, I asked a coworker what Christmas would be like in Ecuador. She told me it was more family oriented and smaller, with “fewer gifts” than in the states.
That phrase struck me because she told me she’d never visited the United States, but when I looked back on photos of my family tree on Christmas mornings, I had to admit that we haven’t exactly been low-key. With six or seven of us buying gifts for each other, our generosity (or materialism) overflows.
One benefit to making just $400 a month as a Peace Corps volunteer? The pressure to buy drops away, leaving just that sense of peace and joy.
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.