Growing up, a white Christmas was something I saw only on movies. I was curious to know what it was really like to celebrate Christmas in freezing temperatures with a turkey on the table. In Argentina, Christmas falls in summer and it can be very hot that day, so no snow for us. And no turkey either.
Presents under the tree
So what do Argentineans eat at Christmas? There isn’t a traditional savoury dish like, say, turkey. Some people do a barbeque outside. Potluck dinners are very popular because the cost of food and the time spent in the kitchen are shared equally.
Since it can get very hot, people tend to prepare dishes that can be eaten cold, like vitel tone (veal with a tuna sauce. Despite its French sounding name, it’s an Italian dish), or piononos (a rolled thin sponge cake stuffed with ham, cheese, roasted red peppers or whatever’s in the kitchen at the time) and lots of fresh salads. Dessert is usually ice cream or fruit salad, often served together in the same bowl. You want something fresh and light after a heavy meal.
We inherited many traditions from Spanish and Italian immigrants. Nowadays it is kind of difficult to distinguish who introduced what because we mixed and matched traditions (and thus created our own?)
The biggest party is on Christmas Eve, when the family gets together to partake of the feast. The religious ones attend Misa de Gallo, what used to be Midnight Mass but is now celebrated a lot earlier, 7 or 8 pm so that people can go back home and eat at a decent time. We don’t usually attend Mass now, but years ago my Granny used to take us children.
Midnight is the big event. I remember my grandfather turning the radio on to listen to the beeps at exactly 12 o’clock. Champagne or cider was popped and glasses were filled a few minutes earlier in preparation for the toast. We counted down the last ten seconds and at midnight we would toast and cheer, wish each member of the family a merry Christmas with a kiss and a hug and drink up. I had my first taste of an alcoholic beverage at Christmas.
Enter Italian and Spanish traditions: with the champagne, we eat panetone (a kind of cake with lots of candied orange peel, nuts and raisins), turrón (my favourite kind is turrón de Alicante), hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins and the like.
Fireworks also go off at midnight. Since they are legal, anyone can buy as many as their budget allows. You can tell if the economy’s been good that year by looking at the firework displays.
Fireworks in the city
After all the toasting, kissing and hugging comes the part of the evening children wait eagerly: the opening of the presents. The presents are placed at the bottom of the tree and everyone gathers round to open them. It’s the most exciting moment. One fun (or funny?) tradition is that that women are supposed to wear pink underwear on Christmas Eve. It’s supposed to bring good luck. Who knows…
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