My friend and fellow Foreign Service retiree Fred LaSor and I were talking about our overseas experiences the other day when the conversation turned to how we celebrated American holidays in foreign countries. For the most part, Fred and his family served in Africa when we were in Latin America.
Both of us had many holiday tales to tell, so I’ll tell a few of mine, starting with unusual Thanksgivings in Peru and Spain. While we were serving in Lima a group of American Embassy ladies decided to celebrate Thanksgiving in Cajamarca, a small town in the Peruvian Andes. So we obtained a few frozen turkeys — thanks to the military’s annual “turkey lift” from Panama — and traveled to a rustic hotel high in the Andes, where the ladies proceeded to take over the kitchen to prepare a traditional American turkey dinner. The locals had never seen such crazy American shenanigans and enjoyed the holiday along with us.
Another memorable Thanksgiving was when we ate fish and chips at Rory’s Ancla (Rory’s Anchor), an English pub on the southern coast of Spain, sort of an any port in the storm kind of place. I remember playing darts with the locals while the kids enjoyed their fish and chips. We told the local Brits and Spaniards about Thanksgiving while they coached us on the finer points (pun intended) of dart throwing.
Moving on to Christmas, there was the time in Mexico City when we celebrated with my late wife Consuelo’s family by enjoying a traditional “posadas” celebration. This is where “pilgrims” go from house to house seeking food and shelter, as Joseph and Mary did in Bethlehem. Our young son, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, was carrying the manger scene as the family pilgrims arrived at our front door, where he tripped and dumped the manger scene in the doorway. We spent the rest of the evening trying to comfort him as best we could.
And then there was the Christmas we celebrated in a Panama City hotel room when Consuelo made a Christmas tree out of green construction paper. We taped the tree to the hotel room door and proceeded to open our presents. In Venezuela and Australia temperatures approached 100 degrees as Santa came down the chimney. Perhaps he was wearing a red swim suit, who knows?
I recall a strange custom during our first Christmas in Caracas, where parents took their kids outside to skate all night long. I looked out the window at 3 a.m. and saw exhausted kids slumped on the sidewalks outside our apartment building. I felt sorry for the kids. Christmas in Venezuela also meant a steady diet of “hallacas,” which were like huge tamales full of meat, veggies and several mystery ingredients.
One memorable New Year was in Mexico City, where a group from the embassy rented a hotel room on the “Zocalo,” the main square in the center of the sprawling city. At midnight the president delivered the traditional “grito” — the cry of independence — and everyone went nuts in the midst of a fantastic fireworks display with rivers of fireworks pouring down the sides of the historic buildings on the plaza.
And then there was the New Year we spent in Sutatenza, a small town in the Colombian countryside outside of Bogota. That’s where the local priest launched a “gato-nauta.” “Gato” means cat; you figure it out. After midnight local boys played soccer with balls made out of burning rags. We kept our kids in the hotel room.
I’ll close by wishing my loyal readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
Guy W. Farmer is a retired diplomat.