A Warm Christmas Eve in Buenos Aires

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globoChristmas Eve is a big deal in Buenos Aires and Argentina. It’s called Noche Buena and families gather for an evening of food and festivities. This is a late night affair with kids staying up until midnight awaiting Papa Noel (Santa Claus) and adults catching up with one another.

I spent my Noche Buena out in Buenos Aires province with my friends Nancy and Carla and their family. Nancy and I met at Plaza Italia to catch a bus out of the city at 4:30. There were lines and lines of people doing the same thing at this transportation hub. The first bus going our way quickly filled up and we decided to wait for the next one so we’d have a seat for the 55-minute ride. About 20 minutes later, another bus arrived and we were off.

Buenos Aires Province OutskirtsThe bus took us through town and past the autopista (highway) which marks the end of the city proper and the beginning of Buenos Aires province. Buenos Aires province doesn’t have the buildings and density of the city but it has homes, malls, and shops like anywhere else. The further we went out the poorer the neighborhoods got. Not everything was as bad as the shanty town we passed but it was a reminder of the financial woes that are missed or forgotten amidst the touristy Recoletas and Palermos of Buenos Aires.

I’m not exactly sure where we got off the bus because it was at the end of an unmarked off-ramp. We then walked over a freeway overpass and six blocks past stray dogs and several shirtless men before arriving at Nancy’s mother’s house.

tomates rellenosNancy’s mother Teresa had been preparing our meal all day. A fruit salad was in the works when we arrived and I helped make “tomates rellenos” (stuffed tomatos). To do this, you halve tomatoes, empty them out, line the bottom of them with a canned meat paste called picadillo carne, stuff them with a rice and mayonnaise mix, and top with green olives.

Mate was passed around a bit later and I enjoyed the traditional hot drink more this time around because it was sweetened with sugar. One can take it that way or plain, which is much more bitter.

We sat down for dinner around 9:30. It was a feast. There were two kinds of chicken, matambre (a steak rolled and cooked around hard boiled eggs, spices, and other fillings), a green salad, a spinach pattie type dish, beef, a Russian salad, bread, and a delicious side dish made of carrots, onions, peppers, and vinegar. We drank wine and soda. Throughout our meal the three kids in the family kept asking about Papa Noel and whether he was going to make it to the house that night. They couldn’t wait.

There was a lot of activity in and around the house too: neighbors set off firecrackers and blasted music; we played our own music and danced; and the family hid presents so the kids wouldn’t find them before midnight.

p1020245.JPGWhen the clock struck 12, we toasted with champagne and went outside to watch the “globos” in the sky. Globos are paper lanterns propelled into the air by an open flame. Ours went up, caught fire, got stuck in a tree, and died out before something more serious happened. The globos that made it past the trees lit the sky beautifully.

While the kids were distracted by the globos, some of the adults brought the presents in and put them under the modest tree. Papa Noel had arrived! He brought several gifts for the children and one for each of the adults present, myself included. Everyone opened their presents and the kids quickly put theirs to use. Desert was served, more drinks were consumed, and the rest of the night was spent chatting and catching up. I turned in around 2 and was one of the early birds.

What impressed me most about the celebration was the kindness of my hosts and their genuine warmth. They didn’t have many material things but were super happy just to be with each other. They shared everything with me, made sure that Papa Noel found me so far from my home, and even gave up a bed for me (forcing Nancy to sleep on a pad on the floor of the dining room.)

Una Noche Buena indeed.

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