Our Christmas plans this year were modest, but I am reminded of another winter in Puerto Vallarta when we were invited to join a Mexican family for La Navidad.
We were staying in a small hotel on the south side, the Suites Claudia, which has just two suites on each of the six or seven floors, plus a penthouse suite at the top. As Christmas approached, all of the American guests checked out, and a pair of large black SUVs with tinted windows appeared in the parking lot.
To my surprise, one evening as we were getting ready for bed, there was a knock at our door. A young man asked if I spoke Spanish and explained that his family had taken over every room in the hotel except ours to unite for the holidays, with half of them coming from Guadalajara, and the rest from Mexico City. Did we have plans? Would we care to join them on Christmas Eve? I had enough Spanish to stall, saying I would have to talk to my wife.
We spent the next day asking our expatriate acquaintances if this invitation was genuine, or merely a polite way of warning us that there would be a noisy party in the building. It was sure to be sincere, we were told. Hank and Conrad were especially insistent that we should go. They had spent many winters here, and have scores of Mexican friends, but had never been offered such an invitation.
At somewhere around ten or eleven at night, we made our way up to the penthouse and knocked. Despite trying to guess what qualified as fashionably late here, the party had not even begun. The women were all in the kitchen cooking, and a teenager was sent running downstairs to fetch the two university students with the best English. Most of the parents and young children were destroying pinatas down by the pool.
This young man and woman sacrificed most of their family time to be our host and hostess, and I learned more about Mexico that night than in all my other vacations combined.
We were introduced to everyone, even the bodyguard. I assume that’s what he was, he was huge, he was wearing a powder blue sport coat in sweltering heat, and he usually stood where he had a clear field of fire across the sunken living room. When we embraced, I tried to tell if he was carrying a pistol. He probably returned the courtesy.
We spoke Spanish, they spoke English. We couldn’t discuss anything with subtlety, but it got the job done with the minimum amount of confusion. Mostly.
“Is it true that no-one in Canada gets married?” the young lady wanted to know. I was baffled, and then I realized that what she wanted to know was whether anyone waited for marriage to have sex. This must be what it feels like to be from Sweden. At the time, I did not know any Canadian, male or female, who married as a virgin, but I chose an answer that I hoped was more diplomatic: “Everyone gets married… eventually.”
Close to midnight, she asked us what our religion was, and whether we wanted to stay for the religious part of the evening. I told her I was Church of England. My private school educated me that way, back in the day. Then I had to explain the Church of England. Just like Catholic, I said, except no Pope and not so much Mary. And all because Henry VIII wanted a divorce.
This led to the Spanish Armada, by the way, which was conceived as a plan to kill Elizabeth I, Henry’s heir, and bring Britain back under the papacy. A woman on the throne of a major power? Surely that has to be some kind of sin! But I digress.
There were hail Marys. I do not know if they were in Spanish or Latin, because the languages are quite similar, but I fondly remember the patriarch of the family looking up from his page of devotions periodically to straighten the candle of the little boy who was standing in front of him. Most likely a great-grandson. No point spoiling a holiday with burns, after all.
After this came the ritual of Joseph and Mary. I got the gist of this, but I hope anyone with more familiarity will forgive any errors in my interpretation. The penthouse suite had an enormous balcony, spanning the whole building, and huge folding doors in the master suite, the living room and the kitchen that opened onto it. A group went out onto the balcony and the doors were closed. At the first door, Joseph pleaded, in song, for a room at an inn for his pregnant wife, but was turned away. At the second door, he pleaded for shelter at a (humbler?) inn, and was turned away. At the third door, the inn had no room, but welcomed the couple in to shelter in the stable. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Then the entire party was divided into two rows, with men on one side, facing women on the other. I feared we would be expected to dance. But wait, it gets better. I was handed two corners of a baby blanket and shown how to hold them. Caroline, across from me, was given the other two corners. A porcelain baby Jesus was produced and laid in the blanket between us, suspended above the marble floor as if in a loose hammock. This china doll looked to me like a family heirloom, probably brought all the way from the city in a lot of packing material. I did not care to contemplate the consequences if I were to cause it to fall on the hard floor. But wait, it gets better. As guests of honour, Caroline and I got first crack at rocking Jesus to sleep by swinging him in the blanket. Everyone else sang a lullaby while we did this. I was concentrating on my sweaty grip. But wait, it gets better. We had to hand him to the next couple, without stopping the gentle swinging motion. Somehow, Jesus and we survived, and the little guy went all the way down the line. By the end of this, I knew the words to the lullaby.
Then the little doll was passed around so that we could all kiss him and be blessed. One little toddler didn’t want to do it, so after giving her a little time while others took their turns, they came back and tried to interest her again. Nope. They didn’t push the issue. Jesus is a pretty forgiving kind of guy, after all.
It was a relief to sit down and be offered something as simple and safe as eating while sitting on a couch. The food was not like home. There was a broth of fish to start. Perhaps it represents the disciples or something. There was a fruit salad, made with sweetened condensed milk. There was something that may have been chicken in molé sauce. It may have been something else entirely – it was probably what all the mortars and pestles in the kitchen were used for. It was one of the spiciest dishes I have ever eaten anywhere. It made my palate swell. It tasted like tobacco leaves in habanero sauce. I smiled bravely.
A while after dinner, we made our excuses and left this generous and welcoming family to keep each other company. But what a wonderful gift they gave us.