Christmas in Honduras and Continued Culture Shock

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With Christmas just around the corner I have been thinking a lot about the differences between how I celebrated the holiday last year in Honduras and the traditional American Christmas.  I was telling someone the other day how exciting it was to see the beautiful Christmas decorations that have gone up in the last few weeks and how this and cold weather were part of what signified the holiday season for me, and how much I enjoy it after not having been here for Christmas last year.  She replied, “You mean they don’t have Christmas decorations in Honduras?”  I stared at her for a moment, thinking yes but no.  What to many Americans may seem like a normal (and requisite) part of the Christmas season is so mind-bogglingly beyond the reach of most Hondurans (and most of the world) that I was simply in shock for a moment.  How do you explain to someone who has never left the US and who has, even when money was tight, still always had more than enough to survive that most people in Honduras barely have enough money to eat more than beans, rice, and tortillas and so no, since Christmas decorations are a luxury in a place where people are struggling to survive, there isn’t much in the way of holiday decorating?

The picture above shows the tree, ornaments, and toys that were on display last year at our family’s house, representing the entire much-treasured extent of Christmas decorations the family owned and all of which were sent by “wealthy” family members in the US (who live relatively modestly by American standards).  This was also the largest display of Christmas decorations that I saw, and it was unusual to see any decorations at all.

In Honduras, people weren’t busy putting up Christmas decorations or finding presents for their near and dear.  This wasn’t even a topic of discussion, since it has been beyond the means of most people for so long that it is not really even a part of the culture, at least in the areas I lived and visited.  What they were busy doing and happily looking forward to however, was baking bread.

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Baking bread in the traditional way is an event that does not occur on a daily basis because of the effort and expense involved.  Remember, this is a place where electricity has only been around for 6-7 years and where most households still do not have it.  And where manufactured ovens operated using gas tanks are expensive, as is the fuel for them.  Most households still have small earthen wood-burning stoves.  Ovens are also made out of earth and stones but are much larger and dome-shaped.  While every household has a stove, many do not have their own ovens, which are not an absolute necessity for survival and which require much more wood to maintain an even heat over a sustained amount of time.  Gathering wood for the stove (and oven) requires more effort than ever with continued rapid population growth.  It is rare to find much kindling nearby and what does become available is quickly gathered up and used.    Where we lived, people had to go a good ways up the mountain to gather kindling which is cut using a machete, not an ax or chainsaw (an unaffordable luxury for most people), and then hauled back to a person’s home.  Many households can rarely count on enough extra wood on a regular basis to do more than keep the stove going for daily meals.

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And so baking bread is a celebratory and communal day-long event.  It is common for women from a few households to get together to prepare the dough, tend the fire for the oven, and bake batch after batch of bread and sweet rolls with dogs and people alike drooling with anticipation.

In a place where material goods are beyond most people’s budgets the chance to eat something special–fresh bread, chicharrones (fried pork rinds), tamales–is cause for celebration in and of itself and Christmas is marked by special church services, the occasional dance, firecrackers, gathering with friends and family, and foods prepared only on special occasions.  Although I have always been as materialistic as any average American, it is difficult now not to be acutely aware of and shocked by the amount of money we expect to spend (and expect others to spend) at this time of year while still reveling in the beauty of decorations and excitement of gift-giving and receiving that our wealth affords us.

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