This year marks our 7th Christmas season here in Cuenca, Ecuador. For us, a normal Christmas looks like being in Cuenca. Most of our family’s life has been overseas, so as with much in a missionary’s life, our Christmas is one of blended cultures and customs. We bring together some of the culture and traditions we knew as children in the US with those we’ve learned in Cuenca, as well as create some of our own. The following is a picture of Christmas as a Sills.
Contrary to the culture here, our tree and decorations go up the night of Thanksgiving. One of the things we love about Cuenca is that by early October, most stores are filled with Christmas decor. On the whole, Ecuadorians love to celebrate for just about any occasion (we’ve adopted this attitude in our family!), and Christmas is no different. Depictions of winter, artificial trees, and nativities waiting for the baby Jesus to be placed in them are everywhere. This year when we shopped for our daughter’s birthday in early September, lit artificial trees welcomed us at the door, and the cashiers were wearing their red and green elf vests and hats.
Our family advent study begins December 1. We study scripture each day as a family, pray, and sing Christmas carols in anticipation of celebrating the coming of our King. We plan fun activities familiar to Christopher and me, including making gingerbread houses, decorating Christmas cookies, watching holiday movies, and looking at the lights downtown and by the river (their presence and number seems to have grown each year, to our delight). We try to take advantage of the many free events offered during this time of year, including nightly concerts by local schools in the malls, symphony concerts, dance productions, and international chorale presentations.
One of our favorite Christmas time traditions we’ve adopted here is attending the parade El Pase Del Niño Viajero on December 24th. Cuenca’s annual parade is one of the largest in South America and attracts people from all over the country. It begins around 10am and ends around 6pm. We watch as thousands of people of all ages walk, dance, or ride on floats and animals through the city, most in costumes of the characters in the Biblical account of Jesus’s birth. We join in the excitement as they throw to the crowd fruit, toys, bread, and the traditional bags of animal crackers and candy that are distributed as gifts regularly throughout the Christmas season by friends, neighbors, relatives, and local stores.
Though we eat our traditional Christmas meal midday on December 25th with food we were accustomed to making in the US, the tradition here is to celebrate with family the night of the 24th, eating the large meal together at midnight. Some years we have the privilege of sharing our Christmas meal with those who are away from family. We fill stockings with small goodies and exchange gifts as a family, each one receiving a gold present (something desired), a frankincense present (something to help grow in relationship with God), a myrrh present (something needed and useful), and something to read.
As a family, we seek to engage and serve neighbors and church members through a variety of ways throughout the season. We bake and distribute cookies with Christmas cards to neighbors, building guards, and local shop owners. Christopher wrote and distributed an advent guide to students of sites where we’ve been ministering and teaching. We’ve been able to buy and distribute Christmas baskets with food and small gifts for families within the local church who have financial needs. We invite families and individuals into our home to share a meal or join us in some of our traditions. We seek to take advantage of this time of year when people are thinking about Christmas and are sometimes more open to talking about the significance of the coming of the Savior. Like in many places, here the significance of the Light coming to the world is often overshadowed by the darkness of pain, loneliness, consumerism, and traditions without understanding. This year, we are excited to have an evangelistic Christmas Eve Eve service at our church on the night of the 23rd, followed by a meal. We pray the Lord brings many from the community, that the gospel is proclaimed clearly and fully, and that people respond in repentance and faith.
For our children, Christmas in Cuenca is all they have known. For Christopher and me, some of the things we miss most during this season include cold weather and snow (we’re approaching our warmest time of year here), our church family and the Christmas Eve candlelight service, having a real tree that we cut ourselves, and having family come and spend Christmas with us. Still, for us, it is a sweet time to reflect on and share with others the promise of God to send a Savior and His faithfulness in fulfilling that promise by taking on flesh and coming in the form of man to provide reconciliation for us. For our family, Christmas in Cuenca is a time full of fun, sweet foods, music, and time with friends turned family. It’s a time to be intentional about reaching out to people around us to share the reason for our joy in celebrating Christmas. We’re thankful for our blended Christmas with traditions old and new. We’re thankful for our family with whom we get to share in the joy and memory building of this season. We’re thankful to have the privilege of living and ministering in and around Cuenca. And most of all, we’re thankful for the Christ child who is our only hope in life and death. I pray we steward our time and resources well during this season and reflect well the Light that has come.