This week, when families come together for the winter holidays, we offer this special story by Minnesota writer Anika Fajardo, written especially for readers of the Star Tribune. Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota and is the author of "Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family," a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. Her books for young readers include "What If a Fish," winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and "Encanto: A Tale of Three Sisters," the middle-grade companion novel to the Disney film. Her new novel, "Meet Me Halfway," will be published in 2022. She lives with her family in Minneapolis.
I'm not sure what I expected when we decided to spend our first Christmas in Colombia. I had visited my birth country before, but Dave had never met his Colombian father-in-law, much less been to a Third World country, and Sylvia was only 6 years old. But when we booked the flight, I could just picture this South American holiday, imagining, I suppose, a warmer, livelier version of our Minnesota Christmases.
When Dave and Sylvia walked through the door of my father's home, I was certain this trip would be as magical as I imagined. They were just as impressed as I had been when I first saw the house 20 years earlier. Wooden beams crisscross the high ceilings, and a mandarin tree and pink bougainvillea scent the walled-in backyard.
The most impressive thing about my father's house, though, is its interior garden, where the yellow flowers of a borrachero tree bow over a brick path that winds past a birdfeeder and sprays of impatiens. Sylvia, after 24 hours stuck in airplanes and departure gates with only her new gel pens for entertainment, gleefully ran in and out of the courtyard in stocking feet.
But the first inkling that not everything would go as I imagined was when we discovered my 6-year-old nephew, pale and lethargic. Since arriving from California a few days before us, my brother and sister-in-law had already had to navigate the Colombian health system when Santino spiked a fever and couldn't shake a terrible cough. When Santino couldn't join Sylvia in running shoeless through the house, she let him show her how to play Minecraft and then used her colorful gel pens to draw him pictures and write hieroglyphic-like puzzles and stories in her new notebook.
Santino recovered quickly, as children do, and the holiday was on the right path again. The monthlong Navidades begins in early December and lasts through Three Kings Day in January, so with only two days until Dec. 24 (called Nochebuena or "Good Night"), we had a lot of catching up on holiday traditions. And the first job the cousins were given was to create the pesebre.
Nativity scenes in Colombia can take up whole corners of living rooms and might include entire adobe villages and lush agrarian hillsides. Sylvia and Santino discussed and planned their smaller version, taking turns to determine the placement of the plastic cows and pigs, the wooden houses and the little trees. When the pesebre was finished, it was a work of art, made more endearing by the globs of glue and stray bits of painted straw. And once they were reminded to make room for the Holy Family and the Wise Men, it was perfect.
As perfect as I knew this Christmas could be.
But that night, Sylvia slept fitfully, and on the morning of Nochebuena she didn't get out of bed, just drew pictures or wrote messages with her pens. We gave her chamomile tea with fresh lemon, but when she wouldn't run through the courtyard with her cousin, it was clear she had caught Santino's flu.
While my father's wife, Ceci, shopped for holiday delicacies like papayuelas, ojaldras and rosquillas, I put together an apple pie for my father. And still Sylvia's fever crept higher. The sun set, the pie continued baking, and we laid the table with buñuelos, natilla and a plate of pernil de cerdo with salsa de ciruela.
The smell of baking pie wafted through the open house. I checked on Sylvia, hoping the promise of sweets and presents might rouse her. But she didn't stir. I sat in the dark beside her while she slept, her face hot and her hair matted. Nothing seemed merry, much less bright. This wasn't how Christmas Eve was supposed to go.
Night fell and Santino helped fill paper bags with sand to re-create Noche de las Velas, or Night of the Candles, normally performed on the 7th of December. He lined up the luminarias along the path of the courtyard with the same precision with which he placed his Minecraft blocks. My father lit the candles and hung a few luminarias in the branches of the borrachero tree, and the courtyard — already magical — became even more enchanting as the velas flickered in the Andean breeze. Maybe Nochebuena could be salvaged.
In the glow of the candles, the adults ate a little and drank more. From the distance, we could hear the drums and off-key flutes of the chirimías and the pop of fireworks. Ceci switched on the radio, which alternated between the occasional strains of "Silent Night" and upbeat cumbias. I sipped my wine.
Perhaps this was not quite like the Christmases of my childhood with oyster stew and "Away in a Manger," but there was something ... I thought … Something was on fire.
"¡Está quemando!" It's burning!
Behind us, the candles had ignited the leaves of the borrachero tree. Flames devoured the paper bags and bits of sooty ash floated onto the impatiens. Under the twinkling of stars, we watched the show in stupefied silence for a moment before Ceci ran into the courtyard to douse the tree.
Our shouts — and laughter — brought Santino from his tablet, who wanted to know what happened, and woke Sylvia. She cried out and Dave carried her into the courtyard so she could see the glitter of the remaining luminarias. She didn't pay much attention to the candles, but, like every child on every Christmas Eve, perked up when she realized it was time for gifts.
The smell of burning leaves dissipated as we opened presents. Sylvia cuddled beside me with a new doll. The pie had not yet cooked in the faulty oven, but even so, it began to feel, once again, like Christmas was supposed to — holly and jolly, perhaps even a little like the best time of the year.
The flaming borrachero tree was the only fire, but the evening included a power outage that had briefly terrified the unflappable Santino, an interminably baking apple pie that we never did eat, and an upset stomach from the unfamiliar food — or perhaps the shots of aguardiente. But all these, I realized, were passing inconveniences, especially since Sylvia's fever had broken during the night.
When I crept out of bed the next morning in search of coffee, the house was quiet. Crumpled wrapping paper and dirty glasses still littered the living room. The plastic cows and pigs in the pesebre slept as soundly as my family.
In the dining room, I found a piece of paper torn from Sylvia's notebook. I picked it up and studied her lopsided printing written in blue gel pen. Stepping into a patch of sun shining on the courtyard's brick path, I considered Sylvia's words, a recipe that seemed to sum up our Nochebuena.
1 scoop of sugar
10 scoops of love
3 gallons of vinegar
As the canaries politely ignored the charred branches of the borrachero tree, I sipped my coffee. There is something about the winter holidays that makes us want everything to be perfect and sweet. Beatifically smiling and healthy children, soft carols, gentle candlelight. Whether at home or in a place we dream of as home, we want this year to be like it was in our memories or in our imagination.
But there's something else, some kind of cosmic realignment or trickster Murphy's Law, that seems to rearrange any expectations. Winter flu, power grid failures, uncooperative ovens. Something sour that infiltrates the sweetness, gives it balance and makes the good parts shine.
In the end, this year soon becomes last year, and we begin to consider what we'll keep the same and what will be different, perhaps better. Maybe next year everyone will be healthy, or we'll meet in Minnesota, or we won't set the courtyard on fire. But I wouldn't change anything about that first Christmas in Colombia with my family when Sylvia was 6. Nochebuena had been, as I imagined, both warm and lively. And what more could I expect?