Caterpillars, calamares and Curious George – Christmas in Argentina

‘… and gran, gran, guess what? Daddy has downloaded the Curious George Christmas Special for Christmas Eve.’ My granddaughter in Argentina was super-excited. Wow, my cuppeth ranneth over. I’d come to experience my first Argentinian Christmas and somehow I’d failed to factor in Jorge el Curioso. In Argentina, they celebrate Christmas on Christma Eve with a sumptuous meal in the evening and at midnight open presents from Santa – it was going to be a long day.

Don’t get me wrong – it was totally fantastic to see my son and his family and to be able to hug them all and catch up. The sun was shining on the roses and the lupins in the garden and over the mountains all around. It was summer and 23 degrees – lucky old me! But it was Christmas Eve and I hadn’t got that Christmassy feeling yet although the fir tree branch was twinkling in the corner, bedecked with glitter glued baubles and a silver moon. We’d even made crackers from toilet roll insides and wrapping paper. My daughter-in-law was shut in the bedroom stitching a surprise Elf costume for her daughter to wear while helping Santa that night (oh yes, my granddaughter, now 9, is in the know these days). We’d had breakfast so what now? In the kitchen my son was washing up, bopping about and singing gaily along to a cd. ‘Simply ha-a-ving a wonderful Christmas time, ding dong ding dong ding dong ding dong,’ he warbled. Then ‘So here it is Merry Christmas, Everybody’s having fun…’ Yes, granddaughter 1 in Essex, it’s your uncle that’s stuck in the 1970s and 80s – not your mum. And ‘Does your granny always tell you That the old songs are the best?’ Oh dear – indeed she does.

But I shouldn’t have worried about how to pass the time – my granddaughter had a list of games to play to wile away the day. She’d created one entitled ‘The Goblin’s Christmas Spell’ with a rhyme: ‘The goblin will play you a little gig,When you’re forced to wear the goblin wig.’ You chant it while throwing a ball at one another and whoever lands up with it when the rhyme stops has to wrap a scarf around their head. After about ten million rounds, my grandson (aged 4) was getting a bit manic. We went out into the sunny garden for ‘a traditional Argentinian Christmas activity’ (so my son said) – catching caterpillars. It wasn’t difficult – there were masses of them. ‘This hasn’t happened before,’ said my son, His homemade exterminator solution wasn’t working so he’d been squidging them (yuk). But every night, with one mind, like the cybermen in Dr Who, hordes of them tramped across the grass towards the veggies, munched away and then stretched out on a stem in the morning sunshine like cats who’d got the cream. My dad, in his cabbage patch back in the 1950s, used a tub of salty water. But these caterpillars stick like limpets to a plant and turn their heads as if they’re going to chomp a chunk out of you. Eeeek. But in salty water they thrashed about for a bit so you felt horribly guilty. And it was Christmas – oh dear. So we played hide and seek and things got a bit manic again. Time for a late lunch and the Curious George Christmas Special.

Well, hurrah, we were able to watch it quite a few times – but after an aperitif of a friend’s homemade cherry brandy, I was getting into the Christmas spirit at last. I can’t quite remember how we got to 9.30, but I think there were more games and a spot of Scottish dancing. Then supper was ready – it seems that there’s not really a traditional meal for Christmas in Argentina like turkey. and there’d been discussion about what meat to cook. My daughter-in law, who’s Argentinian, had marinated a huge piece of mutton in wine and herbs for days. Mutton dressed as lamb, it certainly wasn’t – it was melt-in-the-mouth mutton – sensational. She’d made some traditional family dishes too: stuffed eggs with anchovies, delicious, a Christmas recipe from her mum, and calamares vinaigrette, wonderful, one from her aunt. My son made what he described as a ‘traditional Argentinian Christmas dish’ – sag aloo – with spinach from the garden (with a few holes, courtesy of the creepy crawlies) and the salad featured four tiny tomatoes he’d grown in pots. ‘They’re cherry tomatoes,’ said my granddaughter. ‘Well, three are,’ said my son, ‘but that one’s a tomato tomato.’ Of course, there was a bottle of Argentinian Malbec and we pulled the crackers shouting

‘Bang’ a lot, donned the homemade hats and laughed at the riddles my granddaughter had made up. Brilliant! Pudding was homemade chocolate or dulce de leche ice cream from the shop up the road.- Argentina makes the best ice cream ever- utterly yummy. That’s my idea of a Christmas pudding! Suddenly there was a ‘Jo, Jo, Jo’, as Santa goes in Argentina (it sounds just like Ho Ho Ho), from somewhere outside in the dark and an elf was seen running about in the moonlit garden. For some reason my son and his daughter weren’t around, but my grandson rushed from window to window trying to catch sight of Santa and the Christmas elf. A huge pile of presents appeared by magic under the tree and we opened them at 11 – a little early perhaps – but, hey, Santa’s got a lot to do that night.

The next day we set off in the car to meet some friends by a river. The sun shone down on open countryside with the snow-topped Andes in the distance. People set up tables and chairs on a shingly beach under some trees and sat around drinking maté (herbal tea you pass to one another), fernet with coke (said to be Argentina’s national drink) or red wine. A few stood about chatting about football (what else?) and to watch a huge hunk of beef roasting on a fire. Someone took out a guitar and started strumming and another a fishing rod and waded out into the blue green water. And this was Christmas day, I reminded myself – fantastic!

Once home that evening the family were all tired but happy. My son pottered about fixing some supper ‘Can we watch the Curious George Christmas Special again?’ asked my granddaughter. Oh god. And, guess what? I heard myself actually suggesting Frozen – you know, the one with THAT song…

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