The holidays may be a dim and distant memory now, but as I’ve finally got some free time when I’m not working, it’s time to try to drag those memories out of my old brain and put finger to keyboard.
Christmas in Belize is similar to that in the UK or the States, in that it’s a time for eating, drinking and visiting family and friends. But it has a few Belizean twists, not to mention an extra dimension, dependant on which one of the various ethnic groups you happen to belong to. I spent Christmas with my landlady and her family in Belize City – like most middle-class Belizeans, she’s adopted the international Christmas activities of putting up a tree, hanging up lights and buying presents. But in Belize, Christmas Eve seems to be a much bigger occasion that at home. We spent most of the evening outside in the garden eating barbecue chicken and drinking beer. For the first time, Mr Leiva (my landlady’s husband) is doing the cooking and his wife is sitting down being served food. In a traditional home like theirs, it’s the woman who does the cooking and the serving, and the man who gets waited on. Obviously, this is great for me and the other men that live there, as we just have to sit down at the table in the evenings and wait for everything to come to us – before I can even get up to go to the fridge to get some milk for my tea, Mrs Leiva’s already got there and is setting it down in front of me. Cutlery appears magically before me. As soon as I’m finished eating the plate’s whisked away and cleaned, the cutlery disappearing equally magically. And if I ever go anywhere near the sink I’m instructed not to wash anything up. For an independent person who’s used to doing everything for himself, it’s a little weird being waited on hand and foot. Although I am getting used to it! But for the women who lodge there, it’s a different story – they get their food made just like I do, but they have to go to the cooker and serve themselves. It’s definitely a man’s world in the Leiva household. So I can only attribute Mr Leiva’s uncharacteristic cooking down to the fact that it’s Christmas. Or maybe it’s a barbecue thing?
The Leivas are Mestizos, descendants of the children of Spanish fathers and Mayan mothers. And they’ve inherited their male ancestor’s language and religion. So, at 11pm, Mrs Leiva and the women of the family go to church for mass, and the rest of the men and me go to the ice-box for another beer. Then comes the Belizean aspect of the holiday – when the women come back, it’s now past midnight. After a round of ‘Happy Christmas’es I was expecting to have another drink and maybe go to bed. But suddenly it all goes off. The house phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop, everyone’s suddenly chatting on their mobiles, friends and neighbours appear at the gate, people are wandering the streets, music starts playing from somewhere, cars appear on the previously-empty roads, and all the dogs start barking at all this sudden activity. If I knew I’d need all this energy so late in the night I wouldn’t have drank all that alcohol.
The next morning (having finally got to bed at about 2am), it’s a lot quieter. The rum and the beer are still flowing though. We have a traditional Belizean Christmas meal of (you guessed it) rice and beans – but no chicken this time, today it’s turkey AND ham, with stuffing, potato salad and coleslaw. The potato salad’s been made with an entire tin of condensed milk, making for the sweetest, most delicious and probably unhealthiest salad ever. And the turkey and ham are equally good. Having been bought (via a butcher) from farmers who feed their animals on natural foods, with no pesticides or GM crops or hormones involved, the meat tastes how it’s supposed to, how it would taste at home if our food wasn’t pumped full of water and chemicals. For us, organic produce means something unusual and expensive. For Belizeans, it’s normal and everyday and cheap. While we eat, I listen to the same Belizean Christmas songs that seem to have been playing constantly over the last few weeks. The most popular seems to be the brukdown classic ‘Good Morning Miss Lady’, which has been on the radio endlessly since the middle of December. At least they haven’t been filling the shops with Christmas goods since October, like they do at home. Now that does wind me up. Who’s buying these things so far from Christmas? Or is it just another fiendish plot from the supermarkets to get us to spend more of our money on their tat? Anyway, back to the food. Dessert is something called Black Cake, which is mid-way between a Christmas Cake (without the marzipan and icing) and a Christmas Pudding. It’s made with rum and is delicious. Particularly if it’s served with more rum. The rest of the family are milling around, drinking beer or Rumpopo (not something you do in the bathroom after too much Bacardi, but the Belizean version of eggnog). After that there’s literally nothing more to eat, which is lucky, as I’ve consumed my own body weight and it’s not even 2pm. Mrs Leiva’s now scurrying around, worrying what to serve for dinner! Another Belizean difference is the lack of ceremony about opening the presents. When I finish lunch, I realise that all the presents have been opened and are unpacked round the house. I’d bought Mrs Leiva a new kettle and was looking forward to her child-like excitement as she realised that making my tea every evening would now be so much easier. But the kettle’s already on the stove, whistling away. But there is one moment of child-like wonder, as I open my present from the Leivas to find a bottle of wine. And it’s my favourite, the kind with alcohol in. And the TV’s on showing a bad film (unfortunately not James Bond or The Great Escape). And there’s room on the sofa. That’s the rest of Christmas Day sorted, then…