Christmas in Oaxaca

For most of us, Christmas is unbreakably tied to long-standing,  comfort-creating traditions.  Activities, foods, songs, people, decorations, even smells – we find comfort in these familiar symbols of childhood, family, fun and belonging.  Like no other time of the year, change is unwelcome.  We cling to sentimental reminders of the times we felt the most loved.

20181126_153938When you move to another country – a really different country – traditions change and that can be hard.  Over these past 3 years, I have tried to hold loose those things that no longer work here and to cling to what is truly the most important.   I have been willing to exchange cold air for hot breezes, crispy snow for soft sand, hash brown casserole for chilaquiles, Christmas carols for tuba banda music.  This year we put up our tree and covered it with the family heirloom decorations we have been hanging since our children were babies.  But everything else was different and it was fantastic!

Oaxaca-map.jpgIn early Fall, our youngest daughter Brett suggested we travel somewhere different for Christmas this year.  She was planning a 5-month trip through Mexico, and although she could easily fly to our home, she really wanted to show us a place she had grown to love.  Her boyfriend would be there and our oldest would fly down from Canada.  Oaxaca.  Let’s all meet in Oaxaca this year.  Every part of our Christmas tradition would be different, but we would be together and that is the tradition that means the most.

So we rented a great Airbnb in Oaxaca and came together for a week to embrace Oaxacan Christmas traditions.  It was amazing, and I want to share just a few things we experienced there.

Posadas (Parades)

I have never seen so many parades.  Every night, the streets would explode with brass bands, dancers in traditional costumes, paper mache giants, and so many people.  Some were religious pilgrimages heading to the giant churches in the plazas, others were celebrating Oaxacan foods like radishes and chocolate.  Seriously, there is a parade for chocolate!


Noche de los Rabanos (Night of the Radishes)

Since 1897, every year on December 23rd, over 100 contestants gather in the plaza (Zocalo) to compete in a radish carving contest.  Many thousands of people gather to see the elaborate masterpieces – and when we found out the line to get close was 3-4 hours long, we decided to watch from a distance.   The atmosphere was exciting – and of course it started with a parade!


Check out more photos of this crazy competition here

Navidad (Christmas)

In Mexico, Christmas Eve is a much bigger family celebration than Christmas Day.  Again, we headed to the main plaza and watched 3 or 4 different parades go by.  There were at least 7 different Santas greeting children near the massive Christmas tree and 4 or 5 Baby Jesus’ going by in the parades.  We ate tamales oozing with mole and drank giant glasses of steaming hot chocolate.  It was chilly, and it was cute to watch the little Mexican children wearing wooly toques and long scarves.


Although they are more often associated with Easter, I purchased traditional cascarones, hollowed out eggs stuffed with confetti, and broke them on the heads of all my family members – and of course I got one too.    It is supposed to bring us good luck but I’m pretty sure I just gave Meigan a headache!

Although I had given up on the idea of a Turkey dinner, I was excited when my daughter texted on Christmas day to say she had seen a sign advertising turkey at one of the street chicken stalls.  She would bring it home for dinner.  Yay – turkey after all.  But when it arrived, it looked more like the leg of a tough old dinosaur, and the sweet macaroni salad was not exactly mashed potatoes.  But we were together, and we laughed at the sad Christmas feast!


Sparklers and fizzlers and cannons.  So many fireworks and noise makers.  Everywhere.  All day and all night.  If you can’t beat ‘em you may as well join ‘em.  We are now officially part of the problem!


Traditional Oaxacan food is outstanding – some say the best in all of Mexico.  Over 200 kinds of mole (chile sauce), including my favorite, the thick slightly bitter black chocolate mole.  Tlayudas – crispy blue corn tortillas slathered in lard and bean paste and other vegetable and meat toppings and grilled over hot coals.  Tamales – pockets of chicken and tomatoes and peppers wrapped in corn dough, steamed in corn husks or banana leaves.  Quesillo – the mild white string cheese that is pulled off the round balls as needed.  Chapulines – grasshoppers that are eaten crispy like peanuts or are used in sauces or even in ice cream!  I can’t say I loved that – the taste was okay, but no one needs tiny grasshopper legs stuck in their teeth!  Giant plates of meat – thin beef and pork marinated in orange chiles, and small round links of spicy chorizo.  Big mugs of hot chocolate made with either milk or water to drink, or the local favorite mezcal, a smoky version of tequila.   All of it so affordable.  We ate many times a day, at the local markets or small restaurants, with no guilt because of the low price and the thousands of steps we knew would wear it all off.


Family Time

Most importantly, we just spent time together.  We played our traditional game of Upwords (I won…woop woop).  We went exploring throughout the grand historical city, shopping for small artisan gifts for each other.  Oaxaca is famous for its black pottery and for its colorfully painted Alebrijes, those imaginary animals that come alive in the movie Coco.  Intricately embroidered blouses and handmade jewelry.  We came home with a bit of it all.


We headed out of the city as well.  Mont Albán is a cluster of archaeological ruins dated to 500 BC.  We walked over 18,000 steps and climbed 78 stories as we explored these pyramid-like structures.  Another day we headed into the mountains to visit Hierve el Agua, an area that contains stunning rock formations (petrified waterfalls) and mineral springs.   We climbed to the base of the formation to see the stunning view up close, but of course what goes down…..


The thing with travel is that when we let go of what is familiar and embrace the experience of another person in another place, our own traditions become less rigid, more fluid.  We can build new ones.  We can see things we never knew existed and taste flavors that change our outlook.  Turkey flooded with gravy gives way to turkey bathed in black mole.  A slab of bread becomes a flat corn tortilla, my morning caffeine comes from chocolate instead of coffee.  But like every other Christmas tradition, it comes with my husband at my side and my daughters nearby.  We have grown, we have changed, we have risked….  But still we say, from our family to yours,  Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad.  Happy New Year.  And most important of all,  Happy Birthday Baby Jesus!




An Uncertain Christmas

Generally, I like change.  I like when surprises sneak up on me.  I like when things are new, unexpected, adventurous, unknown.  You can’t move to Mexico and expect things to look even remotely familiar.  But Christmas is different.  Christmas is about tradition, about recreating memories, about things staying the same.  And for that – well this Christmas I was just a bit sad.  This is the first Christmas that we have not been with our own daughters.  Flights were too expensive; job vacations were too short.  This year it didn’t make sense.  Still, reason and common sense gave way to se24899711_10155086227796198_3210385353696014323_nlf-pity.  After all, this was the year I thought we would finally build a proper family Christmas.  Among our 3 loads of belonging, we had moved our big old Christmas tree, our stockings, our ornaments.  Snowmen and stockings and candles and the tiny Nativity scene.   My roasting pan and that old gravy bowl.  My tablecloths and napkins and those cute little snowball place card holders.  Everything I needed to finally make a family Christmas dinner in this new home.  Familiar.  Safe.  Traditional.

So when we agreed to postpone our family time until spring this year, I admit I was disappointed.   I briefly… really briefly…. considered flying north to them but I knew that was not right either.  We were needed here and as December unfolded, I began to see the plan emerge exactly as it was meant to.   Since the last weekend of October, we have enjoyed opening our guest rooms to three little girls who need a home and as Christmas approached, I realized our tree and our decorations and even our stockings still had work to do.

Of course, as often happens here, the road became bumpier and more uncertain the closer we got to Christmas weekend.   It looked like we would have the girls for the weekend.  We shopped –  for toys and groceries and surprises.  We hung our own daughters’ stockings in preparation for Santa’s arrival.  Nope.  They’re going with mom.   Tears from everyone.  Nope.  Mom changed her mind – please come get them.  More tears.  More pain.  So much pain.  But finally, it was Christmas morning and I looked around our breakfast table and rejoiced that our chairs were full and our table was overflowing with Christmas treats and Christmas love.  Unlike my own daughters, these children hadn’t even considered looking under the tree or looking in the stockings.   I had however found a letter under the tree on Christmas Eve written by 10-year-old Marely.  “Santa, they say you’re not real but I still believe in you.  If you are real, please tell me the truth -Yes or No”.  Over breakfast, when Grant said, “I wonder if Santa came, she actually looked pretty angry.  “No.  There’s no Santa”.  “Well, let’s look”.  They ran to the stockings and I was elated with the pure joy on Marely’s face “He came, Santa came”.  I don’t know what she really believes, but for this year at least, she got to experience being a child with a stocking full of treats and gifts under a tree.


Christmas Eve Candlelight Service



Christmas morning surprise!

That evening, we had a traditional Canadian Christmas meal in our tiny garden.  On Friday I thought there would be just 5 of us, but by Monday night our family had grown to 13.  Canadians, Americans, Mexicans of all ages.  Spanish and English jumbled together.  So different than our normal tradition.  So exactly the same.


As always, the happy stories are mushed together with the painful stories.  The joy of a Christmas weekend is paired with some truly difficult moments and I have new respect for all foster moms and adoptive moms who love children who come from difficult places.  The same little hands and arms that gave generous hugs of joy, left painful bruises and scratches when they realized mom wasn’t coming for them.  Gifts that were purchased with love were stolen and hidden away.  So much laughter mixed with so many tears.  But that is the whole point of the Christmas story.  A baby coming into a broken world.  Love wrapped in flesh.  A father to the fatherless and the orphans.  Peace that passes understanding.  Not the Christmas I expected but oh the Christmas I will cherish.   Joy to the World!

El Dia de los Reyes

On Friday we went with the children to the last fiesta of the Christmas season.  Here in Mexico, January 6th is known as El Dia De Los Reyes (3 Kings Day).  It is the last of the 12 days of Christmas and symbolizes the three Kings who found Baby Jesus.  This is a day of family gatherings, parades, gifts and the special bread called Rosca de Reyes.  The children of Manos de Amor were invited to a party at the La Cruz Yacht Club, sponsored by the mostly tourists who sail in the Bay and live on their beautiful boats.    It was a fun party with lots of games and crafts and hot dogs and a gift for each child.

20170106_133016One of the highlights was the cutting of the Rosca.  The bread (it reminds me of Easter Bread) is a sweet bread shaped in a circle to represent the crowns of the Kings.  It is covered with candied fruit.  Hidden inside the bread are little plastic dolls – baby Jesus.   The tradition is that whoever finds the baby must host a Tamale party on Feb 2nd.  For these children, the promise is whoever finds the dolls gets as many tamales as they want on Feb 2nd.    It reminded me of when we hid money in our birthday cakes when I was young – what kid doesn’t love a fun choking hazard treasure hunt?   And the best part???  I got a Baby Jesus!  So I think that means I have to host a Tamale party.





















That brings to an end Christmas 2016.  Like all children, these ones have been loaded with candy and spoiled with gifts.  I have no idea if they understand that it was the generosity of total strangers that gave them the Christmas that most other children get from their parents.   I don’t know how their parents feel either.  It is something I wrestle with all the time – how can we help without hurting?  I don’t have the answer and so for now I just trust my heart and give what feels right.  Thank you to those who donated money and time and gifts to make Christmas special for these sweet children.   I trust that you will reap the blessings of spirit that come from sharing your heart.  Oh, and I guess you’re invited to my place for tamales on February 2nd!

Beware of the Swanson Family Vacation

The thing with family vacations is that they are seldom as perfect as you plan them to be, but in the end they add a bunch of stuff to the memory vault that you will share forever – funny stuff and irritating stuff and crappy stuff and amazing stuff.  Stuff that only this particular group of people can share.  It’s YOUR stuff.  That is what makes a rewarding family life – and as Hollywood has already discovered, vacations seem to produce more stuff than any other time.

Christmas week with our daughters here in Bucerias was mostly great.  But when we remember the Christmas of 2016, we won’t remember the perfect weather, the beautiful days at the pool and beach, the sweet children at the orphanage, or the delicious street food.

These are the things we’ll remember:

  • The stuff we lost:
    • The prescription sunglasses
    • The purse with the IPhone and credit card
    • The necklace just purchased at the market
    • The keys to the car and house
  • The stuff we felt:
    • The food poisoning
    • The busted up toes from surfing
    • The cold sore
    • The itchy head
  • The stuff we chased:
    • The lice
    • The maggots
    • The ants
  • The stuff we heard:
    • The chickens
    • The dogs
    • The goats and parrots and roosters and sheep
    • The unending fireworks

Those are the things we will laugh about together for a long time – kind of like the Las Vegas vacation where the car overheated the whole trip and we had to drive with wet towels on our heads,  or the Disneyland vacation where we ate nothing but 39 cent McDonalds cheeseburgers and Taco Time because we really couldn’t afford that trip at all.

But we also had some sweet moments together this week and one of my favorites was the day we played together and danced together with our Manos de Amor children.  I hope we’ll remember that afternoon too, because life must have some gentle moments to offset the harsh ones.  Some joy to offset the pain.  Some laughter to offset the puking!



Adios my lovely daughters Meigan and Brett – safe travels and come back soon. We definitely have more memories to create.  Hasta pronto mis hijas bonitas!


PS.  In case I’ve scared you away from ever visiting us, let me assure you that the maggots are gone, the lice are gone and the smuggled box of Borax took care of the ants – they’re gone too!

This feels like Christmas

Christmas looks very different here in Mexico.  I mean it physically looks different.  Having grown up in Saskatchewan my entire life, Christmas just comes with snow.   Christmas lights glitter against the frosty trees and fireplaces glow as a backdrop for our giant puzzles and games of scrabble.   I have spent the past few Christmases here in Mexico so I am getting used to palm trees and beaches – but it doesn’t feel quite the same.  Last night Christmas felt a bit like home.


Daniella & Grant

After spending most of the afternoon playing games with the dozen children who were still at the orphanage, we returned in the evening for a family Christmas evening.  We pulled the couches around the giant donated TV, popped some popcorn, turned off all the lights and cuddled together to watch a movie about the true story of Christmas – the birth of baby Jesus.  Daniella was tucked tightly under my arm and she was engrossed with the story – especially excited when the angels appeared.  As we watched, I realized that THIS FELT LIKE CHRISTMAS.   At one point, Daniella looked out the open doorway – no frosty glass blocks our view here – and pointed at a super bright star.  “Mira – la Estrella!”  Look.  The Star.   When baby Jesus was finally born, the children all applauded.  This is what Christmas is about.  Knowing that Jesus was born to care for the ‘least of these’.  Knowing that we get to share in the journey with him as we care for these little ones.


Me and Perla… who used to be Mona


Of course, like every family every soft special moment is interspersed with the ‘real’ moments.  Under my other arm was mischievous Perla (My name is Perla now…. I was Mona when I was little…consider myself scolded).  She was busy pouring chili on her popcorn and you just know that’s going to go bad!




Jessica & Geraldine

Today my own daughters will be here.  Our Swanson family Christmas will begin. Most of our traditions have changed now.  There will be no tobogganing, no hash brown casserole, no quiche, no grandparents or extended family.  Our stack of gifts will be much smaller.

But the essence has not changed.   Baby Jesus will still guide our way and the star will remind us of that first simple Christmas.  Meigan and Brett will join us at the orphanage to play with their ‘siblings’.  And Brett will probably beat us in a game of Scrabble Slam …. Cause that’s just what we Swanson’s do.


Merry Christmas from Santa Samantha


Have a blessed Christmas Eve my friends!

A First Christmas

I am sitting in my yard listening to 2 or 3 different types of music wrestle with one another before wafting over my wall – neighbors are clapping and singing along and I really just have to laugh.  In Canada the police would have been called long ago – here it is a typical Sunday family evening in the neighborhood.

We have made it through our first Mexican Christmas with some old traditions and many new.  The final outcome was the same as it has always been …. family time playing games and laughing and eating until we can’t move.  But the individual components looked quite different.  Here’s the comparison:

Chinese Food pickup Chicken Dinner Pickup
Candlelight service at church Fireworks in the street (Thanks to Luis for this one)
Christmas carols Posada at our door
Early to bed so Santa can come Up until 3:30 because the neighbors were partying in the street – which in turn encouraged the chickens and dogs to party in the streets. These people have serious boom boxes and they do not hold back!  They literally set up tables in the street for their families to join.  And fireworks – there were a LOT of fireworks all night long.
Christmas breakfast with hashbrown casserole, sausages, fruit, pastry and quiche Christmas breakfast with hashbrown casserole, sausages, fruit, pastry and egg burritos
Opening one million gifts Opening a couple of gifts and using the money saved to buy gifts for a family less fortunate.
Hanging out assembling and playing with new stuff Going to the orphanage to play with sweet children and help distribute their gifts
Eating candy from our stockings all day Watching children smash pinatas and dive for candy
Board games – Upwords and Chicken Foot – while looking out at the cold frosty day Board games – Upwords and Chicken Foot – in the yard under a palm tree
Eating Turkey dinner until we’re stuffed in our cozy dining room Eating Turkey dinner until we’re stuffed in a garden under the stars
Leftovers for breakfast Leftovers for breakfast
Tobogganing on the hill outside our house Boogie Boarding at the beach
Eating the peanut brittle we got in our stocking Eating the peanut brittle we bought from a vendor on the beach
Boxing day shopping sales Taking gifts to a family that doesn’t have a lot
Eating Turkey leftovers Eating chicken tostados served by this same family – a real sacrifice for them

So Christmas was exactly the same….. and completely different.  We spent it together doing many of the things we normally do – but we did most of it outside with the loud noises of other families celebrating all around us.  We received gifts from one another – and gave others away.  We ate as much as possible – some traditional fare like Turkey and dressing but it was married with chilaquilies and tacos and tostados.

We did have a couple of new activities that I hope don’t become new traditions.  Meigan had a nasty rash on her legs for a few days – we had tried Benadryl and hydrocortisone cream to no avail.  So on Christmas Day we stopped at the Farmacia (drug store) to ask for something to try.  They referred us next door to the doctor’s office.  We were seen immediately and he gave Meg a prescription for some pills and a cream.  He also gave her an injection.  The consultation and the injection cost $70 pesos (about $5).  The other meds cost around $10.   It worked – her rash is significantly better today.  Can you imagine trying to see a doc on Christmas day in Canada or the US? For $5?  Within 5 minutes?

Unfortunately, as we pulled away from the doctor and headed across the street to the farmacia, Grant forgot to put on his seatbelt and the traffic police were hungry for a Christmas Day victim.  Didn’t help that it was directly in front of the Fasten your Seatbelt sign.  So we got a ticket and Grant had to give up his license until he went to the traffic ticket office on Boxing Day to pay his $116 peso fine – about $8.  Seems to me a seatbelt ticket was $240 at home last time Grant got one.    So even our transgressions fit within our new budget here.

Our family time is coming to a close here – Meigan heads home tomorrow.  Brett and Luis have a few more days.  It has been fun but I recognize we are on vacation – this is not real life yet.  But we have had real life issues – medical needs, police confrontations, language shortfalls, and we are doing just fine.  Now if I could just figure out what day garbage is picked up!  Every night I take it out and every morning I bring it back in.  Maybe Monday…..

Christmas Eve


Fireworks in the street










Posada coming down our street singing carols



Swanson Traditional Breakfast

Playing board games - I won Upwards but lost Chicken Foot!

Playing board games – I won Upwards but lost Chicken Foot!









Time at Manos de Amor – this was a pleasant surprise.  We knew most of the children had left for the holidays but they came back for Christmas day to open gifts and we were happy to be invited.




















Visiting friends and eating tostados in San Vicente