One thing about studying abroad in the fall is that it coincides perfectly with some of the biggest holidays celebrated by people in the US. Among these are Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the various wintertime celebrations (for my family, it’s Christmas). As we’ve discussed at length in my Ecuadorean Culture class, holidays are an important part of national identity wherein shared traditions create a sense of belonging; understandably, being away for the festivities is a bit jarring. That’s not to say that these days are ignored here – my university had a Lord of the Rings-themed costume day, the Oregon group had Thanksgiving dinner together, and the 85% Catholicism here ensures that Christmas starts to creep in around September – but with my personal family traditions unobserved, each experience is undeniably different.
What you gain in this situation is the opportunity to observe another set of holidays. When a friend and I went to Cuenca, a city of 300,000 in the south of Ecuador, we had the pleasure of witnessing Día de los Difuntos, or Day of the Dead. It’s a bit different than the well-known Mexican Día de los Muertos; it’s more laid-back and sugar skulls aren’t traditional. We visited the Cementerio Patrimonial de Cuenca, where the surrounding road had been shut down for cars and turned into a pedestrian area where vendors crowded, selling flowers, food, and even toys. The traditional foods of Día de los Difuntos are colada morada (a hot fruit drink) and guaguas de pan (bread in the shape of babies). We bought these foods and wandered through the huge cemetery, where throngs of people came to clean the graves of loved ones and leave flowers.
For the Ecuadoreans, Christmas is the biggest holiday of all. I’m not kidding when I say that there have been signs of the day since September, when I saw decorations in Megamaxi while grocery shopping with my host family. My host mom told me that she normally sets up the tree in October, but she waited until after Thanksgiving so I wouldn’t feel strange. I think feeling strange is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.