The Songs of the Child - Los Cantos del Niño
The air smells like oranges, mandarins, mangos, like Christmas. The air smell like my grandmother, Mamita Rosa.
In Dicember, when it’s so hot that if were just a little bit hotter the dry corn would pop in their kernels all by itself, filling the air with tiny white blossoms, my grandmother leaves her farm up from the green mountain where the huge trees are filled with leaves. According to here, it’s so that the heat and the mosquitos wouldn’t eat her alive. But I know it’s not just for the heat, it’s because she wants to spend the Christmas with us and sing chigualos to the Christmas Child. (Chigualos are Christmas Carols sung in the province of Manabí in Ecuador.)
Besides, Holidays without her wouldn’t be real Holidays because nobody knows how to make the aguado, or tamales or the little Christmas cakes like her. And nobody here sings to the Child like she does.
The Christmas and my grandmother are one and the same, there isn’t one without the other. When La Candelaria comes in February 2nd and the Christmas Child is stored away for the next Christmas and the Holidays end, she returns to her little farm and doesn’t come back before the next December.
Mamita Rosa, sitting on the floor, makes wind with her colored fan, weaved from toaquilla straw. She is always clad in white, magical white that never gets dirty even when the stove is filled with ashes. My grandmother beats the milk with one hand and with the other moves slowly the wooden tray until the milk isn’t liquid anymore but has gotten compact and smooth, ready to eat with grilled ripe plantain bananas.
- You need to be strong to make butter – she laughs and two dimples form in her cheeks -, if you stop beating for a moment you’ll get short milk o get watery. You need to learn well to be able to continue the tradition. I was taught by my mother, and she was taught by my grandmother. This butter isn’t the same as the ones sold in the store. Do you see? This is white and that is our secret. Besides this butter tastes better.
- Are we going to make salprieta tomorrow, Mamita Rosa – I ask – Do you remember that you promised to teach me how during these Holidays? (Salprieta is peanut paste made with maize that is traditionally prepared in the province of Manabí.)
- Today the butter and tomorrow salprieta, everything on its own time, my girl. With the food you cannot do two things at the time. There is a time for everything, that is how the things are done better, there is no reason to live in a hurry.
- Is it true that this a really old food? – I ask, because since she was a teacher, she knows a lot of things.
- Yes, my girl, this food was done here before the Spaniards came. Don’t you see how all the ingredients are our own? The maize, the peanut, the achiote. This is why we cannot let them disappear. Can you imagine what our deceased would think if we would stop doing it? They would say we are forgetting, that would make them sad and they would come to visit us to complain.
- It is not good thing to get a visit from the late ones, especially if they are angry.
In the corridor, that has bamboo cane walls, there is a little bit of fresh breeze from the distant sea. My mom arrives with a basket full of oranges and mandarins and she sits down with us. Mamita Rosa is an expert orange peeler; with a small and sharp knife she quickly peels the whole skin without breaking it. Afterwards, wearing the fragrant crowns, we play to be queens. The cooling air smells like oranges and mandarins.
- Mamita, don’t forget that we need to start practicing chigualos – my mother says -. This year Flor del Alba will sing the welcoming and you need to help her. – She looks me with love in her eyes and arranges the orange crown in my head.
- Don’t you worry, mija, we’re going to start right now. We were just having a break. Let me get my strength back with these oranges and then we’ll start. Besides we need to assemble the manger, or where are we going to sing?
I’m a bit nervous. The last Christmas, Mamita Rosa asked for me to be the one who sings the welcome in the Rise of the Christmas Child, and although I sing well, just like my grandmother and my mother, I’m afraid that I’ll get something wrong. I have been practicing the whole year but if I get nervous I could forget everything. And the Child will get offended if you sing him wrong.
With pieces of bamboo cane, palm tree and cade leaves we build the manger. One by one, we take out the figurines that are kept, well wrapped in a paper, in a box throughout the rest of the year, so they won’t get damaged. The first to come out are always the Virgin and St. Joseph, because they are the Child’s parents. Then we take out the pastors, the cows, the donkeys, the sheep and the goats. We make the road through which the visitors come from river stones and sand. And to the sky, over the manger, where they should be, we hang the angels, that my uncle Francisco sent us from Spain, with cord and few sticks. At the end we take out the Magi, because they came last to visit the Child. The Child stays alone in the box because he’s still a sleep.
Mamita Rosa takes a wooden wagon with two horses from her purse.
- This is so that the Child doesn’t get tired even when he has to come walking. You know that he needs to come from so far? – she says – This way we’ll help him a little.
She always brings something new for the manger because she thinks that it’ll give good luck for the coming year.
I decorate everything with pieces of colored paper so that the manger doesn’t look so sad. Especially now that the lights are burned out and the new ones that my dad promised to buy from the town hasn’t arrived yet. I hope he’ll bring the ones that go on and off on their own because it’ll make the manger look alive to everyone. Manuelito, that is how my grandmother calls the Child God, we put in the manger after the mass on 24th, because that is the day when he is born.
From the living room windows we watch people passing by on their way to their homes for the evening meal. And afterwards we go for a walk in the park. Mamita Rosa gives me maracas and she brings a guasá. (Guasá is an instrument that is used in marimba bands and sacred ceremonies.)
Her hands are dark and full like the hands of a small child, they move around and her whole body follows like she would like to dance.
- First you sing alone, because I want to hear you, afterwards I’ll accompany you – she says to me while she hums the tone.
I feel nervous but she smiles at me and I feel better.
Ya llegó el niñito
Ya está en el pesebre,
Por eso cantamos
Carita de santo
Alegre le canto.
Qué viva la noche
Abra su botón
Saquemos al niño
A la procesión
I sing all the chigualos that I can remember and it seems that I’m in tune because she listens to me seriously. Then she sings with me and her voice, that is stronger and more beautiful than mine, sounds throughout the house.
- Now, let’s sing the counterpoints - Mamita Rosa says – I sing and you answer me. You need to learn that because they’ll always be someone who wants to surprise you and you need to know what to say:
Con toda la boca
Pa ver si nos dan
Un café con rosca.
And I answer her:
No hay café tostao,
No alcanza comida
Pa los invitaos.
Vestido de blanco
A esa que no canta
Bótela del banco.
And we both laugh out loud.
That night, sitting in the hammock, after we have pealed the toasted peanuts for the salprieta, and while we are sucking at the mangos, she tells me stories of the animals from the mountains and the forests. Like how the uncle rabbit outwitted the uncle fox or the uncle tiger. Or stories of the spirits that roam the mountains looking for the imprudent people who go out during the night to take them to the other world. She sees that I’m afraid and lights a stick of rosewood. Its fragrance mixes with the mango and everything smells sweet. Before we go to bed, she tells me something that makes me laugh so I won’t go to sleep scared and have nightmares.
The next morning she wakes me up early. The whole house smells like just roasted coffee beans that I can drink only because she is visiting. From among the ashes of the kitchen firewood she takes out the ripe plantain bananas and we eat them with the fresh butter and salprieta that we still have and cracklings.
The time flies by when she is around because she teaches me to do so many things and she always has a new story to tell me. Some of them are true and have happened to someone, others are fairytales and others are just invented.
On 23rd we start with the chigualos so that the Child will wake up and come soon:
Viene, viene ya
Viene, viene ya
El juego del niño,
De la Navidad.
Nacen los pastores,
El niño Manuelito,
De la Navidad.
On 24th we all go to the procession in the church so that the Child can be blessed and given to its new godparents. When we return to home, my mother with don Rámon and his wife, who are the godparents, offer mistelas, eggnogs and church wine. (Mistelas are a traditional sweet for the Christmas time in the province of Manabí.)
The Child is in the manger in the living room that is filled with people. The living room and the manger are decorated with wreaths and garlands of colors and little lights that turn on and off. I stand next to the manger with my dad, who plays the guitar, and my Mamita Rosa, who plays the guasá. I sing alone the first chigualos and even the Child God smiles at me. Then my grandmother sings and everyone else joins in.
Ya llegó el niñito
Ya está en el pesebre,
Por eso cantamos
Tráiganle un gorrito
Que se bautizó.
Vivan los padrinos,
Viva el Niño Dios.
After the food, aguados, little cakes and tamales, when the midnight comes, the godfather, don Ramón, covers the Child with a white handkerchief and asks for permission from him to start the dance. The first to dance are my parents who are the owners of the house and godparents to the Child God.
We, the children, go out to play traditional games like Pájara Pinta, Viudita del Conde Laurel, Carbonerita, Mantantirum tirulán. Mamita Rosa offers us traditional sweet Christmas treats like alfajores, huevos mollos, suspiros and dulce de leche.
How good it is that while the adults dance and continue with the chigualos, the Child does not wake up! This is Christmas at our house. This is how it goes until the February when the Child goes away to return in the next December, just like my Mamita Rosa.
Es 2 de febrero
Son las candelarias
Yo le canto al Niño
Antes que se vaya.
¡Ay!, que pena tengo
Qué aflicción me da
Al ver que el Niñito
Pronto se nos va.
Las velas de esperma
Se van derritiendo
Y el niñito Dios
Se va despidiendo.
No lloren pastoras
Que el niño se siento
Hasta este otro año
No estará presente.