A Different Kind of Christmas

Cuernavaca, Mexico
December 2007 

Growing up, I had always celebrated Christmas at home with my family in my native city of Philadelphia. Christmas Eve at my house usually included a dinner of steaks and baked potatoes, followed by  church services, before returning home to catch the last half  of  It’s a Wonderful Life. Christmas day was spent opening gifts in the morning with my parents and brother, then my mom and I spending the rest of the day making recipes from my Williamsburg Colonial Taverns Cookbook for our big Christmas dinner. However, Christmas this year was going to be different. This year I would be celebrating the holiday in Cuernavaca, a city in central Mexico located about 70 miles south of the capital, along with my parents, my brother, his girlfriend, and my boyfriend. 

I had spent the last four months working as a volunteer at a home for orphaned and abandoned children in Mexico. My parents had thought it would be a neat idea if they, along with my brother and his girlfriend, came down to Mexico to celebrate the holidays with me (at the time I was supposed to be volunteering in Mexico for eight more months). Add to the mix an unexpected “acquiring” of a boyfriend the previous fall to the mix and you had a big family get together, way south of the border.

All fall I had been scouting out potential places for my family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners. Being the onsite “local” I was naturally assigned the task. I had heard about Las Manañitas (little mornings) before I had even left for Mexico. It was billed as one of the top places to stay  in Cuernavaca. It was even mentioned in a cherished book of mine, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. The author wrote that if you didn’t have the opportunity to stay there (or if there were no rooms available), you should at least dine there because it is a beyond memorable experience. Perfect. Although it’s known as being an incredibly expensive and fancy restaurant, you wouldn’t know it from the outside. On my first day in Cuernavaca, one of the volunteers took me on a public bus tour, pointing out various sights and landmarks along the way. When he pointed out the window and said that’s Las Manañitas, I thought he must be joking. The restaurant is located on a nondescript street and shows nothing to make someone who is passing by think that this building is anything special. But oh, it is. 

I selected our Christmas dinner site after dining there one random Friday night with Emily, my roommate and another volunteer. Although many people bestow accolades upon Cuernavaca as being this beautiful and charming colonial city, during my four months there, I never found it to be so. I thought it grimy, with hardly any colonial style buildings.  But contrary to what I thought of Cuernavaca as a whole, I still couldn’t dispute the charming nature of its main plaza, and the plaza was where the restaurant Casa Hidalgo was located. Although I have long since forgotten what I had to eat that night I dined there with Emily, I do remember three things. One, they made awesomely strong mojitos (my preferred drink of choice). Two, the mango flavored spread that came with the bread was one of the most delicious things I have eaten. And three, I accidentally consumed something that made my mouth feel as if it were on fire. So between those three things and the sight of the floodlights shining on the beautiful Palacio Cortes (a palace built by the famous Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes in the 16th century), it made for quite a memorable night and I knew it would be a place my family would enjoy.

Before long, poinsettias in vibrant colors of red and pink were being sold along side the road (at a fraction of what you pay for them in the United States) and the Christmas season was in the air. Granted it was a warm kind of air as daily temperature highs in Cuernavaca, a city with a temperate climate year-round, were usually in the high 60s (quite different from those Northeast Christmas winters I was accustomed to). And then my family arrived in Mexico, allowing me to see the city where I had been living for the past four months in a completely different light.

My family and I stayed at the Holiday Inn which was located in a lovely, upscale section of the city. Having spent the past four months living in a slightly downtrodden and constantly “busy” neighborhood (read, usually middle-age men hanging around whispering inappropriate comments to me), the Holiday Inn provided the perfect retreat. Although it had the Holiday Inn American brand name, it was entirely Mexican; the outdoor pool was surrounded by tall palm trees and one of its restaurants was nestled within the confines of its expansive garden that featured a variety of exotic flowers. 

When staying in a more secluded area, a cab is usually necessary to get anywhere and thanks to my almost fluent Spanish language skills, I was assigned the job of not only hailing one but also negotiating with the driver on a decent fare. I felt somewhat bad when I sent one cab driver packing due to the exorbitant price he quoted me, but I was not about to be ripped off by some cabbie just because I obviously looked like a gringa. (I should mention that in Mexico, there are no meters in cabs. Instead you settle on a price prior to getting in. It can make for some pretty annoying experiences). But soon enough another cab came along and off we went for our Christmas Eve feast. 

The inside of Las Manañitas shocked everyone, including me. Designed in typical Spanish-style architecture, what appears nondescript and plain on the outside features awe inspiring scenery on the inside. The restaurant was located in the hotel’s courtyard area complete with strolling peacocks. Everyone shared a hearty laugh when during dinner, my mother was the only one who could not see the very visible peacock that was only a couple of feet from our table, perched high atop a ledge. Las Manañitas is home to (and known for) its family of peacocks that never fail to entertain its guests with both their antics as well as their extremely loud “talking.”

Our meal was lovely and the experience was an extreme pleasure, for where else but in temperate Mexico can you enjoy a Christmas Eve dinner while dining alfresco alongside a family of peacocks?

For the first time in almost a decade I hadn’t watched It’s a Wonderful Life on TV or sung Hark the Herald Angels Sing and other carols at Christmas Eve services. Christmas morning was even stranger. Instead of the traditional breakfast frittata I always made for my parents and brother, I was feasting on huevos rancheros and a bounteous array of tropical fruits. Presents were opened in my parents’ suite with only an artificial green plant serving as the closest resemblance to a Christmas tree. But it was a fun break from the yearly “same old same old.”

Although Las Manañitas has an incredibly secluded and exotic air to it, Casa Hidalgo was decidedly more Mexican both in its ambience as well as the types of dishes found on the menu. Just as I knew they would, my family all loved their meals at Casa Hidalgo.

Instead of turkey and sweet potato casserole that year, we had exotic dishes which featured a Mexican flare. Instead of sitting indoors sipping on hot cocoa while an American football game played on TV in the background, we sipped tropical drinks and swam outside. Instead of my mom and me doing the cooking ourselves, we were waited on and had no clean-up to deal with either. Instead of everyone receiving a mogotón (ton) of gifts that year, the biggest gift we all received was having the opportunity to spend Christmas together in a setting like no other. It was a Christmas I’ll always remember and never forget. Although every Christmas is unique in its own way, for a family of gringos spending Christmas in Cuernavaca, Mexico will always be the most unique of all.

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