According to tradition, the Christmas tree must be decorated on December 8th. In most homes in Argentina, as well as in the rest of the world, we place a northern-looking pine tree along with a setting composed of the star of Bethlehem, a manger and various ornaments: stockings, reindeers and other snowy scenery paraphernalia. Truth is that on December 24th there isn‘t a hint of snow falling on this side of the world, especially since the thermometer reads 35 degrees or over.
If this was an isolated contradiction that applied only to decorations or to ‘Papá Noel‘s –that‘s how we call Santa Claus- stifling suit that some uncles wear to deliver presents, then it would be acceptable. However, it‘s not the case. Christmas in Argentina presents one of the most illogical wine and food events in the local calendar, owing either to the legacy of our immigrant culture or to Hollywood cultural penetration.
During the long hours before the celebration, we prepare high calorie meals –usually baking them for a considerable amount of time, as we will later mention- and we dress for the occasion, Christmas‘ Eve‘s dinner. As if this weren‘t enough, we organize multitudinous gatherings where we invite distant relatives even though the summer‘s start cannot even be eased with air conditioners. Nevertheless, Christmas is a special time for us because the spirit of togetherness and fine dining goes well with the argentine idiosyncrasy. If, by any chance, one has to spend this holiday on this side of the world, it‘s best to be prepared to know what to expect from a memorable Christmas night. Let‘s see.
Our local cultural tradition has suffered little variations with time. Very little, actually. This is mainly due to the fact that Christmas Eve is the perfect occasion for grandmothers to show off their exceptional cooking skills. That is why, honoring the classic Doña Petrona recipe book –the Argentine kitchen guardian and cook who shaped many generations – we divide the menu in three steps: appetizers, starters and main dishes.
After quarreling and debating, each family is in charge of preparing from one to three meals. Who makes the best stuffed rolled beef (matambre)? Who makes the best tuna stuffed eggs as starter? The same goes for main dishes, where vitel tonné rules the podium of ever-present dishes, alongside the classic pionono. What happens if two relatives prepare the same dish after being unable to negotiate? Who will be in charge of the baked turkey, bittersweet poked shoulder (containing plums and pineapples), warm chicken matambre wrapped in bacon, or of the grilled suckling pig?
Even though it might be puzzling for foreigners, it is worth mentioning that these are all winter dishes. They are served because it is a celebratory night and meals have to be extraordinary. That is why pork stands out while beef –eaten daily in Argentina- is not found amongst the feast.
In Argentina, as well as in other countries that follow the Latin tradition, we exchange gifts at midnight, after toasting and right before fireworks begin. There are many alternatives to this ceremony: if there are kids around, it is common for an adult to dress up as Santa Claus and to appear with bells ringing to hand in presents. This task is rewarding but hard: wearing the Santa suit with warm temperature can be an exhausting experience.
There is a curiosity regarding gifts that is exclusively feminine. Under the tree, along with toys for children and presents for adults, you can also find pink underwear for single women. The golden rule is that is has to be given by another woman. The origin of this tradition is uncertain: some say it is meant to attract a suitor and others say it is to get rid of bad luck, or both.
The local Christmas spirit is undoubtedly festive. During long conversations, jokes regarding the past year, outfits, football teams, and weight put during the past year –and maybe during Christmas dinner- are usually told to relatives. That is another Argentine trait that characterizes our Christmas tables: whenever we eat, we talk about food. Naturally, our grandmother‘s incomparable bondiola is applauded and the fact that vitel tonné is made by the same hands every single year is applauded. In addition, we anticipate the desserts that will shortly come.
Finally, the last contradictory detail arrives to the Christmas table: along with toasts and desserts, we can find peanut brittles, caramel-coated almonds, dried and candied fruits and sweet bread, a type of flavored panettone with orange flower water and crystallized fruit that cannot be missing on the Christmas table. It is a typical dessert from Spain and Italy high in calories.
At the Christmas table, as well as on every Argentine table, red wine is always present. Malbec is the preferred varietal. In order to keep its right temperature, it is either put into ice buckets, which can be affect their labels but never their flavor, or in the refrigerator. Others prefer to cool their wine glass with ice cubes.
There is also room for white wines. They could be the ideal pairing for certain dishes but we tend to drink less of them on this occasion. Sparkling wine, however, plays a main role whether as appetizer or to toast at 12 o‘clock. Depending on ones preference, we usually choose between Extra Brut, Demi Sec y Brut Nature. While corks and rockets are flying up the air, the toast lightens up the celebration. In some cases, this will develop into a dancing session until dawn. In other cases, endless conversations will take place amidst candlelight, brittle and caramel-coated almonds, while heat gives in to the freshness of bubbles.