When I relocated from Mountain View to Buenos Aires in July, I knew I’d be stepping into winter. I packed my rain boots and heavy coat, and I set aside my longing for a poolside gin and tonic.
But summer in December? I’m still not prepared - and I’m not alone.
"It’s a bizarre phenomenon," said former Bay Area resident Megan Landes, who moved to Buenos Aires in 2015.
Last year, she said, Christmas Day reached 82 degrees, and people walked the city streets in shorts and T-shirts. The only thing close to a typical white Christmas involved sand at the beach.
I was curious how the warm weather impacted my favorite parts of the holiday season: the food, the candlelit church service and the general mirthfulness bursting from every snowflake-laden home in the mountains. I was also curious about Argentines’ perceptions of our celebrations.
"I always felt American Christmas really affected people’s mood," said Thomas Samuel, an Argentine who has celebrated Christmas a handful of times in the United States. "Everyone seemed happier and more open. The Christmas spirit is more tangible."
Getting into the Christmas spirit
In Buenos Aires, Samuel said holiday decorations are typically limited to the interior of homes, particularly in the city center, where most people live in apartment buildings. Families may set out a nativity scene or put up a tree, but decor is generally minimal, according to Samuel.
"There is no real space for flaunting the Christmas spirit," he said.
Landes noticed holiday decorations like poinsettias and garlands primarily inside big-box grocery stores.
"It’s summer - and you’re looking at winter evergreens," she said. "It felt a lot like Christmas in July."
The holiday season is also a lot shorter, Samuel added. Whereas the U.S. season spans from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, the Argentine festivities typically run from Christmas Eve through Epiphany on Jan. 6.
Samuel believes that winter-weather decorations, songs and folklore - which don’t quite resonate in the Southern Hemisphere - may hinder the Christmas spirit in Argentina.
"It’s kind of hard to understand as a kid why all holiday stories happen in snowy settings when you don’t even know what snow is," he said. "How does the Rudolph story hit you when you don’t even understand the importance of the bright nose? Or what about Frosty the Snowman? How do you even make one of those in 100-degree weather?"
Food and fiestas
In Argentina, Christmas celebrations occur on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. Families gather for dinner, gifts and occasionally Mass. According to the CIA World Factbook, 92 percent of Argentines are nominally Roman Catholic, but fewer than 20 percent attend Mass regularly. Church bells ring at midnight, and many Mass-goers attend Catedral Metropolitana, where Argentine-born Pope Francis led Mass for many years until being chosen as pontiff.
Noche Buena also features gifts from Papa Noel, who arrives at midnight for children awaiting their presents. When festivities wind down around 2 a.m. - yes, in the morning - young adults head to parties or dance clubs.
Samuel remembers gathering with friends as a young teen to watch or throw fireworks. By age 16, he began attending parties that started well after midnight.
"These parties would typically be themed and include some type of water activity, like a pool party," he said. "The Buenos Aires nightlife allowed for this to happen, while U.S. nightlife - not so much."
Buenos Aires-born Gabi Balan owns Camping, a terrace restaurant that serves food, beer and wine in an outdoor setting reminiscent of its namesake. During the holiday season, his eatery offers a fresh menu including iced drinks and salads. Balan said the Christmas table features potato salads, cold pork and vitel tone (veal in cream sauce).
Balan said the warm weather makes for a season of easygoing relaxation. The holiday greeting sums it up well: Felices Fiestas - "Happy Parties."
"It’s time for a lot less work and a lot more sitting by the pool," Balan said.
During the holidays, porteños (those who live in port cities) flock to the nearby beaches along the Argentine coastline or across the border to Uruguay.
As for me, I’ll be in Buenos Aires, toasting the holidays with my poolside gin and tonic.