Just before Christmas many years ago I had crossed by canoe from Peru into Brazil along little rivers to the north of Puerto Maldonado and had got to Abuna, a pueblo on the Rio Madeira.
On the riverfront there were half a dozen enormous river turtles lying on their backs, their feet flapping helplessly, their mouths gasping slowly. They had been caught and thrown there by locals and would remain alive for days more, waiting to become Christmas dinner.
In the middle of the hot grassy plaza a rail was stuck vertically into the ground to which a man, dirty but friendly, was shackled. He was a murderer, I was told. Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer blared out in Portugese on the town public radio.
I had left Cusco by truck to Maldonado via Quincemil. In those days Cusco was so quiet that you could park your horse on the grass around Huanchaq railway station which today has traffic lights, high-rise hotels and shopping malls around it.
What remains of those days are the fiestas and saints’-day processions and one of the most powerful is the Santurantikuy, the great Christmas Eve fair. Santurantikuy, ‘Buy yourself a Saint’, packs the great Plaza de Armas with hundreds upon hundreds of stalls selling everything.
We go every year and pretty sharp in the morning because by the afternoon it is usually raining and by the evening it’s wall-to-wall packed, a major party. The earliest bird of all is Jose Ignacio Lambarri-Orihuela, the hacendado and antiquary.
“I’m there every year sharp at nine. You often get families from the campo bringing in old carved stones and ceramics. Lovely stuff. But by 10 they’re gone.”
Now you know why.
The stalls sell decorations like colonial-style wooden and pewter candlesticks, and candles, some of them really super, with ornate designs in thick wax and masses of colour and light. Some are of genuine beeswax and I have to be forcibly restrained from buying them all.
They will also, of course, sell you made-in-Thailand Christmas tree lights as well. But the overall impression from the Santurantikuy is of local stuff. The toys include big wooden lorries made here, accurately reflecting the dilapidated, tough, overloaded sierra trucks that grind forever along the cliff-hanging Andean roads.
Last year, a sign of the times, one of the stalls selling fake dollar and soles notes had added Euros. You buy a packet of this laser-printed currency ready to put on the altar of your favourite saint to remind him or her that you need some of the real stuff. This has to be blessed by the priest, along with toy apartments, houses, trucks and, these days, narco-style 4×4 jeeps.
There are all kinds of miniature pots and pans, kitchen stoves, plates and cups, and then earthenware animals of all domestic kinds, often selling for 10 or 20 centimos. These are to populate your Natividad, your crèche which with candles and incense will be the centerpiece of the family Christmas.
There are different kinds of musical instrument, of course, from guitars and mandolin-charrangos to all the pan pipes and flutes that many kids in the countryside know how to play. Last year I was sorely tempted by a locally-made fiddle, and by a saxophone made from the plastic piping you buy at the ironmonger’s. I saw an Andean harp, with its thick wooden sound-box, but the owner was playing it, not selling it. The Andean harp makes a pleasant, full-blooded sound, with the peculiarity that it doesn’t have semi-tone strings.
This is the place to buy Baby Jesus dolls. Also, plaster saints, quite elaborately figged out in their Christmas best.
Many Cuzco families have had their Baby Jesus and saints for generations. Next morning, on Christmas Day, women of all sorts and conditions take their Baby Jesus, new or old, along to church to have them blessed.
Here in Urubamba on Christmas Day at the church of Nuestro Señor de Torreychayoc the morning mass features a sell-out crowd led by the women and children and their hundreds of Baby Jesuses blessed in Quechua by the priest.
As the mass drones to an end, on come the dancers. It’s like a thunder-bolt, a shock of lighning within the church. Three or four elaborately-dressed masked groups backed by powerful drums and flutes advance and retreat, never turning their backs on the altar and its new-born Christ.
The dancers and musicians will go off to jolly lunches of maize beer and a parillada and they make even me feel that I’ve done something to earn my turkey and Christmas pudding.