I was raised Catholic, which often comes up in conversation when I’m drunk. Apart from that, Papism features in my life as the one thing that both my parents have always held in common, despite their extraction from what may as well have been two entirely separate planets. But, while both sides of my family have always been technically affiliated with the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, there are some cultural differences in how that membership gets expressed. Christmas is a great time to highlight those points of distinction, giving the bi-cultural child a prime opportunity to choose sides.

There are, as my mother would say, “Gringo things” and, conversely, there are non-Gringo things. Growing up, this dichotomy served the useful purpose of flagging certain Euro-American idiosyncrasies to scare us kids into retaining our (half-) Latin culture. It was with this implicit taxonomy in mind that I determined, fairly early in my childhood, that Christmas Eve midnight Mass was among the former, and that it was no good.

For a few years of my childhood, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was the horrible cap to hours of exhilaration and excess. Because I grew up within one mile of both sets of grandparents, and because said grandparents had all bred prolifically during their birth-control-free years of fertility, I could always count on Christmas Eve to be one giant, wonderful, people-filled gong show. Every year we’d start out at my dad’s parents’ house with a couple dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins in the late-afternoon and would proceed to gorge ourselves, run around, fight, cry, injure ourselves, open presents, and eat some more until around 9pm. From there we’d make the five-minute drive to my maternal grandparents’ house where another dozen or so relatives insisted we eat yet again, open more presents, and watch Spanish-language Christmas specials that inevitably featured some combination of music and buxom dancers dressed as either sexy Santas or naughty elves. A couple of hours later, my brothers and I would be ripped away from Telemundo‘s hypnotic gyrations and herded into my parents’ minivan—overtired and sugar crashed—to get to the church in time for midnight Mass. My aunts, uncles and grandparents stayed behind.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing a Catholic Mass, the whole thing might have been designed explicitly for the torture of children: an hour of staid hymns, recitation, sit-standing repeatedly from a hard-ass wooden bench, and “SHH! NO TALKING!” hissed sharply into tender little ear canals. This was all difficult enough on a normal Sunday morning, but at the midnight hour of an exhausting day it was the seventh circle of hell. In between our tears of protest, my parents liked to remind us that this was a family tradition that my father and his six siblings had endured every single year of their childhoods without complaint. My grandparents still went—and they were old! Surely we spry, energetic youngsters could suck it up. It was that or a time-out.

While I’m sure midnight Mass existed in the nearby Spanish churches, my Salvadoran relatives never went. I suspect they figured, having lived through civil war and all, they were entitled a pass on avoidable unpleasantness. Or, maybe, it wasn’t part of their cultural repertoire. Either way, I was grateful when my parents finally decided, after those few years of midnight experimentation, to let the infinity-symbol-hips of naughty elves and sexy Santas lull us to sleep on our grandparents’ couch instead of putting us through a song and dance of late-night piety—a holiday tradition that continues today.

This post is a part of EthnicAisle, a blog about race, culture, and ethnicity. Read it or else.

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