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How My Parents Made Christmas Special Even Though We’re Atheists

I don’t remember when I first learned about the connection between Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ but I would guess that I was much older than most kids. Growing up, my family celebrated Christmas just like almost everyone else we knew with one big difference: We were atheists, so there was no mention of “our Lord Jesus Christ,” his birth, the nativity scene or the Three Wise Men. In fact, everything I know that is associated with Christmas in my family has nothing to do with the “Christ” in Christmas.

For as long as I can remember my family has happily celebrated Christmas despite being atheists and growing up in an atheist state.

My father comes from Cuba and my mother is from Russia. I spent most of my childhood living in one country or the other, both of which were officially communist in the 80s and therefore had no recognized religion. In fact, unlike in the United States of America where religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, Cuba upheld state atheism until 1992. This means that the “socialist state… bases its activity on, and educates the people in, the scientific materialist concept of the universe.” There was no religion and religion wasn’t recognized. In fact, in the 1960s, shortly after Fidel Castro took power, the Cuban government imprisoned countless Catholic clergy and confiscated Catholic schools.

That’s the environment that my papi grew up in, so his family was atheist just like the rest of the Cuban people had to be. Both my abuelo and abuela were also scientifically-minded people. They had PhDs in mathematics and they encouraged similar pursuits in their children: My dad became an engineer, my uncle a doctor and my aunt a biochemist.

There are a lot of Cubans who hid their religion from the government, but that was never my family. We were always atheist.

So when my parents met, nothing much changed. My mom was agnostic (having also grown up in state atheism) and rarely set foot in a church, though she did have me baptized when I was born. Still, Christmas celebrations in our house were primarily secular.

Before we moved to the United States of America when I was eight years old, we celebrated Noche Buena and New Year’s Eve with all of the same Christmas traditions that most people know: An evergreen fir tree decorated with twinkly lights, lots of sparkly balls and a star on top. We exchanged presents (that came from a version of Santa Claus) and had the entire over for a big dinner. What we didn’t do is say grace, mention Jesus or go to church.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what else I missed out on because my family doesn’t believe in Jesus — and that’s because my Christmases were always filled with such joy and wonder that I never felt like I was missing out on anything at all.

I have a million tiny memories of the special Christmases my parents gave to me and my younger brother, and one particularly tough Christmas that turned out to be pretty great, too. There are countless memories I have of helping my mami in the kitchen, either preparingmoros y cristianos arroz, flan and platanitos maduros fritos. Those memories are always accompanied by the warm memories of my family gathered around a Christmas table, feasting and happily arguing about whatever it was that we were arguing about that year.

These Christmas memories have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with family.

Now that I am an adult, not much has changed. My family, despite having escaped the communist regime of Cuba and now happily living in the United States which was built on the idea of “religious freedom” are still mostly atheist or agnostic. We’re not the only ones, either.

Although I’ve only met two kinds of Cubans for my entire life, those who are atheist like my family or those who are heavily Catholic (and had to hide it during Castro’s regime), Latinxs, in general, are embracing atheism and non-religion in growing numbers. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of U.S. Latinos identify as Christian. However, young Latinos are leaving Catholicism (which accounts for 48% of Christian Latinos), according to NBC News. The latest Pew Poll found that Latinx millennials ages 18-29 who are unaffiliated with a religion are growing in numbers, said Jessica Martinez who authored a Pew study on the topic in 2014.

Although my family was never religious, I can relate to those who are leaving the church today. When my now-atheist husband, who grew up Catholic, tells me childhood stories of going to church on Christmas eve, saying grace and taking communion, I just can’t relate. But I can relate to the overall feeling of Christmas and the holidays: The joy of smelling mom’s first batch of baked goods this season. The fun of playing “Home Alone” in the background as the family gathers around to trim the tree. Secretly shaking presents under the tree to see if we could figure out what they were before we were allowed to open them at midnight on Noche Buena.

And that’s what I hope to teach my kids someday about Christmas, in a secular way: That we can spend enjoying the holidays and time with family above all.

After all, every family has their own Christmas traditions. My family traditions were just a bit more unusual than those of others, with less Jesus and more cookies. But my parents still communicated the spirit of the holidays to me growing up, despite being atheists themselves. It was all about the beauty and wonder of this season, about caring for our fellow human beings by taking part in charitable acts and lots of time spent with the ones I loved.


Read: My Son Never Met My Abuela, But This Recipe Keeps Her Memory Alive

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Día De Los Reyes Was The First Time I Allowed My S.O. To Experience My Culture

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Día De Los Reyes Was The First Time I Allowed My S.O. To Experience My Culture

For many who regularly take part in the holiday season, Christmas traditions are strongly tied to religious beliefs and practices. The ways in which the customs around the holiday season are carried out often deeply rooted in cultural rituals and they often vary from family to family. For my Puerto Rican family, the holiday season is drawn out well past the first of January when radio stations reel back on the jingles and Mariah Carey classics. For us, the Twelve Days Of Christmas sales or songs we know of don’t relate to the days leading up to December 25, but rather the twelve days in between Christmas Day and January 6 The Epiphany, a biblical day that marks the final leg of the  Three Wise Men’s journey to deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus Christ.

Día De Los Reyes has always been an especially important day for my family. The fact that “reyes” is my mother’s maiden name has only made the day a little sweeter.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

A more popular holiday back on the island, my abuela and abuelo Reyes brought their traditions to the mainland with them in the 1950s.

On the evening of January 5, each member of my family from grandfather to my youngest sobrino pull out cardboard shoe and clothing boxes (all marked with our names, drawn on and decorated over the years with crayons, markers, and glitter pens) to take part in a tradition that we hold dear in our hearts. After we’ve filled the boxes with snacks like carrots, lettuce, and sometimes grass for the Three Kings’ camels to munch on as they pass through our town we stick the boxes under our beds. Finally, just as we would with Santa Claus, we write the Three Kings–Los Reyes–a handwritten note wishing them safe travels as the journey to see the baby Jesus hoping that as they did with him on that first Epiphany, they’ll leave a small gift or token of some sort under our boxes.

Dia De Los Reyes functions similarly to Christmas Eve in my family. We all wake up and check under our boxes to see if we were good enough this year to receive any gifts. We’d go to mass together, where as kids we’d hope that maybe Los Reyes stayed in town with their camels long enough that day to be at the church community center to pose for photos. We would visit family and eat pernil and arroz con gandules, dishes reserved for celebrations and holidays.

As I got older I went to mass only sometimes and stopped looking to get my photos with Los Reyes.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

I never stopped checking my box for gifts though, or remembering each rey by the names older relatives taught me to write in my letters: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. As an adult I focused on new ways to celebrate “being a king,” as my family would say, and took on the role of expert coquito maker.

When I started dating and began wanting to bring boyfriends home for the holidays, part of my new role during the holiday season also unintentionally became one of both gatekeeper and teacher of my Puerto Rican culture. As a sophomore in college, I brought my then boyfriend home for December for the first time. In my household, Noche Buena, Christmas Day, New Years Day, New Year’s Eve, and Dia De Los Reyes were all days set aside for family, exclusively. I knew not to ask for exceptions, and in the past had willfully or grudgingly passed up holiday and New Years parties to honor the expectation of being en familia.

But in my twenties I badly started to yearn for my first New Years kiss and wanted, even more, to share part of my twelve days of Christmas with somebody who mattered to me.

My parents, on the other hand, were hesitant. Dia De Los Reyes was about Los Reyes, as in my family.

My boyfriend was someone they saw a few times a year and knew of only from phone calls, letters, texts, and video chats. Someone so unfamiliar certainly wasn’t considered family, and moreover someone who wasn’t Latino couldn’t possibly understand the sanctity of the day we’d honored so lovingly all our lives.

Most concerning of all, Dia De Los Reyes is also known among some circles as “the poor man’s Christmas,” my grandparents’ explanation being that back in the days of Jesus, being a king didn’t mean wealth like it means today. It meant that the giftschildren and observers receive in their boxes today are small, like a $10 gift card, socks, some mittens, or maybe candy. The last thing my family needed was for some guy they didn’t know to reach into an old shoebox of all things, pull out socks, and think we were cheap. With some convincing and a little grumbling, my family allowed me to write my boyfriend’s name on a box, fill it with lettuce and put it under my bed on January 5.

That night as I lay in bed, I did feel nervous knowing that I was bringing somebody into such a special part of my life that no one had ever seen before outside of my parents. Earlier in the day, I made sure to explain to him how seriously my family took our family only traditions, and how it wasn’t just about the religious holiday but the namesake that ties us to one another. I felt silly as I highlighted decorating beat-up boxes as one of my favorite traditions, something I hadn’t ever admitted out loud. Quiet and reserved, he listened to my stories but didn’t ask any questions.

In the morning, I still had my family only morning mass and our opening of gifts, but later that day my boyfriend was invited over for pasteles, coquito, and the checking of his first and only Three Kings Day box.

My parents observed with critical eyes as he went through the motions of our traditions, seeming charmed by the gifts of a hat and gloves left resting on top of torn up shreds of lettuce, proof that Los Reyes had come through our house. As he followed our lead I sat hoping that by participating in the events himself, he might better understand where my love for my culture comes from, or maybe even briefly feel the same sense of childhood joy I do on that day each year. Admittedly, it was an awkward day for everyone involved and not filled with all the magic I had hoped for. Nonetheless, I still felt proud of myself for being able to break down a barrier that had long existed between myself and not only romantic connections but a friend, too.

I wanted the opportunity to show those outside of my family the part of my identity that I hadn’t always made transparent in my daily life, even if that meant that they didn’t understand or wouldn’t “get it” at first.

Photo provided by Wandy Felicita Ortiz

Even though the person who got to take the test run of my family only traditions and I aren’t together anymore, a few years ago he broke the mold for being able to bring others into a part of my life I was using to shutting so many close to me out of.n Maybe he did think that of us, our gifts, or the day we celebrate as cheap, but after the fact I, didn’t care. In the years that have followed, what has mattered most to me has been that I could start sharing Reyes, this name that laid down the foundation to who I am before I was ever born, and all the nuances that come with it with those I want to know me better.

This Dia De Los Reyes will be one of a few Reyes family festivities that my current boyfriend will be participating in, and another year where my family pulls out his box and welcomes his extra cheer into our holidays. While he’s still learning about my roots, I’m still learning that I can take these moments and use them to bring myself closer to my culture and my loved ones.


Read: Twitter’s Latest Hashtag Fights Back Against The Normalization Of Death And Violence Against Migrant Youth

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18 Places To Visit If You’re In CDMX During The Holidays

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18 Places To Visit If You’re In CDMX During The Holidays

This holiday season I took a trip with a couple of colleagues to Mexico City. It was my first time visiting the capital of my parents home country and all my expectations were exceeded. I have to admit that I have been curious about visiting Mexico City for a few years now but I let the rumors about Mexico not being safe (especially for women) stop me. After spending five nights in Mexico City, walking through Condesa for morning coffee, talking with locals and tourists, exploring landmarks and Ubering everywhere, I can’t wait to go back and see more.

If anyone is considering visiting Mexico City, go! I walked and Ubered everywhere and I felt completely safe at all times. There is way too much to see, eat and drink in just five days, but here is what I did during my trip this holiday season.

Day 1

Breakfast at Lalo!

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

You can kiss your dieta goodbye as soon as you touch down. Mexico City has the best pastries I’ve ever had in my life. Lalo has everything from Mexican staples like Huevos Rancheros and Chilaquiles to American favorites like French Toast. Everything here is delicious.

Day at the museum at Diego Rivera Anahuacalli

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

My jaw dropped the second I walked into this museum. The Día de los Muertos exhibit is still open and it is absolutely breathtaking. I 100% recommend a guided tour. There’s so much history and so much of Diego Rivera’s backstory that goes into the building and unless you’re doing hours of research, the only way to get the full experience is through a tour guide.

Day at Casa Azul

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Frida Khalo. Enough said, right? Stepping into Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera’s house is a surreal experience for any art fan. Original photographs of Frida hang throughout what is now the museum, her kitchen is close to how she left it, but what left the biggest impression on me were her dresses. Elaborate garments made of linen stand in wire mannequin shaped hangars and even more impressive are her thick, leather corsets. Something not many people know is that Frida’s ashes are inside Casa Azul. Before she passed away, Frida had an urn made in the shape of a toad because that’s what she used to call Diego, Sapo. The toad-shaped urn sits next to the main dresser in her bedroom.

Snacks and a walk at the park at Villa Coyoacan

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

After hours of museum-ing, you’re going to be hungry. I walked a few minutes until arriving at the Villa Coyoacan. It’s a park surrounded with different food and accessory vendors. This is a good place to get yourself some authentic esquite, tostilocos or my personal favorite, papitas preparadas con chile y limón.

Dinner at Dulce Patria

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Dulce Patria rose to popularity in 2017 after being listed as one of the best restaurants in the world. Almost two years later, the restaurant is still a packed house on a weekday night. I started with a two mezcal cocktails that I couldn’t get enough of. For dinner, I had the enchiladas de mole with a platano macho as the filling — a delicious option for vegetarians. By the time the dessert menu came out, I was absolutely stuffed but if dessert is your thing, you have to order from Dulce Patria. The desserts here are a work of art, just like everything else en la ciudad. Something that makes this restaurant extra special is that the main chef is a woman, Chef Martha Ortiz. #SupportLatinaEntrepreneurs

Drinks at La Unica

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Nothing helps a heavy meal settle like some more cocktails. I walked through the super posh neighborhood of Polanco and headed to La Unica where I enjoyed another mezcal cocktail. If you have something to celebrate, let the waiters know, they step out singing with giant sparklers.

Day 2

Airbnb Experience: Alebrije Painting Class

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This was the first AirBnb Experience and I am hooked. The class started with a lot of information on the origin of Alebrijes and how they gained enough popularity to make it to the big screen of a Disney movie. Everything the instructor shared was fascinating and she was so passionate. Following the mini history lesson, we chose the Alebrije we wanted to paint. My four classmates and I had about an hour to paint designs on our figurine, but the instructor was kind enough to allow us to stay as long as we’d like. We took advantage of this extra time because who knew painting Alebrijes could be sooooo therapeutic?

Dinner at Lardo

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Another very cute spot to head for dinner is Lardo. It is also listed in many top restaurant lists and with good reason. Their bread is absolutely amazing and they have a great wine and cocktail list. The portions here are big enough to be shared family style. Our group shared a few appetizers including hummus and ceviche. For my entree, I went with curried veggies and it did not disappoint.

Mezcal tasting at La Clandestina

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

There’s something about dinner in Mexico city that makes you want to have mezcal after. If you’re a beginner mezcal drinker, head here immediately after dinner. This cute half-outdoor and half-indoor bar serves mezcal flights complete with a breakdown of the type of mezcal it is and what to pair it with. The servers and super friendly, bilingual and this place is a good vibe all around.

Day 3

Air Bnb Salsa Making Experience

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

I signed up for this class expecting to learn how to make basic pico de gallo, salsa verde y salsa roja. Little did my tastebuds know what was about to hit them. The class starts with a trip to the mercado in tacuba to hand pick all of the ingredients. Natalia was great about explaining why we’re going with certain chiles over others, what their origin is and what flavors they give. Bonus: she also tells you what to look for when you’re picking your fruit. From the mercado, we walked a few blocks to her place to start cooking. From dicing the fruits and veggies to crushing them on the molcajete, every step of the class is completely interactive and explained thoroughly. Of course the last part is the best where you get to sample every salsa with ships and homemade quesadillas with queso Oaxaqueño. Warning: If you don’t do well with spice, bring extra water. I tolerate spicy food but the habanero chiles are on another level.

Lunch at Parcela

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

Parcela is unlike anything else I had seen before. This restaurant makes you feel like you’re eating in a treehouse — in the best way possible. The ambiance is relaxing, the appetizers and micheladas are amazing. Although I’m vegetarian, people at different tables kept ordering burgers and they looked incredible. This is a must for anyone who wants to have a serene lunch experience.

Chocolate Making Experience at La Rifa Chocolatería

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I have never really been into chocolate but this experience changed my life. At this AirBnb experience, the hosts explain the origin of Mexican chocolate and how with the labor of dozens of men, women and children, it arrives to CDMX coming from as far as South America. There’s a mini tasting session that happens during the lecture part of the experience but it gets better. After that, we were taken to where the magic happens and employees peel, crush and mix that cacao with sugar to make the chocolate. The chocolate is then cooked and the baristas turn that into hot coco. It’s soooo good.

Sightseeing and shopping at El Zocalo

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El Zocalo is so beautiful during the holidays. Hundreds of lights and Poinsettias adorn the city square. No matter what time it is, the area is full of tourists and families taking selfies and playing with the light-up toys vendors are selling. If you’re in need of some shopping, this is a good place to get it done. There are stores many of us are familiar with such as Zara, and smaller, authentic Mexican stores as well. I bought one thing and that was the famous Mexican mascara to bring back to my coworkers.

Day 4

Walk to Ojo de Agua

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This brunch place was highly recommended by several friends and colleagues and I’m so glad I followed their suggestion. Everything is prepared with fresh fruits and vegetables as seen by the displays of fresh produce along the walls. The place is well-lit and has fun music playing. The neighborhood is especially enticing for dog lovers since there’s a fountain across the street where dogs are free to run through.

Pyramid watching at Teotihuacan

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

If you’re in Mexico City one of the bucket list items on most people’s list is the pyramids. Although it was about an hour and 20 minutes from where I was staying in Condesa, I made the journey in an Uber ride. My regret during this activity was not doing a guided tour. It was an incredible feeling to stand there in front of the pyramids but I feel like I didn’t grasp the entire experience without learning more about the history.

Visiting the Virgen de Guadalupe at her Basílica

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I grew up Catholic and going to Catholic school, so I’ve always had a desire to see the Basilica in person especially because year after year I watch las mañanitas on tv. I happened to visit on December 8th and the area was already crowded with busloads of peregrinos. Regardless of religious beliefs, it was very moving to see so many people come together to say thank you and to pray for their well being and that of their families. Outside of the main Basilica, there is a statue of Pope John Paul III, a few other small churches and indigenous dancers. Also a must for anyone visiting CDMX.

Tacos at El Caifan

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Taco stands never get old but if you’re looking for a place where you can sit down and eat El Caifan will give you that same taco fix. This is a chain but the tacos are still very authentic and include a salsa bar and tacos al pastor directly from the trompo. The one I went to is next to Barrio Chino and lots of small shops and vendors.

Day 5

Rosetta

Credit: @wendybey / Instagram

My trip started with pastries and it ended with pan dulce and I have zero regrets. This panadería has conchas, croissants, muffins, basically anything you could dream of — but better. I had a concha and a taste of an almond pastry and I was blown away. Go with friends, order a dozen different panes and share.

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