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Christmas in Cuenca, Beautiful Chaos

When I saw that the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra was performing a free Christmas concert just a few blocks from our hostal, I was so excited. Christmas music! An orchestra! Plus a guest soloist! This will be perfect for our 2015 Christmas!

In fact, Wednesday night’s concert was the third concert in so many days. Each were in a different church in the old city. Wednesday night’s concert was at the Old Cathedral – Museo Catedral Vieja – an amazing basilica built by the Spanish in the late 1500s over indigenous ruins, as they were known to do.  

I should first say that Cuenca has the feel of a European city. Also, there are approximately 5,000 expats from the United States (gringos) who call Cuenca home. The markets are filled with Christmas stalls and festive lights hang over the cobblestone streets. This is a place that definitely feels like Christmas.

With mochaccinos in hand, we lined up early with all of the other gringos to wait for the doors to open for the 8pm concert. We shuffled in around 7:30, found seats and watched the chairs fill up almost immediately. While in line we learned that the Symphony concerts are always free and they perform every three weeks. We got the sense that they Symphony is very popular with the gringo community. Even though the church completely filled up, with standing-room only, gringos certainly outnumbered Ecuatorianos on this night.

Upon review of the program, I was excited to see so many “traditional” selections. Although the titles were all in Spanish, I was confident that they were traditional Christmas hymns and carols that we would easily identify. Sure enough, the concert started with a medley of carols, and soon moved into Sleigh Ride, Little Drummer Boy and then White Christmas. What Christmas concert is complete without Irving Berlin?

This is when things got interesting. The Soloist Invitada then took the stage – even though she didn’t really take the stage, she stood on the floor. But, the orchestra did look a bit compact on the altar. Plus they had to contend with a life size representation of the Last Supper behind them, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle-room. 

Did I mention that the orchestra was amplified? I’ll admit, my Lutheran-school-with-the-good-choir sensibilities first bristled a bit at this. My critical ear also detected some pitchy playing. But I soon melted into our surroundings and enjoyed the familiar tunes. There were lots of bobbing heads, toe tapping and big smiles of recognition. 

It was also around this time that I began noticing other things. Not only was it standing-room only, but people were freely moving around, coming and going, talking fairly loudly in small groups, talking on cell phones, little kids running, yes running, up and down the center isle, someone was taking flash photos from behind the orchestra. Some of the gringos very obviously stood up and left either due to it being too loud, or because the music became less “traditional” to their ears. 

The soloist sang obvious traditional Ecuadorian Christmas tunes. So much so that some were singing along and clapping. She was something in her red sequin dress. Belting into the microphone with a poppy, jazzy, Latin style that kept the audience tapping along. The final piece, El Burrito Sabanero, or as Cory called it, Baby in the Burrito, was the catchiest tune of them all and left everyone happy and content as we excited the church. I was surprised people didn’t stand up and start dancing. I heard lots of “boy that was fun” as we walked out. By the way, it really means, the Little Donkey.

While I was sitting in the concert, watching the festivus all around me, and while my first word for it was “chaos,” hence the title of this blog, I realized that it was not chaos at all, but just a wonderful festive culture at Christmastime. Last year we celebrated Christmas in Oahu, the year before that in Paris, and now in Cuenca, Ecuador. All were very different. Different traditions and cultures to learn and enjoy. This is no different.

Tomorrow we will watch a reportedly “all-day” Christmas Eve parade. I can only imagine the festiveness involved. It will all be new, and different, and maybe even a bit chaotic. But I know this, it will be Christmas.


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