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December 10, 2020

Memories of Nochebuena

We are kicking off this year’s Holiday Author Blog series with award-winning, internationally acclaimed author Patricia Engel, whose new novel, INFINITE COUNTRY, releases on March 2nd and is about a Colombian family fractured by deportation. Patricia, the daughter of Colombian immigrants, reflects on her family’s celebration of Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), which would culminate in her grandfather dressed as Santa Claus entering the house with a bag of gifts. She and her cousins would act as his elves and deliver all these goodies to the relatives and friends who had gathered for this very special occasion. Considering her eventual career path, it should come as no surprise what Patricia often received as presents.


I come from a very large Colombian family. Nochebuena was the most celebrated occasion of the year, and we were a family who loved to celebrate just about anything. Throughout my childhood, all my stateside relatives in the tri-state area gathered at our house in New Jersey and often brought friends who didn’t have anywhere else to spend the holiday. The house swelled with people --- cousins, friends new and old --- and presents piled around the Christmas tree. My parents made sure that even people they were meeting for the first time would leave our home with a gift.

After dinner, a feast prepared by my mother with a few others contributing a dish or postre, my abuelo would disappear and then reappear shortly after by the back door, dressed as Santa Claus --- fake beard and all --- carrying a bag of gifts over his shoulder. My primos and I would practically explode with glee. Abuelo would sit by the tree, and each of us kids --- his elves --- would hand him gifts. He'd call out the names on the card, and one by one, we elves would deliver each present to whomever it was meant for in the crowd. This would take hours, until well after midnight, as we'd all open our gifts on the spot, show them to everyone, rush over to hug and kiss the giver, and say how much we loved whatever we'd received.

As I was already an aspiring writer, my presents were often journals and beautiful pens. I'd put them to use all year long until the next Nochebuena, writing stories often inspired by the wild tales I heard from my own family members about the life we left behind in Colombia. Now that so many of those relatives have passed away and our celebrations have vastly reduced in size, I see how special it was to be all together back then, our whole diasporic clan gathered under one roof. That was the true gift.