There's no place like home for the holidays.
But some places finish a close second.Last week a group of people from the Altiplano region of South America gathered at Utah Lake for a little celebration.
Why at Utah Lake?
Because if you squint just right and use your imagination, the lake could well be Lake Titicaca, the lake between Peru and Bolivia. And in the evening light, the surrounding mountains begin to look like the home-sweet-Andes.
"We all miss Christmas there," says Alfredo Cespedes, director of Groupo Aymaran, a Bolivian folk group. "Before the Spaniards came to America, there was no Christian celebration, but there was a celebration to rejoice over the harvest. That celebration was the Inca Christmas. That's the part I like to remember."
Over the years, Christmas in Peru and Bolivia has picked up quite a "mix-and-match" quality. Pin-pointing the origin of traditions is getting harder and harder. There are the famous "chunos" (dehydrated potatoes), a tradition from the Inca Empire, and the Catholic Christian ceremonies - which were added by the Jesuits in 1600. Today the area is seeing an influx of American commercialism and even American and international folkways.
In Bolivia, for instance, there's always a midnight Mass on Christmas called "The Rooster's Mass." Attending the "The Rooster's Mass" assures special blessings.
The homes in the Andes often have a nativity scene in them. Bells are a major motif for the holidays, and traditional hugs (abrazos) are as plentiful as the smiles. What's more, although it may be summer in the Andes, people still put cotton and white plastic about to simulate snow.
Elias Coca is a student from Bolivia living in Salt Lake City. He loves all the trappings and traditions from his native land, but there's one tradition he misses most.
"No question," he says, "I miss the `villancicos.' They are the poor kids - usually between the ages of 4 and 10 - who go from home to home, shop to shop, singing Christmas carols and playing drums and harmonicas. People reward them with food, gifts and money. They are the ones who really bring the Christmas spirit to Bolivia, I think. They are the essence of Christmas there."
Fellow student Mauricio Gamarra has some nostalgia to share as well. "I miss the Christmas turkeys," he says. "In the offices and agencies everyone gets a turkey for Christmas. I miss that.
"You should also understand that Christmas in the Andes region has a bittersweet quality about it. We think of two things. First, we have the people getting into their cars with their arms full of toys, people with solid families, but around the corner you might also see poor children dancing traditional dances and singing. Those kids are the only ones who really believe in Papa Noel (Santa Claus.) They see Papa Noel as their last ditch hope for getting something - anything - for Christmas."
For many, the role of Santa Claus is played by "El Nino Jesus" (Baby Jesus). "What did Baby Jesus bring you?" is a common question on Christmas morning.
And so is "What are you getting for the `The Day of the Wisemen?' "
"The Day of the Wisemen" (El Dia de los Reyes Magos) is known as Epiphany in other parts of the world. It is the 6th of January, the day when tradition tells us the wisemen came to visit Jesus. The true "12 Days of Christmas" are the days between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6. On Epiphany in the Andes there's a mass where the children line up at the front of the church to be sprinkled with holy water. After that, the holiday season is officially brought to a close.
"When I was a boy," says Cespedes, "I remember at least a thousand of us lining up to get candy and toys on that day. I lived in a mining town, and the miners would organize a `give away' every year.
"Christmas in the Bolivian villages is very different from the city Christmases. In the small towns instead of having a Christmas tree, the wife dresses up in a bright costume and dances for the rest of the family. When I think of such things I get very sentimental about the holidays."
It seems in Bolivia - as well as America - it goes without saying that sentiment is the emotion of choice for Christmas. And when it comes to sentiment, meeting at Utah Lake and recreating a celebration is one thing, but actually being in Bolivia for the holidays is another.
That distinction is not lost to Mauricio Gamarra.
Right after our interview he headed home to pack - on his way to Bolivia for Christmas, a place where you don't have to simulate Lake Titicaca; you can look out of your window and see the real thing.