Celebrations, Near and Far

There are tons of interesting and fun holiday celebrations happening in our community and all over the world. Here at CCC, we've been able to participate in a lot of different events, such as Christmas parties, Spring Flings, Fall Festivals, Juneteeth celebrations, Fourth of July parades, Easter egg hunts, and who knows how many others. We have each seen the power of a holiday to bring neighbors together. Food, fun, and festivities can bring out the best in a community. After participating in a host of different U.S. holiday parties over the years, I wanted to share a new story that makes some of our weird traditions seem a little less out there... Last week, my wife and I were on vacation in Itu, Brazil, helping a local church put on a bilingual camp for nearby students. We stayed with a family that owns the site which hosted the camp, but before the kids arrived they were celebrating a traditional holiday for the state of Sao Paulo called Festa Junina. I had never heard of such a thing before arriving in Itu, but apparently it's a big deal. It is meant as a celebration of the region's farming culture, but little did I know things can get pretty interesting.

Amanda and I arrived at the camp early to help with set-up. But the friendly staff had already completed most of the preparations. We sat down and waited for our other traveling companions to arrive, and as they slowly trickled in we showed them the food that was being served. Tiny corn-on-the-cobs, a sweetened hominy dessert, and steaming hot wine ladled out of a metal warming pan were the items on the menu for the evening, which made for an odd dinner to say the least.

We had been advised before flying to Brazil that there would be many parties that required dressing up in costumes, and one of the suggested outfits was cowboy/country folk. I may not be as much of a country boy as some, but I must say that my pearl-snap shirt, straw hat, and Wrangler jeans tucked into boots left me looking the part. It doesn't hurt that I can turn on a deep East Texas accent when necessary.

A band was playing nearby, so Amanda and I did a little two-stepping while wondering what the rest of the evening would entail. Everything seemed familiar enough that we were comfortable but foreign enough to feel exotic. Some of the traditions seemed a little odd, but we felt like we were fitting in well. We were quickly becoming pros at this whole Festa Junina thing, even though we understood practically zero Portuguese. What could happen?

A Brazilian hillbilly wedding could happen.

We had heard through the grapevine that our friends, Renato (pronounced "Hey nah toe") and Gracie, were going to be a part of some sort of traditional play. I knew Renato from when he visited Abilene in the spring, and he seemed very reserved, so I wasn't sure what this play would be like, but I knew I wanted to support my new Brazilian best friend as he fake-married his real-life girlfriend. Amanda and I moseyed on over to the outdoor chapel-ish area as we saw them preparing. We had no idea for what we were in store. Since everything was in Portuguese, I'll describe what I saw, but also add in my assumptions or what I learned later.

The wedding started off innocuously enough. Renato as the groom walked down the aisle towards the Catholic priest, and soon Gracie had joined them. Both were dressed in comically country attire, complete with mismatching socks under rolled jeans for Renato and each sporting a blacked out tooth. But their sight was soon eclipsed by a man I assumed was the bride's father, who was definitely holding an old timey rifle. This was used to prod Renato into going through with the marriage, because apparently he was having some serious second thoughts.

As I leaned over to tell our friend Michael, another person visiting from the U.S., that I had no idea what was happening, Renato darted into the crowd, and emerged with a woman and man who he positioned at one side of the altar. I suddenly had a feeling of both excitement and dread in the pit of my stomach. "There's no way he would do that..." I thought to myself. But in moments, he had again darted into the crowd, this time straight towards us.

Beaming with his front tooth blacked out, Renato said, "Come on, where's Amanda?" I gestured that she was standing right next to him (Amanda isn't the tallest person in the world) and he whisked us into the scene opposite the other couple. I wrongly assumed that we were groomsmen and bridesmaids in the wedding party, only to learn later that Amanda and I were playing the role of the bride's godparents. The lack of script or direction did nothing to dim our superb acting, though, and we hammed it up with the best of them. From then on, we guffawed and slapped our knees whenever we saw native-Portuguese speakers laughing, we danced whenever the DJ played snippets of songs at seemingly random points in the service, and we looked around with great concern and consternation when an intruder barged into the wedding.

A fully bearded man portraying a very pregnant woman with twelve children burst into the scene, throwing the wedding into chaos. From what I could tell, Renato has fathered the twelve and the soon to be thirteenth. As you can imagine, his bride was quite upset, and her father-in-law was brandishing the gun every which way. I think the conversation that ensued was Renato deciding whether to leave his betrothed or follow through with the marriage. Luckily, by the time the interloper was finally spurned, the priest had fallen madly in love with her. Just like we all expected.

Finally, the marriage was completed. I felt very accomplished that no one suspected that I was a gringo, and that my acting skills availed me well. Until the final part of the ceremony commenced. The priest began going around to each of the wedding party, apparently wanting a few words of congratulations for the new couple. Since our host knew our Portuguese shortcomings, (I could barely asked where the Sanatarios Masculinos were...) she sidled up behind us and gave a quick lesson on how to say "Good luck in marriage!" Amanda pulled it off spectacularly, and I'm sure none were the wiser that she was not a regular Brazilian who maybe stammered a little in the spotlight. But I couldn't help myself.

Instead of trying to fake Portuguese, I decided to come clean. In my most quizzical and incredulous voice, I asked, "What just happened?!"

The place came unglued.

The priest, who was tumbling backward, managed to say something through peals of laughter. (I would later learn that the priest was chastising Renato, saying, "Imported! Imported! You imported godparents!") It seemed like the hundred and fifty or so people gathered laughed for two straight minutes. When it finally calmed down a little, the priest came to me, and in broken English only slightly better than my Portuguese said "Marriage" while pointing at the bride and groom. I dutifully and enthusiastically smiled and nodded, and gave a big thumbs up. The crowd went wild again at the knowledge that we were all on the same page.

With that, we began dancing. It was part line dance, part square dance, and part cross-country jogging competition. We formed lines and followed the newly married couple and the newly formed priest/baby momma couple around and around the outdoor area. The DJ called out commands for us to dance out, which I later found out were "There are snakes on the ground, you must jump!" or "Cover your heads, the coconuts are falling!" Still utterly confused, Amanda and I did our best to keep up by following the motions of those around us. After about forty-five minutes of this kind of conga line with occasional do-si-dos, the play ended, and we were left to revel in the knowledge that we had been a part of something spectacular.

What does that have to do with community development, you ask?

Well, there are several lessons to take from the story. First of all, celebrating with people can be a door to relationship. The angry father-in-law turned out to be the camp's handyman, and the rest of the week, no language barrier could prevent us from communicating through smiles and hearty handshakes.

Next, sometimes it's better to just go along with what everyone else is doing. Instead of trying to force the group to translate everything, Amanda and I just joined in as best we could, kept things going, and figured out stuff as we went along. We invested time in being amongst people, and that helped us feel like a part of what was going on, even if we didn't understand everything.

Lastly, sometimes you just need to admit that you don't know what's going on. It's tempting to live our lives pretending that we've got it all figured out. But by asking for help, we not only put ourselves in a better position to learn and succeed, but we also consciously acknowledge that others are the keepers of knowledge that we do not yet have. We honor others when we recognize their gifts and experiences, especially if we are willing to listen to and value them.

So, my challenge to you is to attend more holiday events. Help with a trunk or treat, put on a costume party, plant a tree for Arbor Day, visit a historical landmark on Memorial Day... Do things that put you in contact with your community. And don't be afraid to look silly doing it!