A Worldly Winter

December Nights, Balboa Park

Made up of a seemingly endless array of entertainment, food and holiday finery, Balboa Park’s December Nights is an exciting, dazzling experience. 

The event spanned over two days from Friday, Dec. 2 to Saturday, Dec. 3. It consisted of vendors selling everything from Filipino shortbread cookies to charms for Crocs, a multitude of performances on four separate stages throughout the park and a spattering of holiday decorations, most notable of which was the giant Christmas tree bedecked in red and gold lights on the Organ Pavilion Stage. 

On said stage, there were 16 performances throughout the two days. The first one I saw was Naruwan Taiko, a group that performs choreographed pieces to taiko drums, a traditional Japanese instrument. Bathed in orange and yellow light, the crowd watched as they beat their drums, sometimes softly and other times violently, all while simultaneously executing synchronized body movements. After that, the House of Scotland Pipe Band took the stage, and donning Santa hats, played Christmas music in the twangy, humming tune of bagpipes. As the pipe band marched off stage, the Ballet Folklorico El Tapatio de San Dieguito dance ensemble twirled on, where they began to perform Mexican folk dances. Most eye-catching were the dancers’ stunning, multicolored costumes that were entertainment in and of themselves as they spun and swirled around.

If those performances were not enough, the smaller Gator by the Bay stage hosted its own mini “Louisiana food and music festival,” as the large banner above the stage dubbed it. The upbeat country music spilling out onto the street pulled me toward this stage, where the Back Pocket Whiskey Fellas, with an instrument lineup of the fiddle, banjo, guitar and accordion, were playing. Their music was especially high-spirited and fun, with people (including myself) dancing, swaying and clapping along. 

From the sounds of Louisiana to the smells of the globe — I migrated toward Balboa Park’s international cottages and was greeted by the scents of native foods from India, Mexico, Germany, Iran, Korea and more. For each country, there were small vendor tables laden with food, and the very long lines outside each one were a testament to how delicious the food was.

Again, if there was one thing that December Nights offered, it was variety. If none of those foods appealed to you, then there was a plethora of others to choose from, such as deep fried oreos, hot dogs, barbecue, beignets and hot cocoa being sold at other vendors.

But even with such a range of options, it was often difficult to purchase anything because of how unbelievably crowded the event was, which is my only complaint about it. 

But if you have the patience to maneuver through large tides of people and spend a long while finding a free parking spot, then December Nights at Balboa Park will most certainly prove to be an overwhelmingly festive, thrilling and rewarding holiday event.

Las Posadas, Old Town

A chilly night could not dull the high spirits and glowing hearts of the mass of people who gathered around Old Town’s Heritage County Park on Dec. 9, 2022. Friends and families came together for Old Town’s 64th annual celebration of a centuries-old Mexican Catholic tradition — Las Posadas or “The Inns.”

Traditionally celebrated over nine nights, from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24, Las Posadas commemorates Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter in different inns where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. 

Though not on the exact dates, Old Town’s rendition of Las Posadas does not stray far from the traditional. Just like in cities all over Mexico, volunteers dressed up as the characters of this Biblical story: angels, shepherds, innkeepers, the Three Wise Men and Mary and Joseph themselves. In Old Town’s Las Posadas, astride a real donkey, Mary and Joseph’s journey brought them to six different stations. Though the park itself was completely dark, Mary was illuminated atop her donkey by  candles that were given to participants at the beginning of the event, adding an ethereal quality to the moment.

Once Mary and Joseph arrived at each station, volunteers as well as participants engaged in call-and-response verses. Most magical of all though, was the continual singing of “Pidiendo Posada,” a traditional song of Las Posadas. The singers’ light and breathy harmony filled the park, touching the hearts of listeners and bringing tears to many eyes. Even those who could not understand the Spanish lyrics still sensed the genuine emotion of the ballad. 

The adventure ended with one last verse, the moment where Mary and Joseph are finally offered shelter by a generous innkeeper. “Enter, holy pilgrims, receive this corner, for though this dwelling is poor, I offer it with all my heart.”

Whether you are Catholic, of a different religion or are not religious at all, this verse contains a message for everyone: the greatest gift you can give is to be compassionate and a willingness to help those in need. 

To wrap up the celebration, attendees headed back to the Mormon Battalion Historic Site for customary Las Posadas refreshments like tamales, pozole and ponche, a spiced hot beverage made with fruits, water and sugar. In the spirit of giving, guests were also offered the opportunity to participate in a service project sorting and packaging donated items for the food bank at the Old Town Community Church. 

Las Posadas is an evocative, truly beautiful celebration of love and kindness that everyone should witness at least once in their life, whether in Mexico or at Old Town’s annual celebration.

Filipino Lantern Festival, Southeast San Diego

I was not expecting much upon entering the Educational Cultural Complex’s industrial-gray brick walls, but I was pleasantly surprised by an extravagant array of colorful neon parol lanterns, welcoming vendors and warm smiles at PASACAT’s 26th Annual Parol Lantern Festival.

The Philippine Performing Arts Company’s mission, according to its website, is “to preserve and promote Asian Pacific culture through the arts.” This motto summarized my experience in no better words.

Although I have never been to the Philippines, the little packages of snacks and candies inside of Nanay Puring’s Sari-Sari Store, one of the vendors, evoked an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and reminded me of my childhood living in Southeast Asia.

Another vendor hung up hysterical parodies of commercial brands with a Filipino twist. I broke out in laughter when I saw a hoodie with the huge letters “Adobo” instead of the brand name “Adidas.”

Undoubtedly, though, the star of the show (pun intended) was the parol lantern-making workshop.

A parol is a star-shaped Filipino ornamental lantern, traditionally made with bamboo and colored plastic film. They are symbols of goodwill and hope that are usually hung up on door frames and apartment roofs during the four-month-long Christmas season in the Philippines.

A workshop instructor led me to a table surrounded by a plethora of parols of different shapes, sizes and colors. Standing nearby was a wholesome group of laughing families brought together by a common culture.

My mind was immediately set on one goal: to make the best lantern at the
whole event.

As determined as I was, I soon realized that I had completely underestimated the difficulty of making these lanterns. My hands fumbled with the straws and I lost hold of the pipe cleaners again and again. After many frustrating attempts at making a somewhat decent parol, I convinced myself it was time
to move on.

Overall, the parol lantern-making workshop was a humbling experience, but it is nice to have an odd-looking but genuinely homemade parol on top of your Christmas tree at the end of the day, is it not?

All in all, I am grateful for PASACAT’s promotion of the Asian Pacific culture, and I have never felt so welcomed and acknowledged in such a wholesome environment. Parol in hand, I exited the event gleaming with pride and joy. Thank you, PASACAT, for bringing back what I thought was long gone: the warm, comforting feeling of being home.

Read on Issuu.

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