‘Tis the season, at least in this part of the world, to purchase underwhelming Christmas gifts. The larger stores started to display holiday frippery in late September, like their cousins to the north, but the escalation didn’t continue the way it does in the showy US and European bazaars where year-end consumerism runs rampant.
Apart from animal crackers and candies for children, the leading Christmas product in Ecuador is the gift basket—a catch-all term for practical packages in a range of sizes and prices, from just five dollars to well over a hundred. They are stacked high in the aisles of stores. Some are actually baskets; others are a reusable plastic crate, or just a cardboard box. Practicality and utility are the key.
Baskets are most often given by employers to employees, and landlords to tenants, but also bestowed among friends. A typical commonsensical list of cargo might include oil, rice, sugar, powdered cocoa, coffee, crackers, noodles, bouillon, popcorn and gelatin. There’s likely to be powdered milk, margarine, mayonnaise and jam, salt, tomato sauce, instant tea and cookies.
Batteries not included.
At the higher end, the basket might offer a bottle of wine, good chocolates—and a real basket. Premium contents, to be sure, but still nothing completely over the top, like a Toile d’Araignee white gold pendant at £77,000 from Cassandra Goad of London.
A sense of moderation permeates most things about the season here—with the possible exception of religious celebrations; go figure. It’s even nearly impossible to gorge yourself in the traditional Christmas fashion, because most Ecuadorian foods are light on fats and sugars. A personal favorite, though it took some months to appreciate, is a miniature layer cake, just 3-1/2 inches in diameter. Every bakery makes identical ones. They are frosted and freckled with chocolate sprinkles or toasted coconut and always topped with a single glazed strawberry and a slice of canned peach.
It’s a charming little temptation, and for just $1.25 you can take one home all for yourself, draw the drapes, make sure you have a good alibi and plenty of insulin in the fridge, and dig in. Then comes the surprise.
It’s not sweet. Almost nothing is. Not the cookies dipped in chocolate, the crispy cones filled with frothy whipped cream, or the full-size cakes with shaved chocolate on thick icing. About the sweetest thing in most cafes is the fruit salad. A sense of temperance holds sway over indulgence in these parts, and not only during Christmastime. It redefines “normal.” The bar is lowered—or maybe raised. The bland little cake begins to taste sweet enough before long, and a basket of things you can use is a welcome and thoughtful gift.
Simple treats, from a simpler time. A century ago, most kids asked Santa for food and clothing. This year, Furby Boom and the Tekstra Robotic Puppy top the list. I don’t know what those things are, and I’ll wager most Ecuadorian kids don’t either. But they’ve got all the thrill most children need. A full two-week school vacation for Christmas has just been announced by the country’s president, who last year, in a passable impersonation of The Grinch, gave them two days.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go eat this little cake that I brought home purely for research purposes.