An ode to Buenos Aires: Jewish American Papa Noel

Jacob Eichenbaum-Pikser of Sheikob’s Bagels on a first Argentine Christmas to remember

Herald nights Santa in Argentina

This piece was delivered as a reading at our first Herald Night, An Ode to Buenos Aires. Join us for the next one on April 18 at Sheikob’s Bagels, 8 p.m., Uriarte 1386 — this time, it’s a trivia night!

Christmas in the summertime is strange, a fact that hit me strongly as we pulled out of the fourth gas station we had visited in search of ice with no success. It was 95 degrees and humid, and there were six of us piled into Sebi’s sister’s economy-size Peugeot. I was focused less on the ice, and more on maintaining a position that might allow me to make it to the party without sweating completely through my shirt. 

As we turned onto the small tree-lined street in the Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos, I got my first hint that I had misinterpreted what type of party we were headed towards. Cars parked, double parked, diagonally parked, as far as the eye could see, despite the fact that Sebi’s cousin’s house seemed to be the only one on the block with lights on. 

The second hint came as we unloaded the car. I had bought what I hoped was a nice bottle of wine, several times the price of anything I had bought since arriving earlier that month in Argentina, a gesture I thought appropriate for the occasion of being invited to an intimate family Christmas dinner. As I slid out of the car carrying said fancy wine and the coveted bag of ice we had eventually procured, I noticed Sebi’s sister and her boyfriend unloading their wine from the trunk — a seemingly unending stream of bottom-shelf supermarket wine. Huh, I thought to myself. These people must really like to drink. This is gonna be fun.

After being greeted in effusive, albeit broken, English at the front gate by Sebi’s aunt (I guess news of a yanqui guest had preceded me) and navigating our way through the living room and kitchen, crawling with busy bodies bringing bottles of booze here and plates of food there, we emerged onto the backyard, and everything became clear. This was not the quiet, warm dinner party of ten I had imagined. No, what lay before me could only be comprehended in reference to family reunions I had seen in movies. Thirty-plus people, ranging in age from a few months to a few centuries, three banquet-length tables, with a smaller version for the kiddies, a potluck spread like something out of Game of Thrones. 

Sebi made his rounds like a professional politician, kissing babies, twirling and dipping middle-aged aunts, and saluting the geriatrics (already seated around their table at the back) with the Argentine gesture for party time — something like a Jersey Shore fist pump, only with your hand held open and turned to the side like a karate chop. I hung back with Sebi’s sister’s boyfriend, thankful to have a companion at least in the same ballpark of outsiderness as I. 

Before long we were approached by the host, Sebi’s cousin Charly, a man in his early forties by my guess, with thinning blond hair and a pastel paisley shirt unbuttoned to the navel. He was very excited to have a yanqui guest, a New Yorker no less, and wasted no time insisting that I sing something in English later, pointing to a karaoke machine set up in the corner, and hinting strongly at his personal favorite, Frank Sinatra. I didn’t know how to break it to him that he probably knew more Frank Sinatra lyrics than I, but I smiled and nodded, my go-to form of social interaction at that point.

A stunning quantity of salads

After a few more minutes of awkwardly standing around, it was time to sit down. To my relief, seating was assigned, and I was tucked safely at a corner of the young adults’ table between Sebi and his sister. I introduced myself to the others seated around me as we waited for our table’s turn to approach the buffet. The spread was as impressive as it was disjointed, like any good potluck, and much to my relief, mostly cold and fresh. I had spent the whole ride up in the AC-less clown car imagining the Argentine version of an American christmas dinner, which in turn, as a Jew, was just an imagined compilation of spreads I had seen on TV and in movies. Needless to say, this spread was significantly less meat-sweaty. 

I was struck immediately and simultaneously by two things: the stunning quantity of salads, and the equally stunning scarcity of ingredients in each. Potato and egg, carrot and tomato, arugula and tomato, celery and apple, another potato and egg, but this time… with palmitos! The variety was fun, but I couldn’t help thinking that if you just mixed these together and took away all the mayonnaise you would have one, superior salad.

Seconds, thirds, and several glasses of red wine on the rocks later, everyone was full and drunk, so naturally, it was karaoke time. Only, it wasn’t the people’s karaoke. No, it seemed the whole thing had been set up by and for a single guest, a man of diminutive stature, with a deep fake tan, a platinum blonde blowout, and a black silk shirt unbuttoned to reveal a leather choker. I know, it sounds like I’m making this up, or at least embellishing, but I promise you, I’m not. From afar I would have guessed he was about 30, which caused some confusion when Sebi explained that he was the lover of his 65-year-old aunt (not that there would have been anything wrong with that), but when I later had the pleasure of meeting him up close and personal, I realized that I had mistaken a generous helping of plastic surgery for youth.

‘Unchin my hurt’ 

He opened with “Do You Feel Like We Do” by Peter Frampton, followed by “Rolling on the River” by Creedence Clearwater. Next was “Unchain My Heart”, or as he put it “Unchin My Hurt,” by Ray Charles. At this point the crowd had already begun to turn restless, shooting glances at one another with a mix of annoyance, bewilderment, and amusement at the absurdity of situation unfolding. Upon finishing the third song, he asked the crowd if he should keep going, as if we had the option of saying no. 

Things continued this way for an inordinate number of tunes — he really had an impressive English repertoire for someone who clearly didn’t speak a word of English — and to his credit, he slowly but surely won over the audience, with the pivotal change of tide courtesy of good ol’ Frank Sinatra. By the end of his set the atmosphere was positively festive, with everyone singing along, and the aforementioned 65-year-old aunt joining him for a bossa nova duet.

As things wound down, I gave myself a mental pat on the back for successfully keeping my head down and avoiding a forced performance. But as cousin Charly approached, flanked by two more cousins, the look of mischief in their eyes gave me the sinking feeling that I had prematurely celebrated a night devoid of public humiliation. 

My fate was sealed

It was a family tradition at this point in the night, they explained to me, for someone to dress up as Papa Noel, and deliver a sack of presents to the expecting children. You’re perfect, they said — the least-known face at the party and with a mysterious northern accent to boot. I considered playing the “But I’m Jewish” card as they shuttled me to a back room, but when they opened the door and I saw the red and white suit laid out on the bed, I knew my fate was sealed. I was the Jewish American Papa Noel. 

I offered to take off my glasses, thinking they’d give me away, but the cousins encouraged me to keep them on, and they were right — a small child’s denial of deductive reasoning when confronted with an icon and the promise of presents is a powerful thing. “Ho ho ho! Feliz Navidad!” (I had googled ahead of time that Spanish Santa Claus said ho ho ho). I was flanked with tykes, high fiving, hugging, and posing for pictures. 

I dropped off the presents and made a speedy exit, before the sweat pouring down my face caused my glasses to fall off, which would have forced me to bend down, which would have caused the precariously-belted suit to burst open, the pillow to pop out, and boom, Jewish Santa ruins Christmas. 

Back in Clark Kent mode, I furtively returned to the party. Gifts were being reparted, and to my surprise I had been included in the gifting. As I unwrapped my gift, I felt something stir in me, a presentiment that this was the beginning of a new tradition. I got a lemon juicer, shaped like a lemon! How’d they know?


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