There’s something about Americans.
They are everywhere, it seems. Sometimes by choice; sometimes by happenstance, often on orders and sometimes unwillingly. Americans travel the globe. Occasionally, they’re “ugly.” Almost always, when Americans “discover” a place, it is changed. And many would argue that change, though inevitable, is less than desirable.
There are other nationalities that also travel the globe; many of them English-speaking — Brits, Canadians, Australians. But there are French-speakers, Spanish-speakers, Scandinavians, Asians, and Africans. In fact, today, all nationalities travel extensively. Most travel rather inconspicuously. Americans tend to stand out and are occasionally the brunt of jokes and the subject of pervasive and less-than-flattering stereotypes.
But, there’s something about Americans.
On Christmas Day morning, on a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico, a group of Americans gathers to hang stuffed animals, matchbox cars, soccer balls, footballs, Barbie dolls, and an assortment of other toys from the palapas and beach umbrellas of a local hotel. They wear Santa hats, blinking reindeer noses and silly, floppy reindeer antlers, candy cane shirts, and an assortment of other red and green attire with their swimsuits and shorts.
The beach chairs and lounges are circled to keep the public at a distance. No one really seems to be in charge. At 8:30 am on Christmas Day, it is quiet on the beach. And then more people arrive, some with armloads of stuffed animals, some with plastic bags from the Walmart on the other side of the Mexican city. Some come with one or two toys. Many dropped off their “goodies” earlier in the week. Word spread about the event, and the crowd steadily grew larger.
Volunteers bring ribbons and scissors. There is a festive spirit. Onlookers gather.
Soon, a group of children begin to form a line, off to one side. Quiet, and well-behaved, they stand with their parents and older siblings. They watch. They wait.
This ritual began more than 20 years ago. On Christmas Day 2004, I was on that beach that Christmas Day. A woman named Marge from Nashville, TN, one of the original group of Santa’s helpers, asked volunteers to walk down the beach to find more children. “This is the best year ever,” she said, “and I’m not sure we have enough children for all the gifts.”
There is no publicity. This is not an organized effort. There is no tax deduction attached to these gifts. There were lots of pictures taken. There are big smiles on the faces of the adults. The children look on with wide-eyed wonder. There are tears. There are hugs. There is a sense of excitement. There are cookies and soft drinks and music on a beach in Puerto Vallarta on Christmas Day. And there is a sense of community.
Even though most of the children speak no English, and most of the adults speak little Spanish, there is no language barrier.
One man with a distinctively British accent and a camera pauses to ask what is happening. When it is explained, he makes no comment. But he remains to take pictures, staying on the fringes but joining in the palpable spirit of goodwill.
At precisely 11 am, four Mexican children are allowed to enter the “garden” of hanging toys, each one accompanied by an adult American volunteer with a small pair of scissors. As each child walks through, he is allowed to take his time to look, and then his selection is snipped from its ribbon hanger and handed to him. It is almost silent. There is no screaming, no running. There is a sense of reverence as the child clutches his selection to his chest and then is escorted to the other edge of the toy-filled enclosure.
Children of hotel employees, youngsters whose parents are beach vendors, and children who have come to the beach for a day near the water and the sun with their extended families are the honored guests. They are all Mexican children. That is the only requirement.
It is not their tradition. Christmas, in Mexico, is a deeply religious holiday, with a family-oriented emphasis. Santa Claus does not visit most Mexican children.
But where there are Americans, there are some traditions that are hard to break. In the United States, there are toys for children. So, where Americans gather at Christmas, there will invariably be toys.
There is something about Americans.
Note: I first wrote this nearly two decades ago for an online publication that no longer exists. I was thinking today about that long ago Christmas on the beach, and it seemed appropriate to repost this piece this year, at a time when the world seems to need a large dose of goodness and cheer. I don’t know if the tradition continues in Puerto Vallarta. I hope it does. But, whether the beach party is still held or not, it is a wonderful memory. I wish Happy Holidays to all, no matter what holidays you celebrate or where you celebrate them. And may 2023 be a good year for us all!