Amid the extravagant celebrations, the Argentinian ambassador to Malaysia Manuel Balaguer Salas and his wife Guadalupe Cernusco Cornejo keep their Christmas simple and spiritual.

“We ourselves try to keep this religious; this is after all the most important part of Christmas amid the hustle and bustle of a very commercially- and materialistically-driven Yuletide season,” says Salas.

“We get some presents, put up a nice tablecloth, cook special dishes that we normally don’t cook, and have a big family gathering,” says Cernusco, sitting beside him. “We don’t put up many decorative things.”

Christmas decorations at the Salas’ residence in Kuala Lumpur reflect the spirituality of Christmas and the importance of family. Photos: SAMUEL ONG/The Star

Argentina is 90% Catholic and Cernusco explains that this is why there are not many people dressed up as Santa Claus parading about. Their Christmases are “very spiritual” and the religious aspect is “very important and very present.”

“We go to mass, which is a nice experience always. And we prepare for Christmas Day 40 days in advance by getting deep into ourselves, reflecting on the year and whether we have been loving and kind enough. This is a time of nice little gestures, and we try to be much nicer people,” shares Cernusco.

On Christmas Eve, the couple usually has dinner with family, followed by a grand lunch on Christmas Day, with typical Argentine fare such as savoury crepes cake, vitahel tone (a traditional Argentine veal dish), empanadas (pastry with fillings), nougat, panettones and garrapinadas (caramelised nuts).

“Christmas is also one of the most important family events of the year. There is a lot of preparation involved, as we make everything, and ourselves, ready for the Lord and for this special occasion.

“We want to be in the proper frame of mind to engage each other, complete with our problems and thoughts. Families would start getting together days ahead, choosing simple decorations, cooking different foods, and planning where we will celebrate and what we will need and do,” says Salas, who hails from Buenos Aires.

They have put up in their Malaysian residence silvery angels inscribed with each of their family members’ names, a testament to the importance of family in their celebrations.

Cernusco lays out sweet Argentine delicacies such as sugarcane mousse, nougat, panettones, garrapinadas, and galletitas pepitas.

“We also take the time to reflect on our cultural influence from Europe, notably from Italy and Spain,” he adds.

“Santa Claus and extravagant decorations are a nice thing to have during this holiday season, but we try to view things a little further than that,” adds Cernusco.

A poignant Christmas tradition has them gathering around the table, with each family member telling the rest about their experiences during the year, what was good and bad about it as well as the hardships they had faced and how they had overcome them.

“No one’s year would have been perfect. If you say that the year went smoothly for you, everyone would get bored quickly. Everyone wants the ‘drama’,” shares Cernusco.

Cernusco preparing a tray of Argentine snacks called galletitas pepitas.

In their home country, the family would gather lots of food, such as traditional Argentine panettones, in baskets. They would then assemble at night in a church together with other families. They would divide the city into sections, and everyone would go around and give these baskets to the needy and underprivileged.

“I would feel like an angel for the night,” Cernusco beams, reminiscing. “There was the bus driver whom we made so happy. And policemen cried as well. It’s all very touching.

“We have friends who have been doing this for a long time. We picked it up and went with them. There have even been those who participate at two in the morning! Christmas is for everyone, and we hope to do it again this year back in Salta.”

The couple is back in Argentina to celebrate Christmas and the New Year.

But before they went home, the couple put up a small Christmas tree in their Malaysian residence. Most of the decorations are on their dining table, including traditional Argentine aboriginal cutlery, typical of Argentinians’ home décor for the season, as well as homegrown tomato leaves scattered all over.

There are also coyas, which are tiny woolen figurines of the Andian people who wear bright colours so they can see each other.