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CityMetric Advent 20: Buenos Aires’ sweltering Christmas Park

For the vast majority of the world’s residents, who live in the northern hemisphere, Christmas is synonymous with cold weather. We don thick coats, drink potentially unhealthy amounts of hot chocolate and eggnog, and allow ourselves to be whipped into a spending frenzy by omnipresent images of a certain fat man in a ridiculous, but cosy, red outfit. So what about the people of the world who live in the southern hemisphere, where it’s summer?

In Argentina, the seven years of leadership by current president Cristina Kirchner have been a curious combination of Che Guevara and Ronald McDonald. Kirchner touts her social justice and equality goals and is quick to shake an angry fist at yanquí imperialism. Nonetheless, she’s more than happy to point out that under her leadership there are now more shopping malls in Argentina than ever before.

But though Argentina is beginning to spread its wings and shop, it has yet to master the art of gearing up for the holiday that has become the holy grail of global consumerism. Whereas Christmas shoppers in Europe and North America find themselves inundated by an unbroken chain of Christmas Carols, shopping mall Santas, and special holiday promotions, holiday iconography in Argentina is a lot more modest: a few plastic snowmen here, a few Christmas Carols there. The fact that Christmas in Argentina is a time of blistering heat may have something to do with this.

However, all this is beginning to change, thanks to a new tradition ushered in by Buenos Aires’s mayor and Kirchner’s chief political rival, Mauricio Macri. With money from city coffers, Macri has built a Christmas Park that puts a summertime spin on classic Christmas imagery.

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The attraction consists of a number of Christmas themed attractions in a large public park, separated from the rest of the park by yellow candy canes and a bit of golden rope. Throughout the park, teams of Santa’s right jolly elves stroll around, playing with toys and riding unicycles (there are no sleds to be found). But before you get in, you have to pass a checkpoint manned by Santa’s right jolly security guards, all too willing to taze anyone on the naughty list.

After clearing security, I’m greeted by one of the elves. When I ask him if it’s tough to cope with the 90 degree heat in a full elf suit with stockings and curly shoes, he shrugs. “Eh, you get used to it.”

Entering the park, visitors are met with a giant Buenos Aires “BA” logo topped with an outsized Santa Hat. The logo has been created by the master marketers of Team Macri, plastering it all over the city on everything from subway stations to sewage pumps as if they were fast food or Nike shoes. It’s in no short supply here, ensuring that visitors have a very Macri Christmas. Alongside the logo is a giant present, painted to look like it’s covered with a fine coat of melting snow, a wry nod to the uncomfortable humid heat of summer.

To the left is a stage, where hundreds of kids attentively watch a group of four women dancing. For their musical accompaniment, these women have eschewed Christmas classics like “Jingle Bells”, “Deck the Halls”, or even “Feliz Navidad”, instead opting to shake their thangs to the questionable lyrics of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. Merry Christmas, indeed. I hope none of these kids speak English.

Walking to the other side of the park, I notice one of the other elves hopping outside the roped-off park to go smoke a cigarette. In one corner of the park, there’s a big box for people to donate presents. Fake Christmas trees sit next to palm trees with ribbons tied to them, trying to fit in. There’s also a nativity scene, which serves as a reminder that the event this whole holiday is based on also took place in warm weather, not under a blanket of snow. It’s also a reminder that there is no official separation of church and state in Argentina, and the city can put up a nativity scene without also building a Festivus pole.

At the back of the park, a massive line has formed to go see Santa Claus. Throngs of kids wait anxiously to enter Santa’s workshop, and those on their way out are giddy with holiday glee. As I take a look at Santa’s workshop, out front is a family posing for a photo: a young boy, his doting mother, and pudgy father clad in a sleeveless Boca Juniors t-shirt. Above them is giant “BA” logo. Perhaps all this imagery is part of an effort to get Macri what he really wants for Christmas next year: to be elected in Argentina’s presidential election.

Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about the Christmas Park. But if it helps to give these kids a bit of Christmas cheer even in sweltering heat, it can’t be all bad. As I look at the kids coming out of Santa’s workshop I think to myself, “Maybe when these kids are my age, going to visit a fat guy in a warm winter coat during the summer won’t even seem weird.”

All images courtesy of Drew Reed.
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