Merry Christmas! As you might have noticed, I’ve been taking a slight break from blogging. Trust that I’m not slacking off. Just trying to get the figgy pudding out of my hair due to an unfortunate kitchen incident. Peanut butter and tomato juice should do the trick. Or so I’ve been told. The craziness of the season always reminds me of the Christmas Gabby and I spent in Guatemala during our mission year. So, it seems only fitting that I share the story on Christmas Eve, seven years after the fact.
I would be lying if I didn’t say Christmas in Guatemala started off as a very sad affair. Being away from home on the biggest holiday of the year is depressing. Our mission program had a specific policy against traveling back to the States for any reason. It was the first Christmas after Gabby lost her mom. To top it off, we knew that piles of corn tortillas would be a lackluster substitute for traditional Christmas cookies.
In the village where we lived, Christmas doesn’t get a lot of press. And it’s not because there aren ‘t any Christians. In fact, there is a greater percentage of Christians in Guatemala than there is in the U.S.
But the reason Christmas isn’t all that huge is that, as you might imagine, loads and loads of indigenous Mayan people who had nearly been exterminated by their own government from the 60’s through the 90’s have a hard time understanding how some 8lb. 6oz. Jesusito is going to save the world. Instead, they resonate a whole lot more with Easter. The suffering Christ. The guy with the bloody face. And the resurrected Christ. The one who brings hope. They take the whole week off in celebration. Parades. Costumes. Feasts. The works. They do Easter as Easter should be done.
Not so much.
By December 22nd, we still hadn’t heard a single Christmas song unless we were the ones singing it. To try and get into the spirit, we asked our host brother Francisco, “Is it tradition to put up a Christmas tree here in Guatemala?”
“Si!” he replied. “Let’s go get it!”
So we followed him out the door, past the chickens and stray dogs, and climbed the mountain behind our house.
Is there a Home Depot up here?
As we trekked, we carried the magic of Christmas in our hearts.
Francisco, on the other hand, carried a rusty machete in his fist.
We came upon a thirty foot cypress tree, and Francisco beamed, “This will work!” And he started hacking at a branch. We had envisioned a tiny, six foot fir to dress for the Holiday. Instead, Francisco wrestled a large, gnarly limb from the cypress and dragged it back down the mountain. It looked like something you might leave on the curb in front of your house after a wind storm.
We brought the branch home and propped it up in an old coffee can with dirt and rocks in it. It fell over instantly, so we gave it some support by tying strings to it and tying the other end to the wall.
Time to decorate.
Much to our surprise, Marlon, another of our brothers, brought out a ball of Christmas lights complete with mechanical Christmas music. Next, the boys unwrapped a good-sized ceramic nativity scene and placed it beneath the tree on a bed of pine needles. Even though the donkeys had long since lost their ears, and Joseph was a no-show due to the fact that he was shattered to smithereens in an accident a few Christmases back, the scene was very pretty. We searched high and low for a Joseph stand-in so Maria wouldn’t be “soltera”. I stumbled upon an old Power Ranger figurine, which seemed to do the trick.
That is, until Marlon blurted “That won’t work.”
“Why?” I asked.
"Es chica" (it's a girl) he said.
Sorry Maria, I tried.
* Mary, the single woman, surrounded by friends and a decorated coffee can.
We didn't have a huge box of ornaments for the tree. Instead, we made some. The tradition is to go to the market and buy honest-to-goodness mandarin oranges and candy, and hang them from the branches of the tree.
This whole idea of edible ornaments is something I can get used to, though our mandarin oranges in the states come in a can complete with high fructose corn syrup, which would be far too heavy for our branches.
Since Gabby and I grew up with Christmas trees that look like a bunch of Santa’s decorating elves threw up on ‘em, we both wanted more ornaments. So Gabby got all Martha-Stewarty and corralled the kids. We were a virtual ornament factory, cranking out decorations made from old plastic lids and magazine cutouts. The whole gang got into the mix, and the branch was drooping under the weight.
Bring on Christmas!
On Christmas Eve we took the 30-minute walk up the mountain to the pueblo of Cantel. We were excited. We heard they would put on the nativity play, and then we’d have a big dinner with the whole church.
* Gabby and our host brother, Eduardo.
We arrived to find Graciela's sister there, in charge of making 200 sandwiches for the post-service get-together. Rather than leave her with all of the work, we chipped in. Using what looked to be an old canoe paddle, we stirred giant tin barrels full of chicken salad, and spooned it onto about a zillion loaves of white bread.
In all the hubbub, we nearly missed the whole service. We walked into the sanctuary in time for the short drama that starred our brother, Edwin, as one of the two (not three) kings. There are only so many costumes to go around in the village, you see.
Since the most popular, and perhaps only, Christmas song in our church is "Noche De Paz" ("Silent Night" in Spanish), we sang it four times. Painfully slowly.
And it was beautiful.
Something about singing a familiar song in another language makes you feel like the whole world is singing at the same time. All voices. Lifting up. Together.
After the sandwich feast, we arrived home at about 10:30pm. The power was out again – a 40% chance on most nights. Everyone made their way to the kitchen table, which was the only furniture in the house save for beds and a few stray chairs here and there. We rested for a bit in the candlelight. We talked and laughed. That is, until one of the kids broke out the fireworks around 11:15pm.
It's the tradition here to set off fireworks for any and all celebrations. Weddings. Birthdays. Loose tooth. So Christmas Eve definitely qualified. At the stroke of midnight, our family did it up right. You could hear people shooting off Black Cats throughout the whole valley. The local factory sounded it's siren that could be heard for miles. Fun and flash burns were had by all.
When the last firework boomed, we gathered for a meal by candlelight. Leftover chicken salad sandwiches that we brought home from the church, complete with hot chocolate. By this time of the night, everyone was exhausted. Kids were falling asleep.
Because there is no Santa Clause tradition in this house.
But there was a small gift exchange. I’m not sure if this was the norm, or if it happened just because we gringos happened to be living there. It was the only gifts we saw our host parents give to any of the six kids the entire year. The three youngest boys each received a small, battery-operated car with a remote control. Anyone over the age of eleven didn’t receive anything.
Martin and Graciela, our host parents, gave us our gifts. Tropical parrot figurines with a small snow-globe containing another tiny parrot. Parrots were Martin's thing. His dream was to own one. So we knew this small gesture that came from a big place. We also remembered how Martin had recently told us that he didn't have enough money to buy medicine to treat a stomach condition.
But he had money for the snow globes.
One of the best gifts we’ve ever received. It sits on a shelf in my office. A reminder of a special night, and a special Christmas -- perhaps one of our most significant.
Because it wasn’t about the gifts, or the decorations, or the symbols. It was about a real genuine connection between people. Once strangers. Separated by miles and language. Now living together as family. The joys and the sorrows. Sharing our lives.
And that’s the perfect gift for a king who has everything.