When I was a child, Christmas was a time for family. Gifts exchanged were tokens of love and peace. We sent Christmas cards by mail, would you believe? The Noche Buena table was a feast, except during the war when food was scarce and spirits were at an all-time low.
It was also my season to play pretend. In my fantasy I imagined myself caught in a time warp of sorts, witnessing the events of that first wonder-filled Christmas.
I drew inspiration from the belen that Tia Nena Martinez, Mama’s eldest sister, put up every year.
Her home was “the place to go,” and visiting her belen was a must-do family tradition. When she called to announce it was ready, all roads led to Calle Galicia. We were eager to see her “obra de amor.” Besides, she would be most hurt if someone didn’t show up. I swear she took attendance.
Seriously, I was fascinated by the way Tia Nena portrayed the story of the Nativity. She had a timeline, albeit a loose one. I was taken in and mesmerized by the drama!
It was exciting to watch how she moved the main characters ever so slowly—Mary on the donkey and Joseph walking alongside, looking for shelter. Each step, of course, would lead them to the stable in Bethlehem because “there was no room at the inn.”
Tia Nena’s “stage” was a platform the size of three or four ping-pong tables. She hired carpenters, electricians and painters to assist her. The tables were covered with soil, sand and pebbles on top of Manila paper. Patches of snow were made of white cotton and little mirrors buried in the sand simulated ponds. People lived in tiny houses in the sparsely populated little town of Bethlehem. Off at a distance, there were shepherds tending their flocks.
A big, bright star made of wire and tinsel was the center of her sky, a swathe of deep blue fabric. After all, this was no ordinary star. Its appearance was a sign for the Wise Men from the East to get on their camels in search of the newborn King. On Christmas Eve, Tia Nena carefully moved the Star of Bethlehem to its rightful place above the stable.
By the way, our “belenismo” (the art of making Nativity scenes) originated in Spain. History has it that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the custom in the 13th century, and that the Spanish Franciscan priests brought the belen to our shores three centuries later.
Over the years, something happened to Tia Nena’s Christmas extravaganza. The figurines became tarnished and she had to replace them. She chose according to looks and price, not too mindful of proportion. Alas, soon she had sheep that were bigger than the shepherds and camels smaller than the Magi.
We went back to Galicia for many years, later with our own children, and we still “oohed” and “aahed” over the display; but I must confess we also had a good chuckle or two. Today it is still a fond story we love to tell. But thanks to Tia Nena, the spirit of Christmas is alive in our hearts.
I am not really much of a statues or relics person. But whether it is made of clay or plastic, sculpted in ivory, exquisitely carved in porcelain from Lladro, or just a grade school cardboard drawing, the Nativity tableau never fails to stir emotions deep in my heart. I suppose it brings out the child in me and I can play pretend all over again.
Picture this. It is Christmas Day and Tia Nena gently lays the infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloths, in the manger while Joseph and Mary look on. A few shepherds are at the entrance and watch in awe as the Wise Men enter, offer their gifts to Jesus and fall on their knees to worship Him. Some have left their sheep. But the others are still fast asleep.
This always baffled me. You mean some stayed behind? Did they not hear the angels? Were the tidings not glorious enough to get them excited?
Were they perhaps like many of us today, with our hearts and minds so hard that not even a host of angels can reach us?
What will it take to rouse us from this stupor of apathy? It is frightening to even think about it.
If they told you that the Redeemer of the World was at hand, would you not wake up from your slumber, drop everything and run to meet Him?
We are on the verge of another Christmas. Are we still standing at the edge of the stable? Will we stay outside just looking in, too afraid to come close, to be identified, or to be scorned by the politically correct sages averse to even saying the word, Christmas?
Do we respond to “Adeste Fideles” with cold indifference, or are we among the faithful, the joyful and triumphant?
If tonight you saw a bright star and it meant that God Himself had arrived, would you be like the wise men? Would you defy a reigning monarch like they did? What gift could you bring that would be fit for a King?
Here’s a little Christmas poem I learned as a child.
“What can I give you, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I’d give you a lamb.
If I were a wise man I’d do my part.
But what can I give you? I’ll give you my heart.”
Friends, this is all that Jesus wants for Christmas.
Is He on your list?