While I was growing up, Christmas celebrations always centered around the coming of el Niño Dios, or Baby Jesus (well, actually, the literal translation would be something like the child God). Presents under the tree would be addressed from el Niño Dios, and, after I found the stash of presents in my parents’ bedroom closet, my father explained that el Niño Dios gave mommies and daddies the money to go buy the presents.
Santa Claus was an American abstraction. I don’t remember him much in my childhood, though I’m sure I must’ve believed in him somehow. After all, I grew up somewhere in the gray area between el Niño Dios and Santa – between Colombia and USA.
We spent the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve, the main celebration, migrating from family home to family home, reciting the prayers of the Christmas Novena (each day, a different prayer in addition to prayers for Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and San José) and singing villancicos, spanish Christmas songs. We’d bring out guitars, maracas, panderetas and any other noisemaker to accompany the songs: Tutaina, Rin Rin, A la Nanita Nana, Noche de Paz, Los Peces en el Rio and many more. We’d cram into the homes, because we were many and our homes were small, and lay out buñuelos and natilla to munch on after we’d prayed and sung. Then, we’d just talk, laugh, and spend time together, as a family.
(Side-note – this is the bulk of my memories as an older child/teenager/young adult. As a young child, when I still lived in Westchester and my mom’s family was still scattered between Cali and New York, I don’t remember lively Novenas. Instead, I remember my father teaching me to play the piano and then playing select Christmas songs in English and Spanish for my neighbors while reading verses of the Christmas story from St. Luke.)
On Christmas Eve, we’d gather in someone’s house, like with the novenas, and each family would bring a dish. Chairs would line the walls and the furniture would be temporarily rearranged to make room for everyone. When everyone was there, we’d pray and sing the last novena. The kids would run around (and there were always many kids), and the teenagers would meander around the front yard or sometimes sit on the stairs, rolling their eyes at the traditions but enjoying the time with their cousins. Adults would sit and reminisce, as is usually done when they get together, far from their native land. They’d say a lot of “Remember when…” The “party” would start anywhere between 6 and 8 PM, and we’d stay up past midnight. At midnight, we’d exchange gifts and then some would go home, some would go to midnight mass, and others would sleep over and leave the next day. Christmas day was spent quietly, in smaller numbers, with immediate families.
But celebrating Christmas was always about the coming of the Christ child. Baby Jesus. El Niño Dios. While Christmas trees and lights were nice, and we had both, they weren’t the focus of the holiday.
I see my son now, at three, beginning to understand what Christmas is and I worry. I love the “non-religious” associations of Christmas: the trees, the lights, the Santas (and snowmen). I love that it’s a time to spend with family. But I worry because sometimes it seems that’s all Christmas is today. If you go to the store, the commercialization of Christmas is evident. Isles and isles of indoor and outdoor decorations, lights, presents, and knick knacks fill the stores. Neighbors try to outdo each other in decking the homes with “Christmas cheer.” But ask anyone to talk about the real meaning of Christmas, the reason why we celebrate, and people get quiet. They whisper.
Of course, that’s not everyone. I smile when I see nativity sets embedded in the Christmas decorations. It’s a way of saying: I enjoy the outward showings of this holiday, but I know why I’m celebrating it.
My son doesn’t yet understand Santa. When he had his picture taken with Santa, Santa asked him what he wanted for Christmas. My son replied: jingle bells and a star. (That might be because he was watching Mickey Mouse Christmas DVD, but I found it cute that he didn’t ask for presents.) But everything we see on TV about Christmas is related to Santa bringing presents. There’s no mention of Baby Jesus at all. I mean, I like Santa. He’s a nice guy and he’s got a giving heart. I love watching the Santa/Christmas shows that show good values, the “Christmas Spirit,” etc. But what worries me, I guess, is that if I didn’t explain to my son why we have Christmas, all he’d know is that Christmas is a holiday to spend with family and get presents from Santa. That’s certainly part of what’s done in Christmas, but it’s not the reason we have Christmas.
(Side note, I’ve realized I don’t know much about Santa, either, other than what’s been fed to me by the media. I mean, how did the figure of Santa come to be? Why is he known as Santa, St. Nicholas (who was actually a Catholic saint), Kris Kringle? I’ve heard rumors of him being a pagan figure to representing the winter solstice. Someday, I’ll find the time to read about the history of all that with which we associate Christmas.)
But I want my son to know why we celebrate Christmas. It’s because el Niño Dios was born, the first Christmas gift given to a world that was in need. It’s because we’re celebrating the birth of Baby Jesus. There are other good associations that I want him to take from Christmas: hope, faith, love, family. Doing good. Helping others. Of course, many of these should be done year-round, but Christmas seems to be a good time to remind ourselves of those things that are important to us, really important (not the latest video game or gadget – those are nice if we can afford them, but they’re NOT the reason for Christmas). In the middle of it all, though, is that lonely manger where God’s only son was born. That’s why we’re celebrating.
There’s a beautiful section in Epcot’s Candlelight Processional, possibly one of my favorite renditions of the Christmas story, and it says something along the lines of this: of all the kings, armies, parliaments, put together, none have affected mankind the way this one man, Jesus, has for over two-thousand years. Jesus’s birth is the reason we celebrate Christmas.
I’m still trying to find ways of merging the two forms of celebration so it’s seamless for my son. So he can understand. We bought a Christmas flag recently, which I think sums it up nicely: Santa is kneeling down besides Baby Jesus, his head bowed. Underneath is an inscription: Santa’s first stop.
I’ve made a decision: Santa’s not bringing my son presents this year, el Niño Dios is. But I’m not going to keep Santa away, either. Somehow, someway, I’ll make the two fit together so it’s understandable for a three-year-old.