My first association with Christmas as a child was the reality of “vacation.”
It was 10 days of intense pond hockey, sledding, going to matinee movies, sleeping in late — with lots of chocolate chip cookies, college football, and basketball games. The glittering glow of the Christmas tree reminded us that in a few days, piles of presents would appear and the celebration would continue throughout that glorious day.
“The poverty-stricken surroundings of the villages of El Salvador were more symbolic of the true meaning of Christmas than any other place I had been in my life.”
A mom was recently asked by her eight-year-old, “If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, then why do we give presents to each other?”
Many children and families all over the world, however, are more concerned with where their next meal will come from than what will be under the tree. I had firsthand experience with some of these families during the Christmas season.
About two dozen fathers, sons, and I went to El Salvador for five consecutive years, from 2008 to 2013, the week before Christmas — with most of the group coming from the greater D.C. and New York City area. We stayed at a very simple retreat house in the mountain region of Zaragoza, just over an hour outside of the capital city, San Salvador.
Our days were spent trudging up and down the mountainous paths of rural and poor villages and visiting homes, offering blessings, and celebrating a Mass in their hermita (small chapel). We also formed an ad hoc choir, singing Christmas carols in homes, nursing homes, and orphanages. The orphanage was particularly a tear-jerker. The children had been truly abandoned — they had no relatives or family to pick them up for the holidays.
We also brought over 30 suitcases packed with toys, shoes, clothes, and soccer balls that we distributed to over 1,200 people at the parish on our final day. Many waited in line for over three hours, and they were so grateful to walk out with a pair of new or slightly used shoes and maybe a soccer ball. My hands hurt from shaking the hands of so many grateful, smiling moms.
Christopher Neal, a D.C. dad who went on two of these trips, said, “The humble, simple, poverty-stricken surroundings of the villages of El Salvador were more symbolic of the true meaning of Christmas than any other place I had been in my life. No electronics, no TV ads, no scrambling around for gifts … It was all about friends, family, faith, and helping others.”
I was struck by the fact that they do not give out any presents for Christmas and they are definitely not on vacation. Besides Christmas Day itself, the people there continue their grueling 14-hour work days picking corn and coffee beans in the fields for $5 a day — but the evenings leading up to Christmas are a little different.
Each village recruits a team of potential actors to “play out” the nativity scene. Mary and Joseph are, of course, the prized roles, but there is plenty of room for angels, shepherds, a “baby Jesus,” and a variety of village animals often tag along. They saunter from home to home, playing out what actually happened over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem … This is the “highlight” of their Christmas season.
The families arrange their tiny and often broken plastic Christmas trees with homemade decorations to prepare to “receive baby Jesus,” and Christmas carols can be softly heard echoing from these tiny shacks as the procession moves through the village.
One of the boys from Washington, D.C., who had come from an extremely privileged background, was asked to give a little testimony at the end of the parish Mass.
He said, with a trembling and sincere tone, “This is my first time outside of the United States and the Bahamas, where we typically spend Christmas as a family. I have often heard the expression, ‘The joy of the Christmas season,’ but although I am surrounded by so many material things and fun moments, I have never seen or felt this much joy in my life. You have nothing, but you have everything because you have a deep faith — and I would like to thank you for the gift of sharing it with all of us.”
Enjoy your vacation, give and receive presents, make gingerbread cookies, and have some fun this Christmas. But do not forget that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. He left the peace and comforts of heaven to be our friend, our companion, and our brother along this journey of life.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.