Once upon a time, on the second half of last century, this St Ann foreign born parishioner, spent her first Advent season and holidays in this country.
At the time, I was a student at a State university in Michigan during the advent season, and spent Christmas in Washington DC with Argentinean friends.
By then, I had been in the country for about 11 months. My first cultural shock, common to most foreigners in a new land, had been almost overcome. I thought I was through with cultural surprises. But I was wrong. The bustling and shopping craze that started after Thanksgiving was a new experience for me. I learned a new tradition: it was the time for shopping for gifts and for joyful party preparations, for decorating, for wearing ugly (sorry!) seasonal sweaters with festive designs, awesome illuminations and Christmas trees, wreaths in the doors and everywhere, malls transformed into wonderlands with Santa Claus visiting… Some homes added nativity scenes, and other colorful decorations in the front of their homes and in windows. Music and choirs were sung in plazas and malls, in the radio. Television was new and Internet, social media, mobile phones did not exist in the middle 60’s. This amazing spectacle was, and still is, the visible splendor of the season. They are exterior symbols, images, sounds and smells of a time of anticipation, that should call us to reflect on what we celebrate annually: Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Lord, human and divine. Do these displays call our hearts to the spiritual meaning of the season?
I look back to this time of the year during my childhood and youth in Argentina. All the memories happened before Vatican II. God was introduced by the Church mostly as a Judge. The Masses were in Latin… Yes, I am a senior, but many of these memories are very alive.
In my native land, more subdued decorations and gift giving were the norm. The city also reflected the season, but as I remember, with less exuberance. Small Nativity scenes were the focus at homes, and a small Christmas tree by its side. Work and office parties. But, what I do dearly miss are the huge and elaborated Nativity scenes by the side of the altar in all churches in Buenos Aires. At the beginning of Advent, we could see the story of Bethlehem beginning to be told in displays. Ground, mountains, lakes, shepherds, animals, stables, a few building structures in the village, appeared at the side of the altar. Then, each week we could see the developing story of Joseph and Mary’s journey on the donkey and searching for a room to give birth to Jesus. It was a visual storytelling developing until the Christmas Mass when the Baby was set in the humble stable crib. The narrative continued with the appearance of the three kings and camels arriving by January 6th. How we celebrated Epiphany is another beautiful tradition, loved by children. A story for another time... Churches competed on the beauty and portrayal of the storytelling. I remember we visited several churches to “compare” the Nativities, and we also prayed and gave praise in each visit. Many Catholics and Christians entered churches on this season, even if they were not regular churchgoers, like my own family. I am sure the Lord talked to many hearts in those briefs encounters.
Santa Claus is called “Papá Noel” in my country. He may be poorer than Santa Claus: he only brings small gifts for each family member and as expressions of gratitude, for a few especial relationships. The most important activity on Christmas Day is the big meal with the extended family together, mostly at noon on the 25th. Sharing a meal is always an important sacred time for Latin American people. Those who attended Mass did it around the extended family meal time. This getting together was a holy ritual.
Then, I learned a new American/Hispanic tradition when I settled in Texas more than thirty years ago. I was surprised by the Mexican customs, that were totally foreign to my religious and human experience. Same faith, same Church, and different expressions of our faith in praise and adoration, liturgy, songs, music, activities and foods. Our multicultural parish, in its diversity, is a microcosm of the Church and the world. Our parish family is blessed in its diversity not only by multiple ethnicities and races, but also in socio economic differences, all united in faith and where everyone is loved equally by our common Father.
The giving spirit of the season leads us to share our blessings with Jesus, who is present in each one of our brothers and sisters, extending our gifts to many with less resources in the community at large, but who are spiritually rich by God’s infinite love and grace. I hope we give to the “other” with a generous attitude remembering we are just God’s stewards of everything we possess, and are called to share it with our brothers and sisters without a condescending attitude.
I pray that in this season of hope and love, we may really encounter Christ, and open our hearts to his Love, making him a friend, a companion on the road, a guide, a teacher, always present in our midst. The person I became has its foundation on those early experiences in my native land and in all my pilgrimage adventures along the way, in two countries and in many places in each. The Lord was, and is, my beloved trusted and faithful Friend, always present.
Merry and joyful Christmas to everyone and my prayers for many blessings for all.
Article by Cody Serra