All around the world, Christians are setting out decorations and preparing to celebrate the coming of Christ as a baby. Each culture, each community, each family has its own special traditions.
On my fifth birthday a little friend gave me a cardboard nativity set. Every year, on the first weekend in December, I carefully take it from its box and set it up. In this house, it has always gone on the kitchen counter. I unfold the base, insert the stable pieces, put the roof on, insert the background. Each vertical piece has little slots that slip into little semi-circles that fold up from the base. The pieces have to go in order...the animals, the shepherds, the wise men, the adoring child. After everything else is in place, I take up the last piece...Mary is dressed in a soft blue and Joseph in red stands behind her, and in her lap is a chubby baby Jesus. I look at this piece for some moments, and think about what it was like to be Mary. Maybe this is something every girl, every woman thinks about, what it would have been like to have to go door to door, at night, looking for a place to have a baby and then to be Jesus' Mommy.
As worship ended, the sky grew dark. We picked up our lanterns - made with strips of balsa wood, cardboard, colored cellophane, and candles - and went searching for a place where Jesus could be born. The crowd was large with many children, and the children who were accompanied by their pastor led the procession. We stopped at the first place, and read a poem asking if there was room for Mary and Joseph to stay. No. We asked at the second place if there was room to stay. No. Finally at the third place, there was room and there we found Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus.
There, in Quezaltepeque, we celebrated the New Year by going door to door, just as Mary and Joseph did, in the tradition of las posadas.
After the journey through the neighborhood, we gathered in the half-finished church, seated helter-skelter in plastic chairs under the stars, for a celebration dinner. The women of the community had labored all day long to make enough tamales to feed the crowd. Chicken is a treat in this poor community, and no part was wasted as a couple of our kids found out as they bit into a beak, a bone, a foot. The neighborhood dogs enjoyed those extra little bits of surprise.
After dinner, a clown came out to entertain the kids. This was no ordinary clown, this was a clown with a political agenda and a ranting style. This clown was just plain scary. As the clown handed out treats to the kids, we gathered up our kids and shared good-bye hugs all around.
As I set up my cardboard nativity, I sometimes wonder what traditions my kids will remember or preserve from their childhood. Maybe a posada journey from house to house, maybe beautiful faces lit by candlelight, maybe a holiday tamale, maybe a laugh about a beak or a foot, maybe a story about an exuberant clown, and surely the feeling of big Christmas hugs on a starry night in Quezaltepeque.