Category Archives: Christmas

Where Is Your Heart Tonight?

It is Christmas Eve.  Where is your heart tonight?

The reason for the celebration of this evening is the birth of Jesus Christ, known by Christians throughout the world as the true Son of God.  If you are of the Christian faith, tonight your heart is focused on the greatest event of human history, and the message that it brings to you in this miraculous form has your heart turned toward the birth, life and lessons of Jesus.  You are contemplating your own place in this saga of good and evil, earth and heaven, God and humanity,  receiving and giving.  You are humbled by your appearance in the story, seeking discernment about the nature of God’s hopes for you.

If you are of another faith, you are celebrating in a way reflective of those beliefs.  If you are of a non-Christian faith, tonight your heart is nonetheless focused on a message of love and peace and community, the foundational elements of most faiths, many of which are also celebrated in this month. You are still in awe at this time of year, in which so many people seem to pause and wonder aloud if some semblance of peace upon the earth is not possible, after all.  You are serene in both the moment and in the hope.

If you you are not a spiritual person, then you are celebrating this night in a secular enjoyment of family and the season of buying and giving gifts, and generally celebrating life   If you embrace no spiritual belief, tonight your heart is focused on the occasion of being together with people you love, expressing your joy in gifts and good food, togetherness in celebration and laughter and joyful in what life has provided for you.

If you are homeless or otherwise of marginal means, you may or may not be celebrating.  Circumstances don’t allow expenditures beyond the most basic of needs, and faith can be sorely tested if not accompanied by a decent meal and adequate shelter.  Maybe there’s a wish for celebration that is eclipsed by a part of you that is empty.

Four very different scenarios, four life experiences, four different nights of expectation.  And yet, I suggest that in each case, our hearts have been pre-programmed with the same inclinations for this eventide.  Those sensitivities focus on the other.

If Christian, then surely you are struggling with the recognition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” against the somber recognition that so many of your neighbors are in despair.  If Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, you are called likewise to the love of the other, in pursuit of your faith tenets.  If you are without spiritual affinity, you will experience this night the riches of your life, with an open window to how they dwarf the needs of so many others.  If homeless tonight, you know the desperate longings for survival and self-esteem, while communing with brothers and sisters at the same lonely crossroads.

All hearts this night are ready to feel, to touch, to revere the life of the other.  Sadly, not all hearts will embrace the invitation.

Where is your heart tonight….?

Another Voice

The following is an imagined letter from a rural farmer in Nicaragua to those of us in the developed North.  During this holiday time of year in the North, I have wondered how a peasant producer might regard our practices at Thanksgiving and Christmas, in light of realities of many in the global South to exist on less than $2 a day.  

I bring you warm greetings from Nicaragua!  I say warm greetings not only for saludos! but also because the temperatures here have been very warm, especially for this time of year.  Do you have high temperatures in the North?  We know that climate change is happening everywhere, but it seems like maybe it is worse for our countries in CentroAmerica.  They say that many of you do not think that it is real, but I do not believe that.

Our rainfall was plentiful this year.  In most areas it was satisfactory, but in other regions it was too much and the extra rainfall has hurt our plantings.  We are worried about this because in addition to the wet conditions, we are very concerned about the markets.  We have been discouraged by what we are told the markets will pay.  Also, now the so-called “free market” and the policy of CAFTA (do you know this agreement?) will include farm products with prices that make it impossible for small producers like me to compete.  With or without the rains, I am worried that our harvest cannot be sold at a good price.  I think this CAFTA may be a good thing for you in Estados Unidos, but it has created problems for my family.

Like you, we have just completed an election season!  My son is there in your country.  He is a laborer in North Dakota in the oil fields there.  He tells me that he thinks the election here in Nicaragua has brought a sadness to our people because the candidates did not tell the truth and there was much bitterness.  He said that people there do not know much about our elections, but that they don’t know much about their own, either.  Is it true that half of your people did not vote?  We also have difficulties here.  We are told that 60% of Nicaraguans voted, but most of us don’t believe that number.  President Ortega was really the only candidate. Sometimes he says some outrageous things and many cannot support that.  But our democracy is not as old as yours and we are still trying to become better.   Do you like Mr. Trump?

We are able to see that you have begun your holiday festivals now.  On the television I watched your Giving-thanks day, with all of the food that you have and big roasted birds!  It looks like an enjoyable feast.  I was wondering if all of the food gets eaten by each family.  We have our festivals and celebrations, of course, but the food is not nearly so plentiful as what I have seen in pictures.    For many of us in Nicaragua, it would be hard to imagine so much food at one time!

One thing that I don’t understand is what you have called viernes negro, or “Black Friday,” which really seems to begin on your Giving-thanks day.  If your Giving-thanks day is a time for your family to be together and give thanks, why is that demonstrated by leaving the home to do buying?  Maybe buying more things is one of your ways of being thankful?  This year, I have heard that “Black Friday” happened in some stores here.  We have some U.S. stores here who started to do it.  But for most of us, buying is for satisfying a need that we have.  It looks like in the United States that buying is more of an activity all by itself, and one that you do even when you do not have an actual need.  My son says that it is a psychological need that you have, that you do even more of it when there is a crisis, to make you feel better.  I remember that this was your way of coping with the terrible 9/11 incident.

We are soon to see the first of our festivities before Christmas. In several days we begin “La Purisima” or as my son translates it,  the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary.  Many thousands of young people in the country sing as loudly as they can and go from house to house to sing hymns honoring the Virgin Mary.   In small towns like where I live there is an old custom of the Catholic Church organizing a parade. The priest goes around the town with a number of performers imitating people from the Bible and enacting the birth of Jesus Christ. Many people view this parade with great devotion.
Do you still celebrate the birth of Jesus or is your holiday more about buying?  My son tells me that in some places you cannot even celebrate Jesus in public but I do not believe that could be true at Christmas!

I have enjoyed writing to you!  I hope that my letter is not boring or irritating.  I have never been to your country and do not know it too well.  I would like to come there and see Disney World.  Also the Statue of Liberty.  It would be difficult for that to happen, so maybe you will come here to visit.  We do not have as many things as you, but we have beautiful land and our hearts are open to you….

Adios, Su amigo Nicaraguense





Ordinary People

It’s been weeks since I last posted an entry, but the absence hasn’t been for the reasons you might expect.  Yes, the holidays came and went during this time, but as filled as they might have been with family at home, time for posting was not limited.  I did not travel anywhere nor did my computer suffer a winter hibernation.  Nonetheless, my time has been impacted by the passage of the holidays and two other significant events: the a two-week bout with the flu and a cold, and the birth of a grandchild.  As commonplace as all of these events might be (though for any grandparent there is no grandchild who is commonplace), their presence in recent days has had me thinking about the ordinary disruptions of daily life, how we experience them and the extent of their impacts.

The holidays themselves pose any number of distractions that can take me out of my daily rhythms.  We plan and prepare for family visits (a household of two is a very different space than a household of ten), change the quantity and content of our meals (cookies are terrific but not very forgiving) and a visit with an elderly neighbor becomes not just a nice time to chat but a holiday expectation (even though she professes to have had all the Christmases she needs).  I suppose that such distractions are among the attractions of the holidays, as they force us out of the sameness of everyday life, even if the routines are the same as other years gone by.  At least they aren’t the same as May or September routines.

Succumbing to illness, especially at this time of year, is especially interruptive, since we have expectations of gaiety and joy; indeed, every advertisement on television informs us of just the right gifts needed to provide giddy ecstasy over the holidays.  Illness, even if not particularly life-threatening, dims the brightness of the days and extends the wakefulness of the nights in a grotesquely unfair example of poor timing, which no amount of tissues or hot liquids can erase.  Holiday illness is the taskmaster of patience, at a time when Godspeed is needed.

To lighten such a load, the birth of a grandchild is highly recommended.  Tiny Claire Elizabeth came into this sphere on January 7, bringing with her the usual fanfare of newborns: the stress of childbirth, the anxiety of families, the thrill of new life, the introspective gravitas of a new legacy, the first cry of perseverance and finally, the unbridled joy of those who will be her family.  What event could be sweeter than this-  the newest piece to life’s puzzle.

So our days have been filled with mixtures of celebration, struggle, anxiety, fears, comforts, dreams and spiritual balm.  The rush of the holidays has passed by for another year, the discomforts of a winter illness have finally sought new victims for their misery and a newborn child has begun her journey of enriching, teaching and loving.

After ten years of working between two cultures and world views, the passage of these past weeks has given me pause to reflect upon the ordinary events and people of that other space in my life, Nicaragua.  What are the holidays and illnesses and births like for my friends in that country, and how do they unfold?  How do such occurrences impact the activities of those who experience them?

I think we can guess at the reality.  The holidays occupy a significant part of many Nicaraguans’ lives, as the celebration of the birth of Jesus is national in its importance.  But there is no frenzy to buy lavish gifts and to host overflowing holiday feasts for most: sufficiency at the table and in the home is difficult enough to maintain on ordinary days, though worthy enough of deep gratitude.

Nicaraguans become ill just like anyone else, so cough remedies and Indigenous recipes abound.  (Honey mixed in rum is what I have been recommended.)  Nicaraguans are not immune to the viruses that seem to stop us in our tracks.  It’s simply a case that Nicaraguans have a much more difficult time stopping in theirs; there is no safety net for such work stoppage and the margin of sufficiency too small to allow the luxury of staying at home or sipping hot chicken soup.  They cannot afford to stop for fear of falling further behind.  There are occasions when illness gets in the way of keeping up.  It’s when one of the particularly virulent strains of virus or bacteria attack the health of a worker and the ability to keep going is lost to the emergency of simply staying alive.  Poverty has a way of breeding brands of illness that make my cold of the past weeks seem like a hiccup.  It seems our respective senses of the ordinary are quite different from one another.

And when it comes to having children and grandchildren enter their lives, Nicaraguans feel the same range of emotion that the rest of us do, I suppose.  But whereas the dreams for Claire Elizabeth include notions of education, achievement and wholeness of life, dreams for the newly-born in Nicaragua may be far different.  The family of a newborn Angelina may dream first of survival and good health for their little girl.  Their prayers might include petitions for enough to eat, water to safely consume, and strength enough to be able to work on the coffee farm at an early age.  Their hopes likely include visions of their daughter being able to stay in school past the third grade, maybe even being schooled to high school, though the hope may be, practically speaking, a long shot.

What constitutes the ordinary for us depends very heavily upon where the miracle of birth and the journey of life occurs.  When we spend even a few moments in reflection and appreciation of that truth, it changes things.  Like the way we choose to celebrate the joys of our lives.  Like the acceptance of a temporary illness as a minor distraction instead of a major roadblock.  And like a growing awareness of just how extra-ordinary our own lives really have become….



Points of Light

I’ve been busy putting up Christmas lights around the house and outdoors.  As long as the temperature isn’t below zero Fahrenheit, it’s a pleasant task.  I feel as though I’m creating something new and worth the effort.  It’s an advent in every sense of the word, and there is anticipation that something very good is about to happen.  Lights bring an energy to the night, a comfort, an aesthetic hope that somehow we’ll always find a way through the dark times of our lives.  I think it’s why we put lights up and why passers-by enjoy them.

Lights are not always easy to work with.  Usually, before they can assume their proper role, they are a tangled mess.  Even right out of the new box, there are ties to be unwound and stretching to be done so that each string of lights can reach their full extent.  Time usually generates the flexibility necessary for best performance, though time can also introduce deterioration in some lines.  In those cases, dependability becomes suspect and I generally lose patience in working with those lights.  And patience is an essential in working with lights!

Reliability is a big issue with lights: you want to have confidence that after you’ve put them up and turned them on they’ll work.  Few things are more frustrating than investing time and effort into a new string of lights and then having them fail.

Failure can come about for a number of reasons.  Power is always a factor.  If the source of power is compromised in any way, the lights will never shine.  Likewise, if the power does not reach every bulb in the string, only a very few of the lights will glow.  I’ve been intrigued by some claims which suggest that a line of lights will stay lit even if one or more burn out, but I haven’t had much success with those.  It’s been far more common that every light in a string dims and eventually goes out when other bulbs are not working.  Bulbs need to be checked and replaced when that happens.  It’s tedious and sometimes difficult work, especially if it’s cold outside or the project is a large one with lots of other lights that could be affected.  It seems as though when I start working with them I can never quite tell exactly where the problem lights are going to be; otherwise, I’d place them in a way so as to be more quickly accessible.  But lights are among the most fickle of things.  When I test them, they all seem to shine.  But in use, there are always one or two that are burned out.

My friends who never put up lights sometimes ask me why I do it.  They rightly point out that it’s time-consuming and often uncomfortable, not to mention the expense of energy.  I suppose they’re correct in those observations, if I think dispassionately about them.  But there are times, I’ve heard it said, when it’s best to think with one’s head but follow one’s heart, and that’s what has always encouraged me to work with lights.  I can even recall the first “energy crisis” in 1974, when neighborhoods went dark on winter evenings because of the fear of not enough capacity for everyone to be served.  Katie and I still placed a couple of strings  down our front railings, just to remind ourselves (and anyone else who might have been looking) that lights can be very special, even in the darkest times, maybe even more so with diverse colors.

I’ve got everything completed now, or at least for the time being.  I’m ready for the forces of nature, come what may.  Whether it be the cold winds that howl and tug at the light strings, the snows that cover everything until even the lights can’t be seen, or the slick, freezing rains  that are slippery enough to bring down the most stable display, nature will do its best to have its own way.  But for now, we have lights.  And we’ll work all winter to keep them lit….