As we prepare for the coming of Christmas, it’s fascinating to note both the nature and pace of activities we embrace in readiness for the occasion. Aside from the rampant consumerism which grips our society these days like a rogue virus, it seems as though advent is filled with a host of traditions and practices which have become as much a part of the season as Santa Claus or decorated trees. For me, dropping money into the Salvation Army kettles and hearing the bell ringers on the sidewalks and at shopping malls is one of those iconic images that belongs to the season. There are many such signs of the approaching day and they all serve to heighten our anticipation and enjoyment of this time of year.
It has also become commonplace for me to think about acquaintances I have made in Nicaragua and how they might be preparing for Christmas. While I have never been in the country in the days and weeks immediately preceding Christmas, I nonetheless envision what I think might be going on in the hearts and heads of people I know there. I do know this: for all of the seasonal similarities we might share between cultures, there are some very different realities occupying our respective outlooks.
This evening my wife and I will drive to the local campground, where local organizations have donated scores of Christmas light displays to dazzle kids of all ages. A free-will donation is requested from visitors so that local charitable organizations might be helped at this busy time of year, and for that donation we will wend our way through the campground and behold some very impressive displays lighting up the night. Then we will drive through part of the town and notice the individual displays that many homes have put up, some of which are absolutely jaw-dropping in their size and illumination. In Nicaragua, electric power is not typically for use in such a way. There are festive lights erected at some of the various plazas and intersections in the capitol city of Managua, placed there by the government and actually left in place throughout the year as a sort of daily reminder of the generosity of the party in power. Otherwise, electricity- when it’s available- is reserved for more necessary purposes, and the luxury of individual holiday lights is rare.
Our shopping season has been in high gear for weeks now, with shoppers desperately trying to find the items which will balloon their total gift shopping expenses this year to an average of $450 for each and every family across the country. My Nicaraguan friends will give gifts to one another, as well, but in decidedly smaller proportions. After all, the $450 each of us will spend on Christmas gifts alone will represent almost half of the average annual income of families in Nicaragua. There, money is spent where it is needed. Here, gift-giving money is spent where it is wanted, largely because- for most of us- truly essential needs have been met as a way of life. It’s the ipad replaced by a bag of rosquillas.
In the north, we all tend to be a bit schizophrenic with the approach of holiday eating: we look forward to the self-indulgence which surrounds us in these days, and we cringe at the knowledge that we will be filled with regret after they pass. We both love and despise the surfeit of our holiday diet, reveling in our excess and then cursing its result. Our neighbors to the south will celebrate around food, too, but will use it as the necessity that it is rather than a show of plenty it could become.
This year’s season is not without its context. In the U.S. we approach the holidays with an uneasy uncertainty about the looming “fiscal cliff,” its presence a tempering factor in our celebrations. We consume and spend this holiday season not knowing whether we will be able to afford to do so again next year. It is a bothersome recognition which, while not stopping us, nonetheless makes us wonder whether we really might be headed for a giant step off that cliff in the near future. In Nicaragua, there is no such uncertainty. The step from the cliff was taken long ago, and the resulting freefall has abated little since then. For Nicaraguans, the question is one of the landing. We might despair at having less discretionary income to spend on ourselves after substantially all of our needs are met; Nicaraguans still wonder about meeting those needs. Christmas blessings take on a different tone and texture as a result.
Christmas is one of those rare holidays that is observed in virtually every country in the world. Whether viewed as the celebration of the birth of Jesus or simply viewed as a time of thanks and giving, it is as universal a day in the life of the world as we are ever likely to have. But as is true in the case of even the most universal of truths, our perspective shapes our perceptions….