How To Celebrate Christmas In Guatemala and the Meaning of Christmas

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Last year I learned the meaning of Christmas.  I spent Christmas 2010 in Guatemala, away from the snow of Colorado and more importantly away from my family.  Guatemala, or at least my home city of Xela, doesn’t celebrate Christmas the way most of the world celebrates the birth of Christ.  Sure at the Inter-American School, where I worked, we had a Christmas Play.  Last year the elementary performed the well known play Izzy Saves Christmas, where Izzy the mouse saves Christmas.  Haven’t heard of it?  Well, it’s a Guatemalan staple, or it is now.

I also taught my students what the best kind of Christmas party is; a White Elephant Party.  Who doesn’t want to go home with an alarm clock in a country where it is better to use your cellphone as an alarm at night, because anything plugged into the wall just might lose power.

But where Guatemala, and especially Xela, differs from Christmas in the United States is Christmas Eve.  Growing up as a Presbyterian Pastor’s kid in the United States, my family’s Christmas tradition centered around our church’s Christmas Eve service.  Every year, especially when I was younger, my mom would force me into my Christmas best, drive me and my sisters to church, and we would light the Christ Candle.  As I documented last year, in my blog I’ll Be Home For Christmas, my family always had the misfortune of lighting the Christ Candle, which never went smoothly.  I fought with my sister in front of 1,000 plus people who’d come to church expecting to hear how Christ came to bring peace on earth and goodwill to men.  The next year they expected something else, and I did not fail them.   I dropped a lit match on the carpet floor.  Fortunately the church didn’t burn down.

I did not have to light the Christ Candle for Christmas Eve in Xela.  I was a spectator, surrounded by friends and Guatemalan families who had come to celebrate Christ’s birth.  As much as I missed being with my family last year I enjoyed witnessing how the Latin culture celebrates Christmas.  My favorite part of the service at Saint Mark’s was the Posada.  A handful of kids marched into the church dressed as Guatemalan Marias and Joses with sumbreros and mustaches followed by a very Guatemalan baby Jesus Cristo.

Shortly after the service, after I had sung my share of Spanish Christmas Carols I headed back to my house with Skyy a fireworks crazed freshman , his mom Susan, whose house I lived at, Jen (co-worker), Blake and Amy (co-workers), Blake’s family, and Holland (another co-worker) and his boys to set off fireworks.  Ask anyone in Guatemala and they will tell you setting off fireworks is the real reason for the season.  I may have spent upwards of twenty dollars on fireworks, which didn’t even match all of the explosives Skyy brought to the table.  Us guys took the next couple of hours detonating our ammunition.  At midnight Xela sounded as if it were under attack, the entire city lit up like the large Christ Candle.

Christmas Eve has aways been family time for me, quiet and relaxing (after the Christmas Eve service at least).  This year I plan on watching “How Earnest Saved Christmas” with my two sisters.  I look forward to waking up on Christmas morning and being with my family.  But I will always remember how much fun I had lighting off fireworks and celebrating my savior’s birth with people my Guatemalan family.

Christmas is not about what you do, what you give or what you get, but in the end it is about enjoying the birth of Christ with those who are around you.  No matter where you are.  Last year on Christmas day Donna and Laurel McMarlin (Laurel was one of my co-workers) welcomed me into their family and shared their Christmas with me.  They helped make what could have been a lonely day, a day full of love and celebration, which made for a perfect Christmas.

I’ll be home for Christmas

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells,” which is used in the song above, while he was grieving the fact that his nation was at war.  He was lonely on Christmas because his son had left to fight in the Civil War.  Loneliness around Christmas time is a pain that mocks the song, peace on earth and good will to men.  Christmas would have been extremely difficult for me if I hadn’t been able to see my dad open his Tim Tebow jersey or my mom unwrap her new cook wear.  It’s nice to think about peace on earth and good will to men, but my selfish desire was to be home.  Unfortunately I didn’t make it home.  I decided to stay in Guatemala so I could go to Hawaii this summer with my family, but it meant my first Christmas away from my family.  But Christmas Eve, as the old familiar carols played, it was very difficult.  Mostly because those carols were in spanish, but also because they made me think of home.

Every year of my life, as far as I know, I’ve spent every Christmas Eve helping my dad out at church.  If you define the word help by fighting with Katie, my older sister, in front of 1,000 people, or dropping the lighter as I tried to light the Christ candle, setting the sanctuary carpet on fire.  But this year I celebrated Christmas Eve Spanish style, with the sermon and carols in Spanish.  I know all of the Christmas carols by heart, but it was dang near impossible to sing in English while everyone else was singing in Spanish.  I forced myself to try to sing with them, but wild and sweet the words repeated with more of a fra, ra, ra, ra, ra, ra, ra, ra, ra! (At least I wasn’t being forced to eat Chinese food like Ralphie) Yet as I heard the bells on Christmas Eve I thought how, as the night had come, there were fireworks to be lit.  The blasts were strong and the colors bright.  Then peeled the bombs more loud and clear.  It was midnight and the birth of Christ had come.

As weird as it may seem, I woke up on Christmas morning with the lyrics I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams in my head.  Maybe in my dreams I had been able to make it home for Christmas.  Instead I woke up in my bed in Guatemala.  At 7:30 am on Christmas morning, I’ve never been one to sleep in on Christmas day, a cold fog still weighed itself over Xela.  It made it seem a little like a white Christmas.  It was cold so I hopped back in bed and waited for my parents to Skype me.

8 came and went and as great of an invention as Skype is, it still takes two to tango.  Fortunately gmail has a nifty little call function that allows me to make free calls to the states.  I called up my dad on his cellphone.  He answered with a sound of shock in his voice and immediately hopped on Skype.  I was able to be home for Christmas via modern technology.  I enjoyed watching Emmy, my sister, open up my gift for her.  While we were shopping in Antigua, she eyed a coffee bag purse.  I knew she wanted to buy it for herself so I had to convince her it was hideous.  It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.  Try convincing a fashionista something they think is cool is fopa. Ha! What do I really know about style.  But she listened to me and was pleasantly surprised when she unwrapped her gift.  It was very special.  It’s beautiful how something as simple as giving a gift can bring to mind peace on earth.

I was blessed to Skype with my family and spend the day with friends that I have made down here.  If everyone can spend Christmas being reminded they are loved, the wrong shall fail and the right prevail and we’ll all be home for Christmas.