Christmas is a precious time
1940. Our parish church in the Bronx was the plainest church ever built in New York City. It was just one-story tall, without any spire or bell tower, and looked very much like the garages that lined Jerome Avenue. In winter it was either too cold or too hot, with the old radiators hissing, banging and complaining. But on Christmas Eve it was transformed: Our pastor, Fr. Michael Walsh, brought in hundreds of Christmas trees and wreaths, so we seemed to be in a pine-scented clearing in a forest with the fresh air of spring. The youngest priest had trained the older boys to be a choir, and we heard tenor voices singing Latin hymns, from boys who had hardly ever finished a sentence without the “F” word or “S” word. And, most surprising, Father Walsh gave each of us altar boys 25 cents after the Midnight Mass. He told each of us: “Go home now and give this to your mothers. God will reward you.”
In time the older boys went off to war, and some were killed. We would read of US Marines fighting on some Pacific island or in the Philippines, and weeks later we would hear that one of the older boys had died in that place.
1949. We lay awake on Christmas Eve in the Jesuit Novitiate, listening to the lonely horn of the trains moving along the Hudson River. It was our first Christmas away from home. Jesus promised a hundredfold reward for those who would leave all and follow Him, but He had no cure for homesickness. Eventually we fell asleep.
Then, at about 11 p.m., the older seminarians who had finished with the Novitiate came into our barracks-like dormitories with lighted candles, singing “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles.” They sang until we were all awake and it was time to get up for Midnight Mass. It seemed like an instant of heaven to wake up to the carols and candles.
1960s. In the late 1960s I celebrated the Misa de Gallo in Slip Zero, Tondo. I took a taxi to the north side of Del Pan Bridge and then walked in through an alley and across a field of sand and glass fragments near the San Miguel bottle factory to Slip Zero. Everything was peaceful in the early morning. With Christmas lights festooning some of the people’s shanties, Slip Zero seemed an enchanted place.
The small chapel that the men had built was full of women and children. After building the chapel the men thought they had done their share and weren’t needed anymore. I asked certain people to prepare a talk about the Gospel of the day for each early-morning Mass, and then we would have a shared homily. It was all very simple, with the children asleep and the shanties so similar to the stable in which Jesus was born that it was as if the years had slipped away and we were back in Bethlehem.
Sometimes the Mass went on and on and it was almost daylight when we finished. The roosters crowed, the dogs barked, the rest of the people were up and wondering how they would earn enough to feed their families. The members of the people’s organization Zoto were thinking how to avoid being evicted by the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.
Lately. In the last few years I have played Santa Claus for poor children in Payatas and along Estero de San Miguel. I have grown into the role—that is, I have put on weight in the proper places and I have rehearsed my speech to the children: “Santa Claus ako, ako’y galing sa Norte, sa malamig na malamig na Norte. Doon may polar bears at whales. Ang aking asawa na si Alice ay doon nanggaling.”
Two things I’ve noticed. One is that everyone loves Santa Claus. When people see me in the car with my Santa uniform on, everyone waves happily, even policemen and the tough guys you see in our urban poor areas. Second, I see in the eyes of the poor children who come to me in a line to get their gift such admiration and affection that I am humbled. I feel like saying to them, “Don’t look at me so lovingly. I’m just an ordinary old man. You should only look on God and His mother, and your own father and mother, like that.”
One of the wisest things that Philippine society has done is to lengthen the Christmas season. In New York, Christmas lasts a day and a half. Here it is two weeks and sometimes more. Maybe we need the break more than other people because of our traffic, our politics and our bewildering weather.
Whether we deserve it or not, it is a precious time. The Medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart told us: “At least be grateful.” We are alive at Christmas in a free country where most people are trying to be better and more merciful. There is much to be grateful for.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).
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