Christmas Day

Lights at night are quite a majestic mystery!

‘Lights at night are quite a majestic mystery!’. At least that’s what Benito, an 8-year-old child, thought.  Especially when every second day of February his family gathered in the back patio to light a huge fire.  Because it is El día de la Candelaria, his father repeated this ritual each year.  The religious motif of this tradition, the end of Maria’s quarantine after Jesus was born, was lost in the past. Not even his dad remembered the reasons. But the fire and the light endure people’s short memory. 

There were also cucubanos at night. Something about this little bug’s nightly act made Benito run up to the hill behind his home to go after them.  They were flying in the hundreds with intermittent green flashes that went on and off, on and off, as if they loved to be the center of attention, but always quick enough to not be trapped and kept captive in a bottle. ‘If you trapp and enclose the little cucubanos, their light will eventually extinguish’ -he discovered by exploring the insects. They must be kept free to secure their survival.

Another source of light during every Christmas season were the three stars that were in the sky. Their historical names, given since ancient times, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, part of the constellation known as Orion’s Belt, had no meaning to Benito. For him, as for everyone else, the stars were the Reyes Magos, Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar. The stars reminded everyone of the three magi who brought gifts to Jesus when he was born. 

By that time of the year, he knew by heart two things: first, that those titillating heavenly bodies were announcing a special time of the year, and that “gift time” was close enough to begin dreaming about it. One morning he will wake up and, under the bed, a mystery box with an unexpected toy will miraculously appear. The second memory was less pleasant, the family will go through some changes. Dad will begin to work on the other side of the country and come over only for two days each week.  Mom would start to make major cuts to their family’s budget and their grandparents would become the primary caretakers of Benito and his siblings. He didn’t like staying away from his bedroom and the cobalt blue walls decorated with fluorescent yellow rustic drawings traced by family members.  It is cool to see how figures glow until they fade away when the lights go down.

Going away by day to his grandmother’s house was all about prepping the ‘fiesta de Nochebuena’.  On Christmas Eve, a huge meal was prepared beside a piglet spinning on a metal bar like a rotisserie chicken.  The smell of burning charcoal would wake up memories of happiness, togetherness, and belonging. Children took turns spinning the rotating spit, others in the family helped grating coconut pulp to make desert or green bananas to make pasteles, wrapped in leaves tied with a lace and then boiled. 

It was nothing like those things Benito could read in a book or learn by watching TV.  There was a dissonance between the holidays being pictured in TV and magazine ads and the reality surrounding the ‘Barrio’.  Reader’s Digest would write about the snow, mention a white Christmas, with pictures of folks in thick clothing and would spin tales about how Santa would get into the house through a chimney. Soda pop ads were embellished with images of big houses and children receiving lots of gifts under a perfectly decorated tree.  There was even a list of requests and gifts.  Benito didn’t remember writing down a letter to get presents or at least nobody told him to do so.  He asked himself, how could there be Christmas without a sunset at the beach, drinking ‘coquito’ or waking up friends in the middle of the night? Will their friends reciprocate the after-midnight musical scandal by serving hot chicken soup to the uninvited guests?  All of this sounded distant and even out of this world.  

The elderly handled the firepit, everything considered sacred to the culinary tradition, and the stories. A lot of stories were told. One afternoon, while smashing plantains in the kitchen, abuela Rosa talked about the day that she and her family sailed in a very small and unsafe boat from another Island. It was Christmas Eve.  In this season of the year the nights are longer, and it is hard for people to watch when someone leaves or arrives at a coast.  But also, the sea is more dangerous and unpredictable.  Rosa watched over the family by taking this risky decision because they were hiding and running away from a tyrannical regime.  In those days, whether you stayed firm on land or adventure into the fierce sea, was a matter of life or death. People lived in terror. At night, the worst things happened to those who opposed the President. 

For days Rosa’s family sailed the deep waters of despair, figuratively and literally. They comforted themselves by praying and by singing hymns when the weather turned bad. And after several days, they began to see a small light on the horizon. It looked like a cucubano that went on and off. 

Arriving at the coast, they met Benito’s grandmother, Doña Modesta.  The title Doña that precedes the name, shows respect and profound appreciation. Doña Modesta was a widow who experienced great setbacks from a very young age. ‘And seeing her was like turning on an oil lamp in the middle of a hurricane’, –Rosa said with her teary eyes–, and added, ‘for the first time in so long, life made sense to me, and I was finally able to chew and swallow all my sadness.  I was no longer in fear.’  Those words reminded Benito the night when an Angel announced, surrounded in light; “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master.”

Rosa wiped her forehead and continued mashing the plantains in the mortar. Not all festivals sound and taste the same. But dwelling in fear and feeling saved is an emotion we can all relate to. Salvation is a time to celebrate that God’s light shines in the dark.

By the time the fiesta de Nochebuena was ready, the musicians played their native cuatro guitar, the guiro, an instrument of Taino heritage, and the bongo drum.  The rhythm is so catchy that even the elderly moved their feet and sometimes danced with their walking sticks. When the music allows it, anyone can join and sing funny verses that rhyme and tell of love adventures and embarrassing moments. Some of them drank a little too much- or at least enough to tell the truth.  All of it almost made Benito forget that his parents were not there.  From time to time, he ran up and down the stairs, played outside with friends, talked to aunts and cousins, and drank hot chocolate.   But the thought that something was missing came back over and over again. –Abuela, when ‘will papi and mami’ come?  Are they doing something important? Will they be here for dinner? – “yes, mijo,”responded Doña Modesta.  

Time went by and the fiesta ended. Everybody left. Benito tried to stay alert as much as the chocolate in his system permitted him to.  Eventually, he fell asleep. It was that time when the night meets the day. It was still dark, but some light was already showing its first glimmers. The dawn had arrived.  In the living room some people were whispering softly. There was abuela Modesta, along with Benito’s parents.  Their car broke down while driving all night and couldn’t make it to the party.  For a moment he thought he should start complaining about them missing the important family gathering, but his joy, mixed with a deep sense of relief, were enough to make his feet move and run towards them. His mother asked, Benito; Have you checked under your bed? No- he said, I’ll look later.   The warm feeling of their presence assured him that this was for sure the most wonderful gift. 

Richard Rojas-Banuchi,  is a PCUSA pastor born and raised in the archipelago of Puerto Rico. His childhood happened close to the sea in Aguadilla, where the history of his family unwrapped. Among Zaida and Pablo, parents of three, and his grandparents some small merchants and a merchant mariner.  Richard, who has survived cancer, lives in the city of Bayamon next to Ana Leticia, a history teacher, interior designer, and museum curator, as well with Kiki, Caramelo, Baby Flan, Kaly, Sum Sum and mama Chimu, their cats. He also teaches at College, writes, love to watch movies and traveling the world.

The paternal grandfather, Juan Rojas, at night used to tell him fabulous travel stories, while smoking, drinking coffee and hearing trio music, played in LPs on a phonograph. Juan was an old sailor who worked in the boilers and had two huge tattoos on his arms. In contrast his maternal grandfather and presbyterian, Jacob Banuchi, was a clothing seller, he was very quiet and silent. One day, his two blue eyes fell in love with Leonor, a woman of strong character, a merchant, and a widowed mother. They raised five children: Elizabeth, Carmen, Ivette, Victor and Zaida Luz, Richard’s mom.

Abuela Leonor was more than a grandmother to Richard. She was a master chef, a fountain of inspiration and wisdom who in her day practiced espiritismo, the major afro Caribbean spiritual influence intertwined with Christianity, until in a health crisis, she converted to fundamentalist Pentecostalism. 

In this mix between the Atlantic sea storytelling, diverse spirituality, a home with a Presbyterian mother and grandfather, a non-religious firefighter father, Richard Henry grew with his two siblings Pablo Edward, Pastor, and Doctor of Reformed Theology who rests in God, and his sister Mariam Denisse, Church Elder, Teacher, activist, and community leader. 

Richard, who has survived cancer, lives in the city of Bayamon next to Ana Leticia, a history teacher, interior designer, and museum curator, as well with Kiki, Caramelo, Baby Flan, Kaly, Sum Sum and mama Chimu, their cats. He also teaches at College, writes, love to watch movies and traveling the world.

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