Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas of yore: old and ever new

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Leonardo Boff Blog
12/15/2011

Note: This essay, which Leonardo reproduced on his blog, is taken from a special Christmas book he compiled, O Sol da Esperança: Natal, histórias, poesias e símbolos ["The Sun of Hope: Christmas stories, poems and symbols"], Editora Mar de Idéias, Rio de Janeiro, 2007. The book is illustrated by graphic artist Adriana Miranda. There is a companion volume about Easter, Ovo da Esperança – o sentido da festa da Páscoa ["The Egg of Hope: the Meaning of Easter"]. I can't tell Orbis Books what to publish, but I think both titles would do very well in English...

I go way back to the late 30s, a time when Santa Claus didn't yet arrive by sleigh. In our Italian, German and Polish colonies that were taming the Concordia-SC region, known as the headquarters of Sadia and Seara with their excellent meat products, we were only familiar with Baby Jesus. Those were times of a deep and naive faith that informed every detail of life. For us children, Christmas was the culmination of the year, prepared and yearned for. Finally Baby Jesus came with His little mule (musseta in Italian) to bring us gifts.

The region was pine forests as far as the eye could see and it was easy to find a beautiful little pine tree. This was decorated with rudimentary materials from that area that was still under construction. Colored paper, cellophane, and pictures we had painted ourselves at school were used. Mother made gingerbread in different shapes -- human and pets -- which were hung on the branches of the pine tree. At the top there was always a big star covered in red paper.

Below, around the Christmas tree, we put up the nativity, made of scraps of paper that came from a magazine to which my father, a schoolmaster, subscribed. There was the Good Joseph, wholly devout Mary, the wise men, the shepherds, the little lambs, the ox and the ass, some dogs, the singing angels we hung on the lower branches. And of course, in the center, Baby Jesus, whom, seeing Him almost naked, we imagined to be shivering with cold, and it filled us with compassion.

We lived in the glorious time of myth. Myth expresses the truth better than pure and simple historical description. How do we speak of a God who became a Child, the mystery of man, his salvation, good and evil, except by telling stories, projecting myths that reveal the deep meaning of such facts? The stories of Jesus' birth told in the gospels contain historical elements, but to emphasize its religious significance, they have been coated with mythological and symbolic language. For us kids, all this was truth that we enthusiastically embraced.

Even before the thirteenth salary check was introduced, teachers were paid a Christmas bonus. My father spent all this money to buy gifts for his 11 children. And they were gifts that came from afar and all were instructive: cards with names of the main musicians, of famous painters whose names we struggled to pronounce and laughed at their beards or their noses or any other peculiarity. A gift made a fortune: a box of materials to build a house or a castle. We, the older ones, began to participate in modernity -- we won a jeep or a little car that was pulled by a rope, or a wheel that spun and threw sparks and the like.

So that there would be no fighting about each present below, the name of the son or daughter was hung from the branches. And later, the negotiations and trading began. The irrefutable proof that Baby Jesus in fact had passed by the house was the disappearance of the bundles of fresh grass. We ran to check. And, indeed, the little mule had eaten all of it.

Today we live in times of reason and demythologizing. But that is only true for us adults. Children, both with Santa Claus and to a lesser extent with Baby Jesus, live in an enchanted dream world. The good old man brings gifts and gives good advice. As I have a white beard, every child who passes by me calls me Santa Claus. I explain to them that I'm just Santa's brother who has come to see if the children are doing everything right. Then I tell Santa Claus so that they get a good present. Yet many doubt. They approach, stroke my beard, and say that in fact the man is Santa Claus himself. I'm a person like any other, but the myth makes me really Santa Claus.

If we adults, children of criticism and demythologizing, can no longer be enchanted, let's allow our sons and daughters to delight in and enjoy the magical realm of fantasy. Their lives will be full of meaning and joy. What more do we want for Christmas than these precious gifts that Jesus also wants to bring to this world?

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