Friday, December 18, 2009

Different Faces of Christmas

I won't pretend to know what it's like to call a splayed out cardboard box home, and the closest thing to hunger pangs I feel is whenever I have to forego food and water for 24 hours to get my blood drawn the next day. I don't know what it's like to spend a year in some God forsaken war zone, knowing that I could be killed by a stray mortar round or friendly fire. I don't know what it's like to go begging for food on the streets and being routinely ignored by passersby intent on getting the best deals at  Bergdorf's big sale. I don't know what it feels like to be a 70-year-old nursing home resident, waiting in vain for children and grandchildren to come on Christmas morning.

But I know that I could very easily be in these situations, and it is merely a twist of luck that I was born into this world not being personally exposed to these kinds of lives. To say that I feel blessed to not be them is somewhat patronizing, as though I am better than them. (Of course I am thankful for my blessings, but to say I am blessed to not be group/person X is a different story.). Far from it. I did nothing to deserve being born into a family that is able to provide food, clothing, and shelter.

Growing up, my family had all these Christmas traditions. November was when we started decorating the house in festive decor. Well before December, our Christmas tree would already be overflowing with presents in all shapes and sizes. Starting on December 16, we would wake up at the crack of dawn to attend the nine days of Misa de Gallo. On Christmas Eve, our huge extended family would gather around for a huge Noche Buena meal. Jamon Serrano, queso de bola, morcon, lechon, lumpia shanghai, leche flan, pot roast, cakes, ice was a veritable food orgy. It was the one time of the year wherein the gated community we lived in would allow children from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter, so that they may sing Christmas carols in exchange for food and money.

It was, needless to say, a very sheltered and privileged upbringing. Truthfully, I took a lot of things for granted as a child. Having close contact with people who come from similar lifestyles, I took it for granted that the luxuries I had been blessed with were also afforded to every child.Halcyon days of childhood.

I can vividly remember one of the first times I became aware of socioeconomic disparities. I had a  lunch pass when I was in elementary school, which allowed my momma to take me out during the 90-minute lunch period. There I was, a pudgy little pig-tailed Catholic schoolgirl, sitting in an air-conditioned car during a short traffic jam. I remember being sulky that day, because my momma bought me a milk chocolate Toblerone bar instead of the white chocolate I wanted. There was a rap on the car window, which irritated my grandmother because she didn't want the windows to be muddied or dirtied. I looked outside the window and there she was, a little girl about a year or so younger than me, dressed in a graying, oversized tank top. She rapped on the windows with her left hand, and held garlands of flowers on her right.

She was working, and I doubt her parents--if she still had them--even allowed her to go to school. I never knew her name, nor had the chance to listen to her story. I wanted to buy a garland from her, but my grandmother was convinced that the little girl had criminal ties, and would attempt to snatch something from us the second we rolled down our windows. Perhaps she felt as though this little girl's dirty exterior was a representation of what lay within her. It was an awakening. That day something stirred deep within me and awakened my humanity. And so I began to see. Listen. Hear. Feel. I was on my path to becoming what it meant to be a human being.

As an adult I understand that Christmas isn't about the elaborate meals or the number of presents under the tree. Its meaning has been buried beneath the sales at the malls, luxurious vacations, and festively decorated houses. Christmas began as a celebration of hope. A redemption. A child was born in a manger, and this child would grow up to bring a light to those who have lived in the darkness of persecution and inequity. Somehow, we have lost sight of this as the glaring neon lights of materialism blinds us.

This Christmas and for always, I hope that we all go back to the beginning. Back to the basics. I pray that we go back to hope and that we heed the words of Albert Schweitzer in that "[w]e must never permit the voice of humanity within us to be silenced. It is man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him a man."

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We must never permit the voice of humanity
within us to be silenced. It is Man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him a Man.

--Albert Schweitzer

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

--Viktor E. Frankl