Feliz Navidad

This year I am Joseph. No, I am not really Joseph, I am Mauricio Arenas. My wife really is Mary. Well, she’s Maria but that is close enough. Our daughter, Esperanza, gets to play the role of Jesus. Although, that doesn’t really make sense. Here I am, walking down the street like a pied piper with close to a hundred children trailing me holding candles and singing Christmas songs. We are supposed to be acting out Joseph with Mary coming into Bethlehem and looking for an inn so that Maria can give birth to baby Jesus. In the Bible story, Mary is still pregnant, but here my precious Maria is, holding our three-month-old baby. We aren’t quite the ideal couple to be leading this procession.

That said, I do know why we were chosen. I can understand how Joseph must have felt when he had no place to go. You see, back in June, my house was destroyed. Right outside our front window, clashes between the protestors and the police grew violent. I don’t know exactly how it happened. We could hear the fighting, the shouts, and the gunshots but I had shepherded my pregnant wife to the back of the house. We heard glass shattering and more gunshots that were very close, and then the center of that storm seemed to move further on down the street. That was when I smelled the smoke. We tried to save what we could, but that fire spread quickly in that old house. Less than two hours later, I was still on our small patch of lawn, wondering what I was supposed to do now while my poor wife cried in the neighbor’s arms. Three other houses were damaged, but mine was the only one to become nothing but ash.

It took us less than a week to hitchhike to Reynosa, Mexico. It then took us another month to find a way for me and my pregnant wife to cross the Rio Grande. Once I did get across, I was able to find a loving community that was willing to help us and take us in. I still have a long way to go before I will be a legal citizen, but my baby girl, Hope, was born here. She already is a citizen. Now, this is our first Christmas in America. We can all celebrate with joy because we have hope for a better future.

I have arrived at our destination and it is now time for me to sing:

In the name of heaven
I ask you for shelter,
for my beloved wife
can go no farther.

Tears come to my eyes as I hear the host sing out his response:

This is not an inn
Get on with you,
I can not open the door,
you might be a rogue.

I respond with my part:

Do not be inhuman,
Show some charity,
God in heaven
will reward you.

Back and forth we sing our parts until finally, the host opens up his doors. I sing my final line:

May the Lord reward you
for your charity,
and may the sky be filled
with happiness.

He responds with his final stanza but already the impatient kids who were trailing me start flooding into the house. The adults and older children wait as we all sing the final chorus to this Posada tradition. Soon there will be pinatas to hit, food to eat, and lots of fun and fellowship with my new community and friends. This will be a Merry Christmas celebration.

No, things are not all OK. We do not have a place of our own but instead rent a room in someone else’s already crowded house. Our immigration was not exactly legal so we are always looking over our shoulder. I don’t have steady work but do whatever day-to-day odd jobs I can find. It is barely enough to put food on the table. Esperanza has not yet learned the fine art of sleeping through the night and the lack of sleep adds tension to our already stressful life.

But we have hope. We have a community of others from here, and from Mexico and from many other countries who have embraced us. We have a church that has quickly become a family. We have confidence that next year will be better than this. And until then, for tonight, we have a Christmas party to join. Without a doubt, this will definitely be a Feliz Navidad.

The Christmas Song

Last summer, while I was walking through Istanbul with a couple friends, I couldn’t help myself. Even though it was easily ninety degrees outside, I started the Christmas Song. You know the one, “Although it has been said many times, many ways, ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to you.’” There was absolutely no way to avoid it. My Christmas senses had been triggered and they needed a release. Why is that? Because I had just walked by a vendor selling chestnuts that were being roasted on an open fire. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who had started thinking of this song. We all had to turn around and buy some. I don’t even like chestnuts. They’re OK, but the taste isn’t really my thing. I’d just as soon roast them and then feed them to the squirrels, pigeons, or whatever other random vermin (or kids) happening to be running around nearby. I am sure they would be much more appreciative of a warm snack. For me, it isn’t about the taste. It is all about the smell.

There’s actually a lot of science demonstrating that the strongest and most poignant memories are the ones triggered by smell. The Proust phenomenon states that memories triggered by smell will always be more accurate, more detailed, and accompanied by stronger emotional attachments than memories triggered by other senses. Many studies, including one I was reading by the National Institute of Health, have demonstrated the truth of this claim. They have even begun to measure just how much stronger smell related memories can be. The reason for this is because of where in the brain smells are processed and interpreted. It is right next to the areas of the brain dealing with memories and emotions. In fact, the scent actually passes through both these areas (the amygdala and hippocampus) when traveling from the nose to the brain. In other words, there is an emotion and a memory that has been triggered even before you realize what it is you are smelling. You might be yawning, but I think this stuff is cool.

The thing that I really love about this truth when it comes to Christmas is that there are some very unique smells I associate with the holiday season. Of course, the first and earliest scent in the season of smells is that of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. I guess technically it is more of a fall, Halloween, Thanksgiving smell. Still, it is one that tells me that the time is drawing near. In fact, I’m actually drinking one right now as I sit at a Starbucks here in Antep. I am also typing away and listening to Michael Bublé to help reinforce that smell even deeper with Christmas. Like many memories, this one is bittersweet. It brings me back to another Starbucks on the Vestal Parkway with David Payne. Typically, his wife, son, and occasionally one or two other people would be with us, but for some reason, this time it was just the two of us. He is sharing some memories that date back before I was even born, and from there we move off into other deep conversations. I’ve always respected him, but in this short time together, that respect grew exponentially. This will be one of the first Christmases his family will celebrate without him. He has finally lost a long, hard-fought battle with cancer.

Sticking with Starbucks, it is actually their version of apple cider that brings me closer to Christmastime. The very first time I had this drink, I fell in love. Even though it has no caffeine, this drink has always been my favorite. Honestly, I don’t even know what it is officially called because in thought and conversation, I have always referred to it as “caramel apple goodness.” Easily a decade or more back, I decided I was going to try and replicate this drink on my own. This began a tradition of me experimenting and playing around with various mixtures and combinations of my own apple cider. I would then take these creations with me both to my mom’s house and to the Hampton’s (uncle, aunt, cousins) for all our holiday celebrations. Every time I smell cinnamon and apple, it brings me back to my old kitchen. Like a mad scientist, I have a large pot being held close to a boil while I add bits of lemon, caramel, cinnamon, ginger, cranberry, and nutmeg to the hot beak and skiff cider. I actually do have exact proportions written down in my closet, but I haven’t yet tried to make the stuff since moving to Turkey.

Roasting ham, pine needles, straight cinnamon, candy cane coffee, old spice, gingerbread, even stale popcorn… these are all more smells that can immediately trigger other Christmas memories. I am actually finding it hard at this point to continue to write as my headphones play on, now with Josh Groban. Just the thought of these smells is causing one memory after another wash over me. We have popcorn meant for stringing, but I am a naughty little boy in my red footy pajamas trying to stuff the popcorn into my sister’s ear. I’m sitting at the kitchen table on Ronnie Lane with a candy cane sticking out of my coffee cup reading while at least half the family is watching It’s A Wonderful Life. (What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.) A couple days after Christmas, it is maybe three or four in the morning at our house on Stafford Ave. I’m about to go down and play a few hours of Load Runner on the Commodore 64 before anyone can tell me to get off that machine and go do something productive. First, I want to make myself some toast. Unfortunately, the cinnamon I used didn’t have sugar mixed in. I eat it anyways. We are at my uncle’s house, picking out a tree to cut. It looks perfect out in the field, but when we get to the house, we realize the tree is a couple of feet too tall.

There are so many beautiful memories that are born in Christmases past. What are some of yours? What new memories will be born this holiday season? I know there will be many. When you get to one of those moments where “peace on earth, goodwill to men” becomes more than just a phrase, stop. Pause. Close your eyes and breathe in deep. Smell that? What is it? You have just sealed that memory and emotion into your mind and heart in the best and most efficient possible way.

Grandma Got Run Over

It was a dark and snowy night. I know, I know, that sounds like the winter twist of an often overused horror cliche. So what? It really was after dark, and the snow coming down really was blinding. It had not been so bad when Mildred left her daughter’s house about twenty minutes before. The storm seemed to come up out of nowhere. By now she should have made it home, taken her medication, and have been well on her way to bed.

It was that medication which pushed her home in the first place. She could make it a day without her Prilosec (not comfortably), but there was no way she could skip a dose of Zestril. Her heart would not last through a loud, crazy, family Christmas without it.

So here she was, nose to the windshield, going about 20 miles an hour down the road as nervous as one could be. I know, it seems she is always going too slow and driving too cautious, but just this once, I don’t blame her. Even still, it didn’t help. As if out of nowhere, an eight-point buck came flying through the snow into the road. Mildred slammed on her brakes, but it was too late. Her left headlight was shattered as it impacted with the deer. The car spun on the slick road, went off the edge, and slammed into a tree. Her seatbelt should have protected her, but nothing could have saved her from the branch that went through the shattered front windshield.

–     –     –     –     –     –     –     –     –

“Is she coming back tonight?”

“No. Grandma said she will sleep back at her place and then head back first thing in the morning.”

I looked out the kitchen window into the darkness outside. You could barely see the light from the garage just a few yards away. It was only a blurry, speckled glow illuminating the heavy snow thickly blowing in an almost horizontal direction. A gust of wind rattled the entire pane.

“Well, I hope she is alright.”

Uncle Mel called over from the living room. “She has her cell phone and only has to push one for it to ring your grandpa. I’d hate to call and check in on her now in case she still is on the road. And I don’t want to face her nagging if I wait too long and wake her up later. If there’s trouble, she will call.”

“Sure hope so,” Aunt Betty said as she wiped down the candlesticks and set them back on the table. I felt a bit guilty at my irreverent comparison at how the light blue with silver trim on the candles was not quite as blue as grandma’s hair. I don’t know what she had last used to wash her wig, but I didn’t have the heart to inform her of the discolorment.

The three boys, my son and his two cousins, came yelling through the kitchen and into the living room. The crash of one of those boys into the coffee table was followed by a yell of anger from Uncle Ty and laughter from Uncle Mel and grandpa. No question there who was winning. My guess, he was also the only one of the three still sober.

“I know exactly what we all had.”

Uncle Ty argued with the other two. He wanted to reset the cards back as they were, but the other two were saying they just had to start over. He was outnumbered, and I don’t think that was an argument he was going to win.

“Boys, upstairs.”

My sister Carol tried herding the three up and out of everyone’s way, but she would have had better luck herding cats into a dog kennel. I was probably the only one to hear the front door ring. I went to it, but when I saw the red and blue flashing through the snow, I stepped outside and shut the door behind me. Two cops were standing on my porch, a taller, slightly overweight man in brown hair and a lady probably an inch or two shorter than me. Both had deadly serious looks on their faces.

“What did Mike do this time?” I asked this question as I rubbed my hands trying to warm them from the biting cold wind.

The male cop turned to his partner in the hope that she would speak up. She did.

“Is this the Smith residence?”

I half smiled as I answered. “One of them. I am Amy Smith.”

“Ma’am, are you related to Mildred Smith?”

A slow horror started to creep up through the cold as I answered, “Yes. She is my grandma.”

“I am terribly sorry, ma’am. I have terrible news.”

Silence slowly descended on the house when I stepped out of the blizzard back inside a short time later. One of the men in the living room muted the game and asked what everyone was wondering.

“What is it? What happened?”

I can only imagine the look on my face as it was reflected back on me by a dozen pairs of eyes. I shook myself to work free enough thought to be able to answer.

“It’s grandma. She got run over by a reindeer.”

Nobody laughed.

Silent Night

My eyes had just shut down when a tiny voice crying out pried them back open. To my left, Joseph moaned and started to raise his head.

“Shhhh. I’ve got this. You go back to sleep.”

I kissed my husband on his shoulder as I dragged myself back up to my feet. He was already back out like a light. I made my way over to the repurposed feeding trough that was serving as my baby’s crib. I wanted to reach out and pick him up, but for a second I just stood there in wonder. This tiny miracle was jerking his fragile little arms in rhythm to a plaintive wail so soft nobody but a mother would wake to it. Nobody but me.

I still can’t believe I am a mother. It has been less than two days since he came. I still will find myself reaching to a belly no longer swollen. I pick my crying child up and hum to him as he begins to nurse. When he is finished, together we stroll out the door and into the night air. This evening seems such a contrast to the whirlwind of a night when my baby first came into the world. That night was so crazy. Now…

The stars seem exceptionally bright tonight. These stars here in Bethlehem are the same stars I have seen a thousand times in my home town of Nazareth. Mostly. Except for that one big bright one directly overhead. Where did that star come from? Will I ever get back to Nazareth? Doesn’t scripture say that this is where my boy is to be? Well, tomorrow He can be the Messiah. Tonight, he is just my precious baby.

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

They still aren’t back. Should I be worried? For about ten minutes last night, I felt honored to be trusted enough to be left alone with the care of all our sheep. Then it started to dawn on me, they get to all go see the baby those angels were talking about. They are all out having the time of their life, and I am out here all by myself. Bored. Bored and… scared. I am out here all by myself with all of these sheep. What if one gets lost? How would I be able to go find it without leaving the others behind? Worse, what if a wolf or a wild dog shows up all mean and hungry? Or a lion? Or a bear? I’ve never seen either one of those, but didn’t King David kill one of each right here on these very hills? I mean, I have been practicing with a sling of my own, but I am no King David.

But that baby is. That baby everybody else but me got to go see is supposed to be the Messiah. He is the Son of David. I’m just the son of Melki. Nobody really cares about me. After all, they all just ran off and left me here to get eaten by lions and bears and wolves.

Maybe when they come back, I will get a chance to go down into town and see him for myself. I would have to bring a gift. What gift could I give that is fit for a king? Maybe I could play him a song. I am a lot better with my drum than I am with my sling.

Silent Night, Holy Night
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia
Christ, the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Finally, we get a night to rest. Melchior has been pushing us hard the past couple of days. He kept saying that he had a dream, and we needed to hurry away because Herod would be close behind us. I think the man worries too much. I had a dream also, but in mine, I was only warned not to go tell Herod where we had found the baby. I could tell Gaspar was just as skeptical as I was, but he was okay with rushing back. After all, he still has that pretty young wife he is eager to return to.

All the same, it is nice to be able to finally set up camp and enjoy a night of peace and quiet. I wonder what they are doing now? The child King was as cute as any one-year-old boy would be. At that age, they are all cute. There is a wonder and a joy in their eyes as everything they discover in this world is fresh and new. But that is every child at his age. This boy didn’t seem any different or unique. Of course, there was the star and the rumors about the crazy shepherds. Without those rumors, I would have doubted we had found the right house. Everything seemed so… domestic. It all seemed so reasonable. Is this really the child who is destined to turn our world upside down?

Silent Night, Holy Night
Son of God, Love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth

The night air is cold tonight, but I am still glad to have taken the long route home. I love the view from up here. You can see all the lights of Oberndorf. We just had a troupe of actors in tonight. They were supposed to have played at the church. But since our organ is broken, they performed at the mayor’s house instead. The Christmas story is a familiar one, but it still brings music to my heart every time I hear it played or preached.

I wonder if the shepherds were on a peaceful little hill like this one when they heard the angel’s message? What would it have been like to have listened to that message and then be able to go see the Christ child newly born? I have been working on a little poem. I think tonight, right here on this hill, I will sit down and finish it. If I can sort it out tonight, then first thing tomorrow, I will give it to Herr Gruber and see if he can’t put it to music. We will need to have something for our Christmas since that organ still is not fixed. Let’s see…

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
Die der Welt Heil gebracht
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn
Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt seh´n
Jesum in Menschengestalt
Jesum in Menschengestalt

Silent night? No. Not really. The guns are quiet, but the troops… they’re having a party. I can’t believe this is happening. It is so surreal. Here I am, an obergefreighter sitting here in no man’s land sharing a smoke with a British corporal. Together we are watching my boys play his troops in football. They are competing right on the very ground that we were fighting and killing each other just hours earlier.

This war had found itself a rhythm. The enemy would barrage us and we would all take shelter in our trenches. Then they would up and run at us. We would shoot them down until they ran back into their own trenches. Then it would be our turn to have a go at the barrage and suicidal run. Back and forth, both sides would take turns feeding ourselves into the meat grinder.

But not tonight. Not this Christmas. It all started when one of our divisions started making improvised candles and placing them atop their trench. The British stopped firing at that trench, and it didn’t take us long to all have candles. Once their guns all went silent, so did ours. Then someone on our side started playing guitar. A few of their boys recognized the tune and joined in the singing. Their words seem strange, my English is no good, but we all know the song. It is a German one, after all. Before we knew what was happening, men from both sides were climbing out of their trenches and shaking hands in the middle. So here I am. Sharing a smoke with a chap named Billy. There is something about Christmas that can bring peace even to this ugliest of war zones.

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
Wo sich heut alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoß
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß
Jesus die Völker der Welt
Jesus die Völker der Welt

It doesn’t feel like Christmas. This is my first year ever of not being with family for the holidays. I love the view from my porch, but it just doesn’t seem right to see so many houses and buildings with no Christmas lights. And there is no snow on the ground. It is barely even cold out here. Back home about this time of the evening, we would all be piled into the car on our way home from the Christmas Eve service. What usually is a ten-minute drive will take them about thirty tonight as they meander through every culdesac and side street. They are hunting for homes with as many Christmas lights as they can find so they can all “ooh, aah, pretty” at all the festive brilliance. (Don’t ask… It’s a family tradition)

Not me anymore. A civil war fought by my neighbors to the south has sent refugees streaming over borders in their hundreds of thousands. God has called me to come and be here and do whatever I can to help. What can I possibly do that will make a difference against these insurmountable needs? I am not trained for this. I wasn’t ready for this. What can I possibly have to offer except… Him?

Silent Night, Holy Night
Mindful of mankind’s plight
The Lord in heaven on high decreed
From earthly woes, we would be freed
Jesus, God’s promise for peace
Jesus, God’s promise for peace

Let It Snow

It first happened this year on Election Day. It was the first Tuesday in November. I hate election day.

I know, I know. Most of you are thinking, “so do I.” But my reasons have nothing at all to do with politics. I am not here to talk about our broken electoral system or the poor choice of candidates we always seem to nominate for the top offices of our land. Well… I guess I just did talk about it. But no more. My reasons for hating election day stretch all the way back to the first time I was old enough to vote. I didn’t. Not that year.

I still can remember that election day like it was yesterday, even though it has now been more than twenty years past. I was sitting in an airport lobby waiting for the first possible flight home when I got the news. I was too late. Less than an hour earlier, after a horrifying night struggling against a traumatic brain injury, my father had died. He got that injury bumping heads with someone on a basketball court. There are some words no eighteen-year-old kid should ever hear and, “I’m sorry, he didn’t make it” are certainly some of them.

Everyone else in America was stepping into those ballot boxes casting votes for candidates. Some part of them knew those votes will make very little difference in the long run. I was thinking along a very different track. I was flying over our country, dazed and broken, trying to make sense of what my world had just become.

That was more than half a lifetime ago now. Time has been gracious enough that it isn’t something that breaks me apart every time I think about my father’s death. Oh, there is the loss, but I am hardly the only person who has ever suffered a tragedy. Even in my own family, I have seven other siblings. Most of them are much younger than me. They did not get to enjoy as many years and memories with such a great man as my dad was. Honestly, at this point, there are years where I almost make it the whole way through the day without one thought of the anniversary coming to mind.

Even still, I never fail to be in a down mood on Election Day.  Today was no exception. It wasn’t necessarily a horrible day, and students didn’t really behave any worse than normal. If anything, the fact that it was so cold and cloudy seemed to put a damper on everyone. I didn’t have to struggle with the expected level of eager energy that comes from working with multiple classes of first and second graders. No, the classroom was pretty standard. But I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I just wasn’t in the mood to do anything more than the minimum required to function.

I got home and sat on the couch watching… something. Oh yeah, it was an episode of The Orville. This was the episode where that kid security officer puts herself through some security simulation. She wants to prove that she is worthy of the rank that given, even though she is so young and insecure. I really do like the show. It reminds me of the old Star Trek shows. That day I just wasn’t feeling it. I was restless and moody. It rained for a bit, but then it looked like it had all cleared up. So I figured, “why not take a walk outside to clear my head?”

It was cold. It was bitter cold. Before I had made it two blocks from my house, I was wondering if this was such a good idea after all. My cheeks were turning red, and I pulled my hoodie up and over to keep my ears from feeling the biting wind. It wasn’t a hard wind, but my right cheek and my nose could feel every icy gust that intermittently assaulted me. There were far more brown leaves wet and mushy in the grass, and along the edges of the road than there were hangers-on in the nearly bare trees overhead. A month or two back, this would be a beautiful walk of orange and yellow, violet, red and green. Now, it is grey and brown. It is cold and grey and brown.

Right about the time I reached the park and was about to circle around and head towards home, the streetlights started popping on. You would think these lights would be on a timer, but they all seemed to rebel against conformity. The first one to pop on was about half a block up. Then the one I had just passed came on. It created a sudden shadow before me that, half a second later, disappeared as one more light decided to join the club.

That is when it happened. I was looking up at this most recent light to turn on when I saw it. As big as my thumbnail, a snowflake played in that light as it meandered its way toward the ground. I stopped in my tracks to watch it, and then I saw a second one. Then a third. Then a fourth. Soon there were hundreds of these things gently floating down from heaven. Even the breeze had stopped to gape in awe of their beauty.

I wasn’t the only one to notice winter’s arrival. There were a couple kids who had braved the cold to play at that park. One little boy, about five years old, bundled up in blue, was standing on the platform right at the top of the slide. He threw his arms out wide and sang loud and out of key, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” Then he dove headfirst down that slide laughing with glee all the way.

My gloomy mood could not survive this beauty and childlike glee. The rest of my stroll home took me twice as long as my walk out had been. I walked that way with a smile on my face taking in the beauty of everything I saw. First, the full version of the song that the boy sang played in my head. Then there was another, and another, and another. We are all familiar with the soundtrack songs of Christmas that began dancing through my mind. It had started. The Christmas season had arrived on what has always been one of the gloomiest days of my year.

That snowfall did not last long. Nothing turned white that evening, but it was enough. God had taken a sad and broken day and turned it into a thing of beauty. That is what Christmas is all about. For the next twenty-five days, we are going to explore the soundtrack of Christmas. Some of these songs are great. Some of them I consider awful. But that’s OK. That is what life is like, and Christmas is all about how God stepped out of heaven and joined us in this walk of life. So, for the next few weeks, I encourage you to talk that walk with me. We will use both iconic and obscure songs to explore together the true meaning of Christmas. I will see you again tomorrow, but today… let it snow.