The Christmas season and experience here in El Salvador was excellent, awesome, and at some points it seemed altogether unreal. So why did I paint my Christmas experience with such terms? One would think Christmas is Christmas…right?
Sure, the feast day itself is the same. It is the recognition of, remembrance of, and opening of our hearts to the coming of and birth of Christ.
Unfortunately, this world-altering day isn’t celebrated the way it ought to be in many places, and I’ll come right out and say that the United States is one of those places. For quite some time now, I’ve felt that the US is a little too commercialized in its celebration of Christmas. From my perspective, too much is placed on the value and quantity of things that one receives (or even gives) during the season. The center and focus is not the Church and Jesus, but instead is a store and a sweet deal.
This sentiment was confirmed after experiencing Christmas here in El Salvador at NPH.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love my family’s traditions, and I still believe in the magic of Santa Claus. I’m blessed to have the family that I do because we value the time we have with each other; my grandparents come over to our house in the morning and then we go to theirs later in the day. We celebrate my Grandpa’s birthday, since he’s so cool that his birthday falls on Christmas. We open presents, but we also go to Mass. We also have a terrible tradition of at least one person being miserably sick each year. I think I started that tradition, haha.
Anyway, I think what I’ve been hungering for is a culture that places more emphasis where it rightly belongs, on Christ. I found that culture here in El Salvador and especially here at NPH.
The quite beautiful and large nativity scene just outside of the cafeteria
We began the season with the novena for Our Lady of Guadalupe, which started on December 4th. Every night, a different house or group of employees was in charge of leading the novena. A novena is a special prayer and devotion that lasts for nine days; in this case, the novena was for Our Lady of Guadalupe, asking for her intercession for us. So we all gathered and prayed the rosary together, and afterwards we had a little snack. What I particularly enjoyed witnessing was the community novena, in which we invited those who live along the road outside of our home to come in and pray with us. We then served them dinner.
With boys before the novena, waiting for the others to arrive.
Our Lady of Guadalupe outside of the boys’ home – Casa San José
With the boys who led the rosary on the first night of the novena (and the house director too)
Second day of the novena, this time held at the girls’ house – Casa Santa María. Here’s my living room!
With the girls who led the rosary
Third day of the novena, held at the babies’ house – Casa Niño Jesús
You see! Father Wasson’s practice of unconditional love isn’t just within the confines of NPH, but instead extends itself into the practice of loving your neighbors.
On the night of the community novena, serving food to the community members who came
I’m pretty sure this is from the night the novena was held by the year of service pequeños. Every night the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was place in a different area and decorated differently.
The novena finished on December 12th, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day, and in addition to the rosary, a mixture of high school students and year of service pequeños did a nice dramatization of the story of St. Juan Diego and Our Lady’s appearances to him.
The final night of the novena, held by the cafeteria staff. Here are some photos from the production of the story of St. Juan Diego
Another really cool thing that we did was the posadas. A posada is an activity in which we remember the journey Joseph and Mary took just before Jesus was born. A group seeking a place to stay goes house to house, asking for a room. The occupants deny the travelers, and this is all done in song. The different parties sing a number of stanzas back and forth (the ask, then the refusal), until the traveling party moves on to the final home. When the group is finally granted room and received into the home, there is usually some kind of fun activity or party and of course, food. Posadas are usually done in the week leading up to Christmas, with the last posada falling on Christmas Eve.
So in our case here at NPH, the different houses took turns hosting the posada and being the traveling party. For example, our first posada was done by Casa San José, which is our boys’ house. They went singing to Casa Niño Jesús (the babies’ house) and then to Casa Santa María (the girls’ house). After they were refused entrance, they traveled to la cancha (the playing courts) where everyone was waiting for them. At la cancha, they were finally welcomed and given a room.
The boys arriving at the babies’ house to begin the posada
The babies, year of service girls, and tías on the other side waiting to refuse the traveler’s request
The boys on their way to the girls’ house, with images of Joseph and Mary up front
Attempt #2 at lodging
Yay! They finally found a place to stay…
After everyone took a seat in la cancha, some of the boys put on a little skit and dance. It was great! Their creativity always surprises me, and as always, they made the crowd laugh. After the presentation, we began with the piñatas! Every section of boys and girls got their own piñata, so breaking those took some time. Once they were all done, we had dinner outside (it hasn’t rained in 2 months, so we’ve been able to eat outside almost every night.)
Their skit was about the value of Christmas and about a young boy who learned the value of giving rather than receiving
And now, for the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer dance!
With the boys after their skit and dance
Only the beginning of a week full of piñatas and lots of candy…
One of the year of service boys really enjoying his job of working the piñata
In total, we had 5 posadas. And again, displaying that wonderful NPH spirit and love, we had a posada for the community one night. I missed the girls’ posada because I was quite ill one afternoon/night, but I was fortunate to see their dance during the last posada a few days later. The last one was held in honor of the Hermanos Mayores (big/older brothers and sisters), who are former pequeños. We had about 25 come for Mass and then the posada, and because it was the last one, all of the houses performed their dramas/skits/dances.
The community posada
More chaos and candy!
The posada for “Hermanos Mayores”
Inside the babies house, waiting to refuse the traveler’s request for a room
Piñatas, piñatas, and more piñatas
The babies’ house did a dance about the 3 Kings
The girls’ did a fun and comical dance with Santa as the star
I never tire of watching kids snatch up candy after a piñata breaks.
The boys taking care of business and demolishing the piñata in record time.
On Christmas Eve morning, all of the children assembled in our multipurpose room to receive their gifts. It took less than an hour to hand them all out, especially because many of our children are not here right now and are instead on vacation with any family members they may have (who are capable of hosting them for a short time.) I was expecting Christmastime to be a bit sad, what with us missing almost half the population, but it was far from being sad. I was also unsure about their reactions…admittedly, I’m used to multiple presents under the tree, not just one item (although their bags had tons of cool stuff inside!) From my perspective, it seemed quite joyful and full of laughter.
Handing out gifts on Christmas Eve morning
Later that night, we had Mass in near darkness, with just a few candles to illuminate the altar and the choir. It was unimaginably beautiful. I returned to my seat after serving as a Eucharistic minister and closed my eyes. The children were singing and it seemed as if I were in the largest cathedral ever built with the biggest choir in the world. The sound lifted us up into the night sky.
Our manger scene in front of the altar
The church just before the kids came
The church just before the last lights were turned off and Mass began
After Mass, our walk to la cancha was lit up by a few hundred candles. We prayed and then ate a traditional dinner. After dessert, we all piled onto one side of the court to watch the fireworks.
These 2 university students saved me a spot and grabbed a plate of food for me at dinner since I was walking around taking pictures. So sweet!
Yes! Fireworks. That’s a Christmas tradition I’ll take to the bank, and I think the United States should definitely adopt it, of course! What’s better than fireworks on the eve of Christ’s birthday?
We were all out later than usual that night, but I stayed out even later and hung out with two of my friends, watching a movie (one is a nurse/tía who was a former pequeña here and the other is a university student/pequeña who also works at the home.) I didn’t go to bed until around 12:30am.
For me, our Christmas Eve celebration felt more like Christmas Day back in the United States. Christmas Day was actually like a normal day here, the only exception being that we woke up and ate breakfast much later than usual.
The many traditions I experienced truly lengthened the Christmas season and celebration for me. Instead of just one thing or a singular event with many parts, like Mass on Christmas Eve/Day and then the opening of presents, the entire month of December seemed like one big long celebration interwoven with various events and activities that combined the Divine with the rich cultural and secular festivities.
And I really, really love that.
Paz y bien.