By Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS On my last birthday, I was struck by the cruel truth that I will this year be celebrating my 73rd Christmas. Seventy-three, OmG, it’s like ice water thrown at my face.
I usually dedicate my birth month to examining my life and meditating on mortality—and it helps that it’s the month of all Saints and all souls. Last November turned out to be nostalgic—which confronted me with the fact of aging, because nostalgia is a right most deserved by those coming closer and closer to the grave. Thinking, “God, how many more Christmases will You give me before You finally call me back?”, I reviewed my Christmases as far back as memory could take me, and asked myself which of those brought me closest to the baby Jesus. It’s a no-brainer: the Christmas that did this was that which etched itself earliest in my memory—with the help of the creche in my Uncle Jose Fermin’s house, painstakingly put together by his wife, Tita Chol.
This “belen” was the highlight of my childhood Christmases—a huge table by the Christmas tree (live pine) covered with sand to contain a miniature Bethlehem, not only Mary, Joseph and the baby in a manger, but also the Three Kings, a caravan of camels, shepherds and sheep, goats, cattle, a rooster (!), and an angel floating over the manger and holding a ribbon that said “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”. These plaster figurines fascinated me endlessly, introduced me to Bethlehem, and fuelled my imagination as I fondled them, in the same way that maybe a little boy today would play war games in his mind with plastic soldiers or “Star Wars” figurines.
The “belen” would since then accompany me through life. When I was a young girl, Christmas decorating was a family affair where everybody had an assignment; I was expected to help make the “parol”. When I reached my teens, I was put in charge of the “belen”, but my creations were nowhere near Tita Chol’s elaborate tableau—just a few cardboard cut-outs of the most important characters propped up on a bed of “hay” on top of the television cabinet, or a ready-made “scayola” set placed beneath the seven-foot Christmas tree, among the gift-wrapped empty boxes.
However, there was one Christmas I was too busy to keep up with the “belen” tradition—being in the thick of preparations for a wedding. In fact, on Christmas night, my fiancé and I were in Quiapo, ordering flowers for our wedding the next morning.
The time came to bring Bethlehem to our own cozy home through a “belen” for our little son. It was fun to craft my own nativity scene from cardboard cones and crepe paper, at times supplementing the catechesis with an assortment of pretty nativity-themed Christmas cards collected through the years.
It was exhausting for me in my 20s to braid together career and homemaking (I was wife, mother, tutor, nurse, yaya, diplomat, psychologist, etc.) so that there were Christmases without any manger scene at all in our house—just a white Christmas tree fashioned from tissue paper and shiny balls, or worse, a foldaway meter-tall plastic evergreen, a mere ghost of the fresh pine Christmas tree of my childhood. (By then it was already a crime of sorts to cut down Baguio pine trees). But what we didn’t have in the house we enjoyed outside of it; we would drive around to gawk at life-size crèches in town plazas and churches, and the motorized Christmas tableau that was then the pride of COD Department Store in Cubao, and years later, Greenhills.
One day we received a Balikbayan box from the United States; inside was—Wow!—a 19-piece ceramic nativity set my mother-in-law Flor de Liz had painted at an arts-and-crafts class for senior citizens! How sweet of her! With lights, décor, and props added, it was to become a conversation piece for many many years in our modest home, so gorgeous even Tita Chol would have loved it! But now… what’s left of the set is stashed away in a storeroom; I don’t think I’ll ever want to put it up again.
I had lent the whole set to a retreat house, putting it up myself. I was happy to share my joy to so many retreatants and guests, but when it came back to me, the Baby Jesus was missing, and a lamb, and a camel, too! Were they broken? Pocketed by some child who couldn’t resist their cuteness? None of the staff could tell—as though the trio merely vanished into thin air. It saddened me a bit, for what’s a crèche without Baby Jesus? Never mind the sheep and the camel.
Now that I’m recalling its glory days, and about to savor my 73rd Christmas, I find that the nativity’s magic can still transport me back to the age of innocence, imagining that the Baby Jesus (after years of being displayed in our living room) had grown tall enough to mount a camel and look for the lost lamb. “That’s why they disappeared,” I tell myself and muse, “for all I know I was the lost lamb, with one leg caught in quick sand, slowly being sucked into a system that served many gods but had no time for the One True God.” Irony of ironies, in reality I’d gotten lost while looking frantically for God, unaware that in my meandering He was looking for me.
Do I now have a nativity scene at home? No, I don’t. Tell me if it’s due to old age. In the Holy Land where over several years I have escorted pilgrims five times, I have strolled in the Shepherds’ field in Bethlehem, venerated the place of His birth, walked down Via Dolorosa bearing a token cross, done the whole pilgrim route over and over again it’s like the classic “been there, done that”. It matters little to me now whether or not I have a crèche in my “hermitage”, but I do seriously wonder how Jesus would feel about the state of Bethlehem today, in the light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this endless fight over borders. A carol rings between my ears: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” I cannot say Bethlehem today lies still. Peace is elusive in the place where the Prince of Peace was born. Were Jesus to revisit Bethlehem today as man, would he weep over it as he did over Jerusalem before he was crucified? And would he be welcome there?
We can outgrow Santa Claus, but we should never outgrow Bethlehem. In spite of all that Bethlehem has been through, we continue to celebrate the fact that our Savior was born there, and pray that one day we can say to the Lord Himself, “I am Bethlehem; come, be born in me.” The carol reverberates inside my head: “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today…” As I write this, I pray that each of us may become a Bethlehem without borders, witnessing to the love of God for all mankind. And that's the truth.