It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go…even though it´s close to 100 degrees every day.
For the first time in 22 years I will be spending Christmas away from my family. This means that this year I will be missing out on Christmas staples like ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas,” Aunt Pat K’s famous pumpkin roll, the annual tradition of baking cookies with my mom and sister, decorating and snow-shoveling with my dad, Christmas Eve with the Bakers and Christmas Day with the Zaderas, and so much more. In some ways, my Ecuadorian Christmas season has turned out to be slightly similar. Several houses around the neighborhood have put up lights, we have been playing Christmas music in the house since the beginning of December, and my parents even sent me a can of pumpkin so that I can make pumpkin bread like Pat K’s. We have put up a humble tree in our house, strung together as much tinsel as the past volunteers have left us, and have carried the tradition of baking Christmas cookies. However, this year the songs aren’t always in English, the tree isn’t as big, the lights aren’t as abundant, I can’t find nutmeg for the pumpkin bread, and instead of sharing Christmas cookies with my family, I will be sharing them with my community mates and neighbors.
Taking all of these things into consideration, this Christmas season is recognizably different from any Christmas I’ve had in the past, and yet somehow I feel that I have never felt the so-called “Christmas spirit” more than I have this year. Maybe the 100 degree heat is making me insane, but despite being thousands of miles away from my family, friends, and all of the thinks that usually signify Christmas to me, I find myself feeling a strong sense of joy. This year, this sense of joy does not come from receiving, it does not come from lights and decoration, and it is not the same feeling of joy that comes from spending time with my family and friends. It is a joy born out of humility; the humility of knowing that for the past 21 years of my life, I have had the greatest opportunities anyone could ask for, and realizing that my neighbors, who this year I call my family, will not be having a Christmas like I have know it all my life. In Mount Sinai, there won’t be an abundance of presents crammed underneath the tree, and in some cases there isn’t even the promise of money for a family to be able to prepare a special dinner to celebrate Christmas. But there is family, and there is community.
This past Saturday, walking around the dirt roads of Sinai showed several street parties organized by each neighborhood in order to give out toys to kids who lived in the neighborhoods. In some cases the toys have been donated by foundations or stores in the area, and in other cases the communities in these neighborhoods have come together to buy them. Our very own sector had a bingo in October to raise money to be able to buy Christmas gifts for the kids in the neighborhood. Here, more so than the acts of giving and receiving is the act of a group of people, living in poverty, coming together to do the best that they can do for the children, because they recognize that there is not a child in the world that deserves to not feel the spirit of Christmas every year.
For many years I have seen acts of collections and donations for those in need during holiday seasons. This year, however, I am seeing it all from a different perspective. This year all of the collections and donations are sent to people like my neighbors here in Sinai – my family – which has been what has made this year’s Christmas so notably different than every year in the past. In talking with one of our neighbors earlier last week, I learned that their family didn’t even have enough money to have a special dinner on Christmas day, let alone buy toys or other special things for their more than seven young children. After hearing this, I have felt a special connection to this particular family this Christmas – a yearning to do something for them. And so I find myself asking, “What can I do for them?” and “How can I help them?” The truth is, however, that I’m not going to do anything for them. I’m not going help them do anything. But today, December 24th, I will spend the majority of my day visiting with them and other neighbors, spending quality time with them, sharing stories and laughter, and situating myself right here with them this Christmas. We’ll walk around sharing Christmas cookies with those who have made our first five months in Ecuador so extremely special, and they will probably make us feel more at home here than we normally do at our own homes in the U.S. Without a doubt this will be one of the most uniquely special Christmases of my life, and for that I am completely thankful. I am thankful for the laughs and smiles of the kids in our neighborhood, I am thankful for the neighbors who make us feel so welcome and share their stories with us, I am thankful for the thirteen other Rostro de Cristo volunteers with whom I’ll be spending Christmas day, and I am thankful for the experience to share this Christmas with those who often go forgotten in this world. All I ask today is that my neighbors – my family – are thought of and remembered. I am sending lots of love and thoughts to my family and friends in the U.S., and I thank you all so much for all of the support you’ve given me. I will miss sharing Christmas with you all so much this year, but I’m doing great and will be celebrating the best I can with the best people I know. Best wishes and a Merry Christmas to you all!!