“Feliz Navidad!” is the greeting I've heard everywhere the past month as I walk along the cobbled streets of San Miguel, past neighbors in mi barrio. "Equalamente,” is the familiar reply, which means "to you, too." It’s 6 o’clock and I’m coming home from my afternoon of doing errands. Not the kind of shopping we associate with Christmas in the USA: no big malls, no traffic getting in and out of parking places at the big box stores, no harried and stressed shoppers burdened with the packages that seem now to represent the“meaning of Christmas” in our over-consumptive society. Instead I have my mesh shopping bag full of vegetables I just picked up at a small family-owned local Aborrotes (grocery store) for a simple holiday luncheon to which I’ve invited a few new amigos. We’ll have carrot and ginger soup and ensalada with tomatoes and avocados topped off with a few dulces, typical sweets of the holiday season: round Mexican Wedding cookies with powdered sugar and some candies made from cactus, sweet and gummy. The sun is setting and as the darkness of night falls, I encounter twinkling lights strung across some of the narrow streets, and small green, Christmas trees with miniature naciemientos, (nativity scenes)in windows, warm with light; children laugh and play in the streets and weary burros sometimes pass loaded down with their burdens of firewood, or even decked out in seasonal adornments. From behind tall carved wooden doors, opening into one of San Migues many lovely colonial courtyards, I hear the voices of children singing "Silent Night" in Spanish and I breath in the cool night air, with a kind of joy that reminds me it’s two days before Christmas.
A week ago we wandered throught the Jardin(the central square) admiring the many pointsettia plants (known as Buenos Noches in Mexico). They graced every niche of the garden and decorated the steps of the Perroquia, the big church there. We watched the workers set up a large artificial Christmas tree and local graffiti artists paint the outside of the giant gift boxes placed below it. Folks gathered to watch as the lights came on that night and a local choir sang traditional Mexican folk carols. Vendors selling hot “elotes” (corn on the cob) smeared with butter and sprinkled with chili pepper were watching too. Women from the campo strolled amongst the crowd selling colorful cloth muñechas(dolls). Men with big bouguets of globos (balloons) for sale were there as well. Children ran about, with dark eyes of wonder as the lights glowed and I couldn’t help but feel the magic of Christmas all around me. Gary and I loved watching the Mexican families as they greeted one another and wander the central square; everyone had a smile and a kind greeting. There was definitely a feeling of merriment in the air.
The other side of this “candy coated” description is the profound knowledge that many will go hungry this Christmas, won’t have small presents to offer their children, nor even warm enough clothes for the increasingly colder nights and mornings here in San Miguel de Allende. One thing that helps us feel better is to be surrounded by many ex-pats who give of their time and relative wealth to organizations, formal and informal helping the people here. An example is a woman in my Spanish Conversation group who organized friends with cars to fill their vehicles with food and toys to take to the local basural (the dump) where families live off the garbage. Another friend and I along with Gary and her husband, Ricardo, went to a local house for abandoned girls (ages 3-18) in late November and helped the girls learn printmaking techniques to make Christmas cards and gift cards to sell and earn money for supplies needed at the Casa Hogar. A small thing. These acts remind me of the generosity of my fellow countrymen. A Mexican friend remarked one day how much he admires the “volunteerism” of the culture in the US. "Mexicans," he said, " help their families but not often do they reach out beyond to volunteer in their communities." That is slowly changing as schools begin to promote the spirit of community service. Cultural differences abound but the spirit of the holiday season seems infectious in Mexicans and gringos, alike and brings us together in joy and gratefulness for all we have as we greet each other with Feliz Navidad---Merry Christmas!