Millions crowding the public squares and parks in Bogota, a flight from tragedy to sorrow. Crowds sitting silently under plastic sheeting or inside abandoned schools rapidly converted for the needy. The time-honored smells of hallacas and pan de jamon replaced with, well with nothing really. The gaitas I used to sing with my family have grown silent. One time we even went floor by floor in our high-rise in Caracas singing, caroling as we do in America for our Latin hosts. Nobody sings anymore, what is there to sing about? And Santa Clause, the reindeer and baby Jesus? They did not sneak into the apartment complexes of the formerly middle class this year; it’s too dangerous and there was nothing to give anyway. There were no midnight parties; no pernil, that massive pork leg seasoned just right and washed down with whiskey and beer. There was no gratitude in family for so many; millions in fact, who are the powerless – what is there to be grateful for, if you are one of them?
“And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong that mocks the song
Of peace on earth goodwill to men.”
My little half-Venezuelan boy had a very different Christmas; a tender Tennessee Christmas. He was up at 1:30am, anxiously listening for the jingling and the ‘ho-ho-ho’ and again at 4:30, his nocturnal vigil cut short by a commanding word from mama. The presents came; a nerf gun, a crystal-growing formula and some little-boy underwear. The big present a telescope, to see the worlds far away from our chaotically spinning planet and imagine greatness beyond the current limitations of an exhausted world. That is after all how we as a race advance, inspiring the imagination of our children. It is quiet now, the ham has been is picked over and the punch exhausted and he is watching a show on television. Grandma and Grandpa are asking Grandma and Grandpa questions about the latest cartoon, “Who is that?” to the fiery retort “I can’t hear!” The chill in the air outside has a hint of wood-smoke from a chimney somewhere down the vale. An occasional car passes along the dirt road, breaking the quiet but only for an instant. A bird knocks on a tree; a squirrel scurries by; and we are all full and satisfied. But it is still sad – for loved ones this Christmas are suffering, caught behind another bamboo curtain erected in stupidity and arrogance and left in place long after any argument that once sustained it has fallen away.
This is the case for the newly poor in Venezuela; but its also the case for so many others. Syria and Iraq and Nigeria. Places which for you might seem like random names selected from across an Atlas but for me, for us are also places where we have invested heart and sweat and sometimes blood. “I am from Africa” my little boy responded to the question of the impromptu choir director the other night as she assembled a rag-tag mob of volunteers. More caroling; its what we do together, here in Tennessee. “My, my…” she said, smiling and moving on. It is far from here; and maybe an unwelcome intrusion in this festive time. “We will dedicate this song to our boys who are fighting in foreign lands,” the MC playing the piano said next, “and who cannot come home this year.” Maybe not so unwelcome – because that is Tennessee too; that is America too. At once so cloistered in its vales and hamlets, doors unlocked and neighbors exchanging cookies and hot-cocoa; but also somehow worldly in that firm, disciplined kind of way that hints – but only hints – at tragedy known and adversity overcome.
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doubt he sleeps
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth goodwill to men.”
And I know that this year it is well, if not perhaps good. That though the times seem bleak and that loved ones sometimes weep; that our God truly is not dead and that we who fight for the right can be assured of our victory. Is that not what the Christmas story is all about? A Merry Christmas; from a quiet glade in the heartland of America full of Venezuela and Africa; and yes, also still somehow full of hope. It is Jesus’s birthday after-all.