Merry Christmas! We hope that you all are having a blessed and joy-filled Christmas! We enjoyed our second Bolivian Christmas here in Montero.
Since Friday December 16th, I’ve been doing a Christmas Novena every afternoon with the kids from the neighborhood. 30-40 kids came daily to pray, sing, color, make nativity scenes and practice the nativity play. Then on Christmas Eve they sang the Gloria dressed as angels to welcome Niño Jesus and on Christmas day they performed the nativity play at mass. I really enjoy getting to know the kids and this leads Tom to call me a celebrity in the neighborhood because I can’t walk around without kids yelling out “Laurita!” I made my first Nativity scene or “pesebre” also! (with the help of a coloring sheet)
On Christmas Eve, I got an emergency plea from Sister Inez to help her finish the angels’ wings for that night. We had been working little by little on them all week but still had eight not-started nor a single finished. So we worked all morning and afternoon (and I have the hot glue gun burns to prove it) and finally at 4:30pm finished, just in time for dinner at 5pm. The Sisters shared their food with us so we had a nice Christmas dinner in our house with volunteer Marcos who came from Yapacani for Christmas. Then it was off to mass at 7:30 to line up my angels. Tom, the other volunteers, and I dressed up for mass although most people don’t. It helps us feel more like Christmas though.
In front of the Nativity scene with Carmen (notice the angels in the background and Jesus in the hammock).
The angel performance went off well and so triumphantly we headed to the Hogar after mass for a little celebration. The Sisters didn’t organize anything but we put some music on and danced with the younger girls until 11:00pm and then put them to bed. It was really sweet, when I walked in to help put the 6-10 year olds to bed, all of them wanted big goodnight kisses and one even asked me to make the sign of the cross on her head. It gave me heart pangs to think of all these little girls yearning for goodnight kisses that they rarely receive. It reminded me that despite how good the care may be at the Hogar, nothing can replace a loving mother in a child’s life. I would have adopted all those little girls on the spot if I could have.
Afterwards we shared a little fermented apple cider (poor man’s champagne), which is the traditional drink here at Christmas, with the other volunteers and watched the fireworks until midnight. We jokingly sang a rendition of the Star-Spangled banner at midnight, because fireworks just don’t mean Christmas for us.
Christmas morning the volunteers made scrambled eggs and french toast for the girls which Tom and Marcos headed over at 6:00am to help out with, while I was helping at the parish center to prepare the Christmas party for the neighborhood kids. Then it was off to mass again at 8:00 where I helped the Nativity play actors get ready and dressed up some angels for the Gloria. We had folded up the white angel robes from the night before and put them in a bag on the floor. When I pulled the first robe out in the morning it had a big tarantula on it!! I let out a yelp and jumped backwards throwing down the robe, only able to articulate, “spider, spider.” All the kids tried to quelm my fears saying, oh spiders won’t hurt you, they’re not that bad. But when I pulled all the other robes out and flushed out the tarantula from the bottom of the bag all the kids got excited too, “ahh, tarantula!” Luckily as the tarantula started escaping its way towards the altar, a server boy came out with a broom and escorted it outside. With that behind us, the angels and nativity actors all performed well and we headed to the parish center after mass for songs and games. Kids won toys for participating and I gave out prizes to all the kids that had participated in the Novena. There was also a competition of nativity scenes, and kids’ ones were way better than mine, so they all won toys also. The party ended at about 12:30 when all the kids received hot chocolate, fried bread and treat bags and went home for lunch.
We headed over to the Hogar for lunch only to find they had eaten without us! But we scavenged some leftover french toast and all was well. We gave Carmen, our god-daughter a little present for Christmas and also gave one to Ophelia, an eight-year-old little girl that has latched on to Tom and just loves him. She’s really sweet, and smart but she got bad parasites this past July-August and lost a lot of weight. Now when you hug her you can feel all her bones. They feed the girls enough at the Hogar in order to not be undernourished, but not enough to really gain any weight, so I had been worried about Ophelia for awhile. And it’s not that we can’t buy her food here, but it is more difficult because how do you buy for one, when there are 100+ other hungry faces looking at you? So while home in the US, we bought her some high-calorie Cliff bars hoping that at least an extra 100 calories a day and some protein might help.
Tom and Ophelia last Carnaval (before she lost weight)
I also opened my store at the Hogar for a little bit and made lots of sales including some of the biggest items that require 20 tickets to buy (the girls earn tickets by helping out the workers). I enjoy pretending to be a Bolivian market worker and I hope the girls enjoy the chance to pick out their own things. The store was so popular, the Sisters have even opened up a competing store that sells shoes and clothes. At 3:00pm Marcos dressed up as Santa Claus and gave out presents to all the girls (backpack and a new pair of clothes) but we couldn’t stay because our OFS (Secular Order of Franciscans) group was going to Villa Virginia for another Christmas party.
Villa Virginia is full of bars called “chicherias” and is poorer than our neighborhood so the OFS bought a small lot there and started going three years ago for Christmas to give out toys and do some evangelization. We showed up with treat bags and toys and started playing loud music, saying all the kids are invited to come celebrate Christmas with us. It’s funny to me how common ‘impromptu’ events like this are, which only work because people are accustomed to coming out and investigating when it sounds like something new is going on in the neighborhood, that and word of mouth. Anyway about 80 kids came, and we basically repeated the morning activities: songs, games, telling the Christmas story, and dances culminating in toys and treat bags being handed out at about 5:45pm. Coincidentally, once the kids started leaving with toys a whole bunch more kids materialized, but we went ahead and gave to them also since we had planned for 200.
On the way home, the guys in the back of the pickup were yelling “ho ho ho” and throwing out toys and treat bags to any kids that we passed. It might have worked better if most of the bags hadn’t landed in the street, but oh well. They were having fun.
After that, we headed back over to the Hogar to check in with Marcos and see how everything went. Finally at 7:00pm we headed back to our house, cooked some spaghetti and meatballs, called family, and crashed in our beds.
While back in the U.S., some people sounded surprised when we said we wanted to go back to Bolivia for Christmas. I hope this long description has shed some light on why I felt so strongly about that decision. Though it’s more a ‘work day’ than a holiday, it’s an opportunity to touch the lives of so many children and for me, embodies our goal of being here, which is to love others. As God gave us the gift of his Son, I gave my Christmas as a gift to others. And it was like I experienced a new kind of Christmas, instead of the kind where joy comes from the love of family, good food, and the thoughtful presents you receive; this Christmas we gave love and presents to others, and we kept giving until we were tired and hungry, and left with nothing but Christmas joy.