Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Mystery

As this Advent season comes to a close I’d like to share with you how I celebrate Christmas.  Many years ago a friend introduced me to The Christmas Mystery, a delightful book written by Norwegian philosopher Jostein Gaarder.  The Christmas Mystery is an Advent calendar, mystery, and beautiful story all in one -- a magical Christmas tale! 

There are 24 chapters in the book; one for each day in Advent.  The story begins in Norway with young Joachim going with his father to buy an Advent calendar.  In an out-of-the-way bookstore Joachim finds a very old, homemade calendar. The next morning, when Joachim opens door #1, a little slip of paper with tiny writing falls out of the calendar. Thus begins a story of 24 parts.  In the first chapter, December 1, the young Norwegian child Elisabet runs after a toy lamb as it makes its escape from a department store.  In the following chapter, December 2, she is joined by the angel Ephiriel who explains to Elisabet that they are on a holy pilgrimage to Bethlehem to be present at the birth of Jesus.  As they travel from Norway to Bethlehem they will also “run through time” from 1948 back to 0000.  

In each chapter the pilgrimage is joined by another participant who will be present at the birth of Jesus.  Their journey, through Europe, the Fertile Crescent, and the centuries, becomes a geography, history, and philosophy lesson.   As the story unfolds, Joachim’s mother remembers a child named Elisabet Hansen who really did disappear, many years before, from a department store in their town.  Is the Advent calendar a clue to her disappearance? How will Joachim unravel the mystery?  What will happen when the pilgrims reach Bethlehem?

It is a wonderful book to read aloud each day.  Over the years I have introduced it to a number of friends of all ages and read aloud with them through the season.  In turn they have introduced it to their friends and family.  It is as engrossing for children as it is for adults. The Christmas Mystery is available in many different editions -- all of them magical.  I hope that by December 1 of next year you will have your very own copy.  It would be nice to know if there are Digs readers sharing the Mystery.

Hopefully you’ve attended a posada or two during the past few days.  If not you still have four more nights of street posadas, culminating December 24, with the celebration of Christmas Eve Mass.  In many Mexican churches, as in Christian churches throughout the world, there will be Christmas pageants with children and live animals playing the various roles of the nativity figures.

On Christmas Eve the baby Jesus will finally appear in nativity scenes (nacimientos) throughout Mexico. In many homes nativity scenes stay in place until Candelaria, February 2. 

In Mexico nacimientos may not be limited to the usual holy family, angels, a few sheep, shepherds and wise men.  If you have been to a large market seasonally selling nacimiento figures you may wonder what possible connection some of these figures could have with the Christmas story.  At the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City there is an elaborate Mexican nacimiento.  Hundreds of figures, representing all classes and occupations, are in an enormous 19th century gilded retablo.  It represents the whole town of Bethlehem; not just those present in the stable. 

On Epiphany, January 6, the Wise Men present their gifts to the Child.  Though more and more Mexican families also exchange gifts at Christmas, it is traditionally on the Day of the Three Kings that Mexican children receive presents.  Tamales and atole is the usual food and drink.  If you don’t have your tamales pre-ordered don’t expect to find them at the last minute on January 6; you’ll be disappointed. The meal culminates with the cutting of the rosca, a large sweet-bread ring.  Baked inside the rosca is a tiny baby Jesus.  If you cut off the piece of the rosca that has the Niño, you are responsible for providing tamales and atole for Candelaria.

Christmas ends with Candelaria.  Forty days after his birth, Jesus was ritually presented at the temple.  There Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon the Righteous who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.  In the Gospel of Luke, Simeon says Jesus will be a "light for revelation to the Gentiles."  It is for this that candles, representing light, are associated with Candelaria.  Baby Jesus is removed from the nacimiento and dressed for his presentation in the temple.  Visiting a central market in the days before February 2 you can see an array of clothes available for Jesus’ as small as your thumb, or three feet tall, and every size in between.   At the mass of Candelaria, these newly dressed Jesus’ are presented.  At night the family enjoys tamales and atole, courtesy of whoever had the baby Jesus in her or his piece of rosca on Ephiphany.  So ends another Christmas in Mexico.

But for those of us following the Christmas Mystery, it is only December 20.  Elizabet, Ephiriel and their fellow pilgrims are in Tarsus in the year 238.  Will they make it to Bethlehem in time for the birth of the Child? 

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