When the Three Kings ran into Santa Claus

I realize it’s a very uneven match, but this Christmas we decided to do our share to beat back the onslaught of U.S. marketing and cultural influence that threaten to undermine traditional Mexican traditions.

We wanted to give Christmas presents to Félix’s three kids, Alondra, 11; Edgar, 8 and Jessica 4, but didn’t want to participate in the Santa Claus, reindeer, snow and ho-ho-ho racket.

Edgar: Ready for blast-off.

Instead we told Félix we’d like to wait until the biblically based Feast of the Three Kings on January 6, also called the Day of the Epiphany. So yesterday morning the entire family showed up at the ranch, to see what the Three Kings had brought.

The Three Kings, or in the case of Stew and I, The Two Kings, were quite generous to the three kids. Alondra got her first cell phone, apparently a requirement for kids her age. Edgar got a 20-inch bicycle and Jessica a stuffed toy slightly bigger than her.

But before the gift-giving, I gave a five-minute homily about the story of the Three Kings from Orient, how they had followed the Star of Bethlehem right to the manger where Jesus was born, brought gifts, and praised and adored the new baby.

None of them really knew much of the story, except for Alondra who named the Three Kings—Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar in Spanish. I don’t think even Félix or his wife Isela knew any details of the Nativity story, let alone heard about the evil King Herod and other gory details.

This fed my suspicions that Mexican Catholicism runs a mile wide but only an inch deep. It’s a matter of rote and ceremony, bargaining with the saints for favors and miracles and attending prescribed religious festivals.

But that’s probably true in most Catholic countries today, where the influence of the church is waning because of the child-abuse scandals, shrinking pool of priests and nuns, and plain lack of popular interest.

With a little help from the old man.

Félix once told me he’d attended a Palm Sunday celebration in the nearby town of Jalpa, which, he said, featured “some guy dressed like God, riding around on a donkey.”

Close enough but not quite, though sometimes I believe that such bare-bones religious faith is good enough to get along, without any further ratiocinations.

For some reason, I confess that as a gay, long-lapsed Catholic, my retelling of the biblical Christmas story to three Mexican children felt somewhat odd.

Maybe it’s the years of  Catholic indoctrination that gay people are unworthy of being Catholic, let alone participate in any of its rituals. If so, call it a case of “internalized homophobia.”

But that’s the Christmas story I grew up with, the one I love, and the one I wanted to celebrate with Félix’ kids.

Even growing up in Cuba, I resented the supplanting of our traditional religious Christmas story—the expectation of Christmas building up during Advent; a long, Christmas Eve dinner, Nochebuena, at my grandmother’s; Mass at midnight or first thing the next morning; and finally the visit by the Three Kings on January 6—by the alien American production led by Santa Claus.

The latter seemed foreign, hokey if not downright disrespectful.

Of course, later on, the Communist government cancelled Christmas altogether, considering it a waste of time that could interfere with the all-important sugar cane harvest. Decades later the holiday was reinstated.

Jessica and her monster friend

I also remember the arrival of Halloween to the local Woolworth’s in my hometown of Santa Clara, a made-up holiday as foreign to Cubans as the Lunar New Year would be to Americans.

In Cuba we have nothing as big as the Mexican Día de los Muertos, but Nov. 2 was a religious occasion to remember the dearly departed. It surely didn’t have anything to do with witches, goblins, pumpkins or the rest of the Halloween crap-ola.

A similar Americanization—or bastardization?—of the Day of the Dead is underway in Mexico, with some support from the local expat community, who’ve turned it into a cross between Mardi Gras parade and a curious photo opportunity. Accordingly, Costco last year featured life-sized witches, goblins and other scary-poo merchandise.

Mexicans still celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings, and there’s a big toy fair at the two markets, and crèches in public places, even our one shopping center. But that’s gradually eroding.

When we went to Costco to look for Edgar’s bicycle, the Saturday before Melchior and his two compadres were supposed to arrive, the entire store had been stripped clean of any Christmas merchandise or decorations.

Employees were repositioning the wooden skids, getting them ready for whatever Costco decides is the next Important Sales Event, I suppose patio umbrellas.

Alondra: Ready to communicate.

Three Kings? What Three Kings?

My reaction was similar to the Americanization of Christmas in Cuba. I found it really offensive: Where do the Costco honchos in Seattle get off knocking the Three Kings off the calendar?

The two Walmarts in Querétaro had their chaotic Christmas toy tents still up, but had no bicycles. The Mega supermarket had already started the after-Christmas denouement and merchandise turnover, and only had three 20-inch pink bicycles—hardly appropriate for a little machito like Edgar.

Only at the Bodega Aurrera, Walmart’s low-budget cousin in Mexico’s poorer communities, was Christmas, the Three Kings and the rest of it, still in full roar. In fact, they were still unloading dozens of bicycles and other paraphernalia from semi-trucks.

We got Edgar’s bicycle and Alondra’s phone there, and along with a stuffed toy we’d bought at Walmart, we headed home.

Everyone was thrilled by the Three Kings stopping by our ranch and dropping off presents. Even the day after, Félix was still thanking me, over and over, and telling me how Edgar was going around in circles, practicing staying up on his new wheels.

We plan to do it again next year, except there’s going to be a small admission charge: A brief quiz, to see how much of my Nativity sermonette they remember.  -30-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s