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The Christmas season is far from over


‘A Matter of Faith’ guests recall holiday traditions that extend into the new year

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Jonathan Meyer via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Growing up in Puerto Rico, the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo recalls Las Parrandas and Three Kings celebrations where he and his friends would awaken people at 3 o’clock in the morning — even their favorite teachers weren’t exempt — with celebratory music of the season. Amazingly, those aroused from their slumber would in turn feed the revelers.

One year, a favorite teacher died suddenly. Her widower called the students as the Christmas season approached to ask: “You’re still coming to my house, right?” Students showed up with bells on to serenade the grieving man, comforting him in the process.

The Rev. Edwin González-Castillo

“It was a way to remember her and celebrate her life,” González-Castillo said during “Multicultural Christmas,” the most recent edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” which dropped Thursday and can be heard in English here. This beloved teacher “was someone special to us, even though she was no longer there.”

González-Castillo, associate for Disaster Response in Latin America and the Caribbean for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, was joined by Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and the Rev. Rosa Miranda for the podcast hosted by the Rev. Lee Catoe, editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, and Simon Doong, associate in the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), was recently named regional liaison to the Caribbean with Presbyterian World Mission together with her husband, the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts. Miranda is associate for Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support in the Office of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries.

Cintrón-Olivieri said in her native Puerto Rico, “entire towns were decorated with the colors of the season, mainly with religious scenes.” Food also helped people celebrate the season joyfully. “We pretty much skipped Advent and went directly to Christmastime,” she said. “Other than in the church, it was Christmas until January.”

The Rev. Rosa Miranda

During her childhood in Mexico, Miranda recalled Posadas parties every evening beginning Dec. 16 and running through Christmas Eve. “We brought candles and food, and we knew there would be piñatas,” she said. Celebrants would knock on the door and ask the “innkeeper” to let them in. “It was the way in which missionaries taught our native people how to celebrate Christmas,” she said. “This is a tradition that has been there for more than 400 years. The richness, colors, textures, smells and flavors have stayed with me as I grew up and came to live in this country.”

It wasn’t Santa Claus who brought presents to the children in Mexico, she said: It was the Three Kings. People of all ages would gather around the table “and spend time as a family reflecting and learning and singing and eating together.”

The three guests are learning to incorporate traditional celebrations in their present homes.

“I live in Louisville, and I was not the first” to hang Christmas decorations outside the house, González-Castillo said. “My neighbors beat me to it. They had decorations up before Thanksgiving.” That eagerness, he said, “speaks to the reality of what we are living in — the need for people to celebrate and have happy moments and lights and to do things they can enjoy as a family.”

He said he plans to leave his decorations up until late January to honor the San Sebastián Street Festival occurring in Old San Juan. That, he said, is “the culmination of Christmas.”

Miranda recalled elaborate and inclusive Nativity scenes. When her family went to the holiday market, they’d purchase a little piece to add to their own Nativity — a small water feature, for example, or a baker or a shoemaker to remind them that the gift of Jesus was for the entire community.

“It was a time for our grandparents to tell the story of when Jesus was born,” she said. Placing Jesus or the Magi on the scene before they made their actual arrival was not allowed. “We had to wait,” Miranda said. “I did that with my children, too.”

Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and her husband,  the Rev. José Manuel Capella-Pratts, are pictured at Montreat Conference Center (Photo by the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill)

After she and her husband moved to the Miami area, “it was a shock” for Cintrón-Olivieri not to see elaborate Nativity scenes adorning people’s homes. She said they compensate by putting on Christmas music “almost 24/7” during the weeks before and after Christmas “both from here and from around the world. The music from Latin America, the Caribbean and the Puerto Rico region is very rich, with new songs coming out every year,” she said.

Parents who move to the continental United States from places like Puerto Rico are surprised their children don’t have the time they’re used to in order to celebrate the Three Kings, according to González-Castillo.

“Classes start early in the year,” he said, “and they’re still opening Three Kings gifts.”

“I’ve heard some people in Puerto Rico don’t exchange gifts on Christmas,” he added. “They wait until Three Kings Day” on Jan. 6.

Miranda said one way that neighbors in Mexico celebrate Epiphany is by making Three Kings bread, a round loaf that includes colorful dried fruit and a tiny Baby Jesus (or several Jesuses). “We cut a piece from the bread — you can pick where you cut it,” she said. “If you get the baby, you have the honor of serving a dinner for everyone in February.”

Hiding the baby represents the way the infant and his family had to hide in Egypt to stay safe, she said. The Three Kings represent all of us — the world, the people for whom Jesus had been born. “The season of Christmas brings everyone to the table,” Miranda said.

“As you get older,” González-Castillo explained, “you realize what’s behind the stories, that Jesus is being celebrated by people of all places and languages, that welcoming the spirit of Christmastime breaks down barriers and walls and celebrates the impact the birth of this child has on the lives of so many people. It all ends up at the welcoming table and the welcoming space.”

While still living in San Juan, Cintrón-Olivieri and her husband especially enjoyed the day after Epiphany, when a neighbor would offer “the gift of music” to the entire neighborhood. “It was spontaneous and improvised, celebrating the newborn king, the holy family and the Magi,” she said. “Every Jan. 7 we would hear this group of troubadours who would sing a sort of liturgy … It was the entire story recited in song and it took hours, but no one complained. It was part of the tradition.”

“Christmas is the season,” Miranda said, “to journey to the manger and be there just like the shepherds and the Wise Men, being people of the world who come to worship and bring ourselves to the manger and then sit around the table where we are all equal and where God’s love brings us together as a family … There’s just us, God’s children around the table.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) podcast “A Matter of Faith” drops Thursdays.

“That’s the invitation for the season,” Miranda said. “The celebration for us is fiesta time, party time — and gratitude because of God’s grace.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” is produced by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Unbound: An Interactive Journal on Christian Social Justice.

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” are released on Thursdays and can be found here or wherever you get your podcasts. “Tradiciones Navideñas,” the Spanish-language version of this edition of the podcast, can be heard here.

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