I’m very happy to welcome Sandra Rodriguez Barron, author of Stay With Me, to the latest installment of my Holiday Open House! Growing up in a family with multiple cultures and beliefs, Sandra often struggled to make sense of conflicting notions; however, the magic of believing is something she continues to celebrate.
As a Salvadoran-Puerto-Rican kid growing up in New England, my holidays were populated with the presence of five distinct yuletide superheroes. There was Santa Clause, of course, who relied on magic reindeer for transportation. There were the Three Kings, who arrived upon the shores of Puerto Rico riding upon the backs of camels that apparently knew how to swim. And then there was the amazing, self-reliant Holy Infant, who managed to distribute gifts to Salvadoran children without any adult supervision or the help of harnessed animals. Believing in all three wasn’t easy, and I was constantly questioning the many failures of logic in these tales. Sometimes, the superheroes seemed to compete for my attention and faith (depending on which set of grandparents I was visiting). Looking back, my parents ought to have tried to weave these characters into a single, seamless narrative, because the overall effect was more Marvel Comics than New Testament or even Dickens. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any siblings to help me figure it all out, and with so many masters to obey, I had to figure out the pecking order. The good stuff (defined as anything manufactured by Mattel) always came from Santa.
When visiting my paternal grandparents in Puerto Rico, I had to wait almost two weeks for the second round of loot. The caped Three Kings couldn’t be rustled up until January 6, presumably because they were hung-over and spent from too much Christmas partying. The gifts they left for me were always mediocre: cookies in tin boxes, art supplies and an occasional doll, but never one requiring batteries or made by Mattel. One year, the Three Kings left me a boxed assortment of these beautiful embroidered panties with delicate lace trim. I eyed them with suspicion. Why had the kings concluded that I needed new underwear, of all things? Didn’t anyone else find that creepy and inappropriate?
When I spent Christmas in El Salvador with my maternal grandparents, Baby Jesus always brought me the same kind of fussy, C grade gifts the Magi did. But I had even more serious issues with this tradition. That Baby Jesus had to work alone to deliver gifts without assistance from elves, minions or beasts of burden was, in my opinion, abusive. Why, I wondered, didn’t the elderly Father, or for that matter, the strapping, grown-up Jesus do the schlepping? At the very least, the magical toddler deserved to travel in the belly of a pram that was harnessed to a team of amphibious poodles, lambs or angora cats.
As I became more and more aware of the devastating poverty outside of the walls of my grandparents' neighborhood in San Salvador, I began to question the very idea of Christmas. Why did kids like me get presents, I wondered, when so many others lacked food and clothes, or in some cases, parents. Baby Jesus, I told my bewildered abuela, ought to think about handing out money orders and assigning legal guardians instead.
One day, a precocious older cousin told me The Truth—that the superheroes were really just my parents and grandparents. Eventually, the sparkling white lights of my religious faith began to blink on and off, as they have continued to do all my life. So far anyway, I’ve always managed to repair the bulbs when they don’t work anymore. But in the process, in those brief moments that I’m left staring into the dark, I have discovered that my family’s cultural traditions only grow brighter with time. I have begun to treasure and embrace the things that connect my son to my parents and grandparents. It’s in the repetition of those traditions that I have always been able to conjure up the magic.
At the Puerto Rican holiday table, the pastel rules. Pasteles resemble tamales, but taste entirely different. They are a Christmas delicacy because they’re a) a huge pain in the neck to make, and b) are individually wrapped in a banana leaf and tied up with string, so that when you open one, it’s like unwrapping a gift. This year, I’m gathering with three Puerto Rican friends to make pasteles for the first time, a kind of passing of the torch from the previous generation. On Christmas Eve, my cousin will bring a guitar and a bag full of maracas and tambourines and my guests will join in to sing Santa’s carols and the old Puerto Rican aguinaldos. Baby Jesus will lie, warm and dry, under our tree, with those life-like glass eyes that in a certain light, appear to sparkle with life.
My son is full of the same questions that bugged me as a kid. The day after Thanksgiving he asked, “So what if Santa Claus and Baby Jesus and the Three Kings don’t agree if a kid has been good or bad? Who’s the bigger boss?” I tell him that making memories as a family is boss. My job is to show him the many ways he can repair the light bulbs of faith if ever they fail to illuminate this path. Celebrating our crazy mix of cultural traditions is one way. I’ve discovered that there’s an essential string of lights that span the length of the human spirit: giving, thanking, eating, laughing, singing, dancing, remembering. And despite all the inconsistencies and contradictions, the biggest, the brightest, is believing.
Browse inside Sandra Rodriguez Barron’s Stay With Me and visit her website for more information about her books, personal photographs from El Salvador, and more!