Sunday, May 25, 2008

My Moment of Christmas

Note: I know we're nearing the heat of summer - a far cry from Christmas - but I believe you can relate with curiosity and, above all, seeking the essence. So have some fun while you're at it.

The Market of Chichicastenango, December 21st, 2007

I'm searching for an authentic Christmas, none of this American Christmas trees-Rudolph the Reindeer-Santa Claus bunk. Something with soul.

So I capture photos of children, courtyards, fruit vendors... but I think my highlight happens, though, when I approach a bright white building, towering over the whole town, colorful flags in fluttering stripes hanging from the peak.

Curious, I scale the steps, where men in sombreros and elder Guatemalan women lounge ponderously.

I reach the surreally bright white walls. I read a sign that looks as though a 5-year-old created and it survived Vietnam. The English warns (basically): Don't take pictures. Please give alms.

I pocket my camera. I breathe in deep, then step into the cool air of the church. I slowly make my way to the altar, passing pews that look as handmade as the sign.

Another sign awaits me at the altar, as if berating me for the thoughts of photography that flood my mind. Homemade candles flicker as an offering to... what? Someone in a coffin? A woman worships behind the glass box which contains a manequin. She knits the air with her hands as she prays and murmurs and prays. I believe she's been there all day, if not for days.

I feel as though I'm holding my breath. But this strange monophonic machine that plays American Christmas carol tunes (Jingle bells... jingle bells...) from somewhere behind the altar/coffin breaks the mood and adds to the eeriness. A small, bloody effigy of Christ stands to my right, a glass coca-cola bottle placed in front of Him, as if an offering.

I can't resist. I dart furtive glances around me, then pull out my camera. My heart pumping and probably looking totally guilty, I shoot several photos of the candles, the coffin, the effigy... I curse my camera when the flash goes off... twice.

A very old man approaches the altar. I nearly jump, then discreetly tuck my camera under my hand. "Ahhhh... senor... who is the man in the coffin?" I ask in Spanish.

"Jesus," he replies simply.

"Really? Interesting..." I say. Then with a pause, I begin to back away. I admire the church as I leave and nod to a family that's staring at me from the pews, then step out into the bright sunshine and the noise and ruckus of the market below me.

I dig into my pocket. Wait! I dash back into the church. The old man is tidying the altar. I place 10 quetzales (about one dollar) in his hands. "I know, it's not very much... I want to give more, but it is all I have..." I say rushedly in Spanish, but he just nods appreciatively and smiles just a bit...

"Feliz Navidad," I finish sincerely, and he replies,

"Feliz Navidad," his eyes twinkle, then he turns and places the money in the beat-up wooden box and returns to sweeping. That's it, I think breathlessly. That's my moment.

I bound out of the iglesia, beaming, laughing, the locals examining my peculiar behavior. I wave to them. Okay, so maybe I reasoned that 10 quetzales kinda canceled out my sneaky photography, but I don't think Jesus minded. He seemed quite well-acquainted with modern culture.

I don't care, because I got my moment.

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