Christmas in the desert
At this time of year I remember being a small forlorn child looking out at the dry desert behind our home, searching among the cactus wrens and creosote for the dreamy snowy white winter wonderland I saw on our Magnavox every Christmas. Instead all I saw among the sand and scorpions behind our suburban ranch home was tumbleweeds. Not once did I ever see dancing snowmen, or any jolly elves, and certainly not one single red-nosed reindeer.
Every December I felt I was marooned on a desert planet a million miles away from the real Christmas.
I ached to see the wintry frozen lakes that Snoopy and Frosty skated across, to ride on a one-horse open sleigh that jingle jangled through snowy woods where Holiday Inns, Grinches and snowball fights were as common as the horned toads that skittered down our sadly sunny street.
When I was seven my mom instructed me to write a letter to Santa who lived at the North Pole. “Might as well be Mars,” I groaned.
I had one question for the Master Sergeant. “Hey, dad, what do Santa Claus and sleigh bells have to do with the baby Jesus? Wasn’t he born in a desert?”
The old man thought for a minute, took a drag off his Marlboro and said,“Ask your mother, son.”
“Finish your letter to Santa Claus.”
As the years passed I resented Hollywood’s polar-centric point of view. I came to believe with all my heart that Christmas is here, here in our beautiful, wondrous, magical desert, not in the holly-draped scripts peddled by Kris Kringle, Rudy and Bing.
I don’t know when Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh give way to pine cones, tinsel and pumpkin spice but this son of the desert believes Christmas is here among the Pastorelas, the candlelit processions of Saints, the Mesquite fires and the aroma of Christmas tamales. It’s here in our desert at dusk when the setting sun reveals the silhouettes of palm trees that transport us to the deserts of legendary wise men, messiahs and prophets. One need only look up into our night sky to be awestruck by the entrancing wonder of the vast sea of stars calling to mind ancient evenings in Babylon, Antioch and Jerusalem. Here in the desert we can seek the infinite in our mystical heavens, while our woodland friends can find little more than grey in the endless shroud of their idealized cold merciless winter.
I pity the misguided newcomer who pines for snow-covered woods. Have they never examined a globe? Are they woefully unaware of the surroundings of King Herod’s Bethlehem, of old Judea, of Cana? Keep your icy frozen lakes and forests on Christmas Eve, Bing and Rudy.
I’ll meditate on the deeper warm waters of the Jordan River and Lake Galilee. And the desert garden of Gethsemane that awaits us all.
Is it not in the deserts of the world where healers, sages, revolutionaries and messiahs are born, tested, martyred and celebrated?
For those wedded to their disingenuous Anglo-Saxon centric celebration I recommend a visit to San Xavier del Bac where one can be reminded by the beautiful nativity displayed in the candlelit transept of the old mission that the focus of the holiday was a brown child born to a tribe of desert people.
When Christmas Eve comes to the desert the homeless will be given warm beds, the cactus wrens will hush, one by one the office lights in our valley will go dark and we’ll scurry home like quail to our nests. We’ll feed Mesquite into our chimineas and watch the sweet smoke drift up to the stars sending a sure signal to that we are here and waiting for miracles.
On Christmas morning many will go to grandmother’s hacienda, over the arroyo and pass the ironwoods, while others will wander into the desert wilderness to find their God in a canyon trail.
On Christmas morning, the devout and the heathen will be mindful of the truth we all hold dear. We desert people know little lasts out here in this harsh beautiful realm unless it’s made of stone, or a more enduring material, such as love. The greatest treasure we’ll ever possess in this fleeting, fragile existence is the love of our friends and family, with whom we’ll rise with the barrio roosters and the mourning doves and the distant mission bells to greet the promise of another blessed day.
In our desert pueblo I like to believe most of us practice the lessons of the peasant child many in my village revere. We welcome the stranger. We visit the prisoner. We serve the poor. We feed the hungry. We serve the least among us. We forgive. We judge not. We volunteer. We struggle to love our enemies as we would love ourselves. Day in and day out. In our desert town we fold the spirit of the Gospels, the Koran, the Torah, of I’itoi, of Stoicism and the Tao into our daily lives.
There is more of Christmas in our desert sand and stars than there ever was in commercial television’s jangling sleigh bells and product peddling snowmen. One need only stand beneath our winter sky and look up to know it is in the desert where mystics rise. And where, across the centuries, miracles have come to pass and wisdom and love endures.