Cunén Christmas


Note: James L. Ficklin and his wife, Jolene, have been living since October 1971 in Cunén, Quiché, Guatemala, as volunteers in project Ayuda, a nonprofit organization of persons working to help Indian communities help themselves.
Jim has been teaching in the project’s secondary school, assisting in establishing a dental clinic, developing audio-visual aids in preventive medicine, agriculture, home improvement, and hygiene. Jolene helps him with charts, graphics, and illustrations. In the Church, Jim serves as second counselor in the group presidency and as Sunday School president; Jolene is president of the Primary. Last Christmas, Jolene recalls, “We were a little lonely for our family and the excitement of the season at home, but we made a special Christmas memory we’ll share for years.” This is the true story of that Christmas memory.

After hours of searching and thinking, we have finally decided to give a blanket to Domingo and his family to ease the bitter cold of windy nights in the Guatemalan mountains. My wife, Jolene, has baked pumpkin bread, and we have packed our gaily wrapped gift and the still warm bread into a bag.

Now we are on our way out the front door, across and down the street, next a sharp left, and then we double back and go down between the river and the street above. We balance our way over a log bridge and head straight north toward the mountain facing our front door.

We’re on a grassy space (they call it a road) now, between two bamboo fences, and you can see where hundreds of bare feet have worn through the grass to make trails. But the trails are muddy tonight, because it has rained most of the last two days. The mud sticks to our shoes, and soon our feet feel as if we’re wearing lead boots.

We pass a tree with half of its roots exposed as though it is ready to walk away any minute. To the left of this spiderlike tree is an adobe oven that looks like an igloo. The Indian family that lives here uses it for making bread. First, they build a roaring wood fire in the oven for two or three hours until the bricks are all hot. Then they scrape the ashes to one side, pop in the bread, and brick up the door. Later, when the bread is done, they pull out the bricks and take out the circular loaves. They’re dark brown, hard and tough, and called xecas (pronounced shake-ups).

We climb up a tree-shaded trail now and across a little stream, then go up a little rise where we skirt a wheat field and pass a couple of scraggly peach trees still in bloom. After we cross another little ditch and travel past another field, we can begin to look back and down on Cunén. An orange cloud reflects the last rays of the setting sun, and the earth seems to be a million shades of green—clean and pretty after the rain.

The trail passes right under an avocado tree loaded with luscious pear-shaped fruit. They’re rather small but their flavor is delicious. Walking diagonally through another wheat field, we reach a little creek and kind of slip and slide down the clay mud, hopscotching from rock to rock to the other side. There the slippery climb continues up the other bank to a small patch of over-grazed grass and bushes.

Domingo’s one old mare is tethered here, and only one surviving colt out of four is with her. A little further on we reach the trail to West Trigales. We turn left here and take the rocky trail for a hundred yards or so. Traversing several ditches running with rain water, we reach the trail to Domingo’s house, and we know we’re about one-third the way there now. The last time we came by here, several women living in an adobe house with a tile roof were out scrubbing their laundry on a board in the ditch where a small patch of grass and nearby shrubs serve as a clothesline.

Soon the trail leaves the ditch and angles right up the steep side of the mountain. It is really muddy here, and all the weight we so gladly scraped off our shoes on the rocky stretch below begins to collect on our shoes again. The mud is the result of a newly built trail. Some weeks ago, Domingo and his neighbors spent several days with large hoes and machetes improving their “road.” They took out a really hard, rocky stretch, and now, even with the mud, it’s much easier walking.

Jolene stops to rest every little while on this stretch, because when you are going to have a baby in less than four months, the climb is exhausting.

After a bit we top a little rise and then it’s down again for a short distance. Domingo’s house is in plain sight off to our left, as we cross a running stream just below the small falls where the family bathes. Victoria, Domingo’s wife, washes clothes here, too; and she carries water from a little natural pond to the house for cooking. Domingo and Victoria greet us warmly, and we spend a few moments scraping the mud off our shoes before going in.

From Domingo’s front porch we can look out over the valley. Cunén is nestled down below, patches of red tile breaking the green. Behind Cunén rises another mountain, with the same dirt road we took to get to this valley snaking its way over the top to Zacapulas.

Domingo’s house is made of thatched walls with mud caulking and a thatch roof, and it is about half the size of our bedroom down in Cunén. The two rooms, a living-sleeping room and a kitchen, together measure about ten by fifteen feet. Inside everything is very dark and black from the smoke of the cooking fire on the kitchen floor.

The dirt floors are covered with a thick carpet of pine needles gathered by Domingo’s oldest boys, Jose, 2, and Lorenzo, 11, just for this Christmas Eve. The two boys stand smiling and shy as though waiting for our approval for their efforts. There are pine trees, too, next to the wall, with two paper decorations hanging proudly from each.

Domingo lights a borrowed kerosene lamp for our comfort, and two candles as well. They normally make do with the light of one candle. Inside, the other children gather around to greet us. They are Disiderio, 8; Elena, 7; and Andrea, 5. Andrea is unable to walk because she got her foot in the way of her brother’s machete and it is badly cut. There were three other children after Andrea, but all died before their first year.

Domingo invites me to sit with him on an L-shaped board platform that serves as a bed for the whole family, and a pighide chair is placed for Jolene. The rest sit on the floor. Elena comes over (as she always does) and sits next to me. She is too shy to say a word, but if I lift my arm, she snuggles right up to me and giggles when I squeeze her. She is a pretty child with her warm brown skin and sparkling eyes.

Briefly we explain to our friends a little bit about the custom of our own families, who gather on Christmas Eve and eat good things and tell the story of the first Christmas. Then we bring out our loaf of pumpkin bread and respectfully ask if we may share our custom with them in their home. Domingo assures us it will be a great honor for us to do so.

Domingo and Victoria excuse themselves and take the bread into the kitchen, where there is a lot of hushed talking in their native tongue. We can also hear quite a bit of rushing around in there.

Meanwhile Jolene teases me about my new “girl friend,” as Elena flutters her eyes at me between snuggling and giggling. Disiderio tells us about his few sheep that he has just brought in from pasture. He’s very proud of them. Jose and Lorenzo tell us about cutting the Christmas trees and putting them up.

Finally, Domingo and Victoria come back in with the bread very carefully cut into portions and placed on tin plates for each one present. Jolene and I are a bit embarrassed to notice our portions are a bit larger than the rest.

As we eat, I tell about Joseph the carpenter, and Mary, and Nazareth. Suddenly it occurs to me that Domingo is learning that very trade in his work with Ayuda. I tell about the visit of the angel and the news that Mary would soon have a son, the very Son of God. I tell of the census and the tax that meant a long journey by donkey for Mary, and she “great with child.” Then I begin to realize that these Guatemalan mountain people walk such distances regularly, and pregnant women are really fortunate if they have a donkey to ride.

I tell of the search in Bethlehem for a place to stay and how finally they must accept the stable. And as I talk I look toward the door, and in my mind I see the dim lights of a few candles below in Cunén and a bright evening star shining over the mountain and the shepherds in the hills.

We are in the hills and Disiderio is a little shepherd. I am impressed with the realization that that night so long ago, so far away, must have been very much like this night in this place.

I say, “There was a light in the heavens and angels singing.” And as I tell how frightened the shepherds were, I can see in Disiderio’s eyes that he understands how they must have felt. “And they worshiped the babe—the very Son of God—who came to earth under the humblest of circumstances.” Now I realize some similarities between Jesus’ birth and the births of these children. Somehow I feel, as I look at these beautiful, humble people, that they understand much better than we ever can how that wondrous night really was.

“There was a new star in the sky. And wise men came with gifts.” I explain our custom of gift giving.” God gave the world a great gift that night and the wise men later honored him with gifts.” And I tell them we have brought a small gift for their family.

Domingo takes the tissue-wrapped package and opens the card. He explains that Jolene made the card and tells the family how he watched her working on it last week in Cunén. Then he opens the card and, holding a little candle in one hand, haltingly reads the words I have written to tell him why we want to give them a blanket. It is because we love them. There are tears in his eyes. To be sure they all understand, he translates the message into their native tongue. Then we are all quiet for awhile.

Too soon it is time for Jolene and me to go back. Domingo embraces us both, and we all wish each other a happy Christmas Eve. As we step outside, sure enough, there are the dim lights of Cunén below. And marvel of marvels, there over the mountain above Cunén is the brightest evening star I have ever seen.

As Jolene and I pick our way back down the muddy trail in the moonlight, we already know that these moments are going to be the happiest and most significant part of this Christmas for us.