The rickety bus slowed just enough to let us swing out the open back door. Lurching forward once again, it careened around the corner and was gone in an instant. We stood alone on the highway, Ciudad de Dios on one side and Urbanización San Juan on the other. It seemed a forsaken place to me that December day in Lima, Peru, three days before Christmas. A humid wind blew the sand into grainy little whirlwinds, and the ever-present Lima overcast was still with us although it was nearly summer. It was my first Christmas away from home, and I felt empty and alone. I had been singing carols to myself for days trying to catch the mood but to no avail. I missed the snow and the crisp Utah winter air. Lima’s mugginess didn’t help at all.
We trudged along past row after row of cement tract houses, all in various stages of construction but occupied nonetheless. Dogs barked at us from their rooftop guard stations, and children tagged along at our sides. Arriving at the Manco home, we knocked on the door and Sister Manco answered.
A three-foot bramble bush stood ridiculously in the middle of the bare cement floor in the living room. We oohed and aahed appropriately. I smiled slightly, remembering the beautiful firs and pinion pines at home, but had to appreciate Sister Manco’s good intentions. Her home would be happy this Christmas Eve. But just down the street where the Nostadez family lived, it would be a different matter.
Brother Nostadez was a trolley conductor who had been out of work since July when his union struck. The government had settled the issue by tearing up the tracks, and Brother Nostadez had been without a job ever since. We had baptized the entire family, except two underage daughters, only the night before. Although I knew they were glad to be in the Church, I also realized that it would be a meager Christmas for them this year.
All at once I knew what had to be done. If I couldn’t celebrate the kind of Christmas I so longed for, at least the Nostadez family would have a good one. My companion Elder Slack agreed, and we enlisted the aid of a member friend, Estrella Costa, to buy things she thought the family might enjoy. We involved the Manco family by asking them to deliver the gifts at just the right moment on Christmas Eve, hoping to teach them something about caring for others at the same time. Estrella had brought the gifts she chose to our apartment.
Still, as I surveyed the fare, I wasn’t completely satisfied. The silly little useless toys, the oranges, apples, and fun surprises that are so much a part of holiday giving were missing.
Hurriedly I set out with Elder Slack in tow to explore the open market across the highway in Ciudad de Dios. Although appallingly filthy, Ciudad de Dios was vibrantly alive. The rhythm of humanity literally pulsated through its streets. A thousand vendors sought to sell their wares. Here was fruit fresh from the jungle: papayas the size of cantaloupes, watermelons, pineapples, figs, several kinds of bananas, mangos, and oranges of every size and variety. We bartered for a dozen of the latter. Huge sides of beef, lamb, and pork were scattered among hogs’ heads and cows’ stomachs, all hanging from enormous hooks for better view. Fresh fish from the famous Peruvian fisheries gaped at us with mouths opened wide. Live animals were sold to be taken home and raised for later butchering. Turkeys, chicks, ducklings, and baby guinea pigs scampered nervously in their pens. Next came sundries. Black market shampoo, soaps, and razor blades were spread on blankets on the ground or in the now-familiar make-shift stalls. There was a section with shoes and clothes of every description. At last came the toys.
I don’t remember what we bought, and it’s really not very important. I do know that we had a marvelous time trying everything before deciding. The vendor waited patiently, enjoying our enthusiasm. I vaguely recall marbles and combs. Yes, we bought combs for all, and a large basket to put everything in.
The shoppers in the marketplace that day carried off their business in a more lighthearted manner than usual. The bartering that is so much a part of Latin life was good-natured and friendly. One usually sees a number of heated arguments among those driving hard bargains, but not today. Shoppers and vendors alike seemed genuinely pleased to do business together. Negotiations were concluded with large smiles and holiday greetings. Everyone in “City of God” was happy that day. They had little and yet they were happy, anticipating the celebration of the birth of Him who was their Savior also. That strange, bustling marketplace made me feel the spirit of Christmas for the first time that holiday season. At last I understood why this tenement was called “City of God,” and no other name could have been more appropriate.
The Latin people celebrate this holiday like none other. Nearly everyone attends midnight mass. After that the fun begins. Fireworks burst everywhere, not just overhead. Rockets zip up and down streets, sidewalks, between one’s legs, and out of windows. Firecrackers of every caliber roar a mass salute that would rival a squadron of 747’s taking off in formation. The next morning a pungent haze overcasts the city, a smokey memorial to the Yuletide celebration, a mushroom cloud Latin style.
Time was short. We quickly bought wrapping paper and dashed back to the Mancos where mother and children helped ready the presents for delivery. I carefully instructed young Paco in the finer points of subbing for “Papa Noël.” “Leave the basket on the front porch, knock loudly, and run. Hide nearby to make sure the basket is taken in before returning home.” They mustn’t discover any connection between the gifts and their new-found faith. We wished the Mancos a “Feliz Navidad” and rushed home to prepare for our own festivities.
We made four or five calls on wonderful families that night, all of whom implored us to share their midnight feast. A carefully planned schedule brought us to the home of a convert employed by a U.S. airline where we observed a sort of Anglo-Latin Christmas culminating in an enormous banquet. After exchanging gifts, we finally dragged back to our apartment.
During the course of the evening I often mused on the events transpiring out in San Juan. I imagined Paco stealing up to the door, leaving the basket with great commotion, and escaping to the safety of nearby shadows. Brother Nostadez answers the door and, finding nothing, shakes his head in disgust at such an annoying prank on Christmas Eve. It is little Teresa who spies the basket on the porch and dashes through her father’s legs, hoping for a glimpse of Papa Noël. Hearing the disturbance, the rest of the family rushes to the door. Sister Nostadez whisks the basket into the house with her excited children in hot pursuit.
Across the street, Paco flattens himself in the sand, stifling uncontrollable laughter at Brother Nostadez who is suspiciously scanning the neighborhood for the perpetrator of the deed. He makes one more careful sweep and then backs through the door, slamming it behind him. As if loosed by a starter’s pistol, Paco is up and sprinting for home to report the success of his adventure.
Inside the house, little girls squeal with delight when dolls emerge from the basket. Ten-year-old Hilario is quietly enraptured with his first pocket knife. And Brother and Sister Nostadez contemplate the happy scenario, amazed at this unexpected answer to Christmas prayers uttered for the first time.
Each Christmas Eve for 12 Christmases my thoughts have returned to that singular event in my life. I know that it’s possible that the outcome was not at all as I envisioned it. And it is that uncertainty that keeps the experience so alive and vibrant in my memory. For the imaginings of that night’s events by far transcend any actuality I might have experienced in person. And so on each Christmas Eve I think, and ponder, and dream of miracles that I never witnessed but that I know to have transpired.
It was my first Christmas away from home and family—a young missionary in a strange land among strange people with strange customs. It was a time of learning and teaching and giving in secret. It was the time I first learned of, felt, and understood the true meaning of the spirit of Christmas.