My Christmas Eve growing up looked like going to mass, eating a ham and dressing up. It looked like lasagna, or some other Italian food, on the side because we were DeLucas. It looked like getting an ornament and Christmas pajamas and trying to go to bed early to wait for Santa to fill the bottom of my tree with gifts from the North Pole.
I learned about Jesus, about the stable and the donkey ride into Bethlehem. But, it wasn't until I traveled to Haiti that my eyes began to see the true story of Christmas and why it mattered that I did not understand it more.
There have been a few Christmases that I don't experience culture shock when coming back into the US to celebrate with friends and family. My first year in Haiti, back in 2010, I experienced Christmas on the island. It wasn't until last year that I repeated that, spending Christmas on Hispaniola once again. In the times in between, though, I bundled up and flew to southern Alabama to be bombarded with love from family, along with consumerism and lots of events. While it has always been special, it has also been a struggle at times.
Last year, I brought Christmas gifts down to Haiti for our Fet Noel- or Christmas Day Party- with our kids program. It was so nice to be back on the island- the warm air, the ocean breeze and the friends who are like family- it was so nice. As I unpacked the gifts, I felt excited to give these little ones gifts and also kind of weird bringing the consumerist part of Christmas to Haiti. The staff and kiddos were excited, though, and that meant so much to me.
The day before we were set to celebrate, I cuddled up with one of our staff's kids and grabbed a book from the pile I'd brought from the states. "The Christmas Story," it read on the cover as a white Mary, Joseph and Jesus graced the front of the book. Written in English, I attempted to translate the children's story to make sense to sweet Laira, paying such close attention to my words. At one point though, I had to admit, the story did not translate well. Why? Because it was so inaccurate.
I'm not talking about Jesus or his incarnate birth. I'm talking about the way in which we Americans think he entered the world. We can't grasp it because we don't live it. We don't know what it's like to have to travel far, no matter what your circumstances, because a government needs something from you. We don't get how people can be transported to and fro on barn yard animals. We can't imagine not having an Air B and B or a friend in the city we need to be in. We can't imagine a lot of things.
As I was reading to Laira, one of the things that stood out to me the most was the scene of after the baby was born. Sweet baby Jesus, clean and white and surrounded by two clean donkeys. His angelic and clean parents, there holding him. Peace. This is what we have come to imagine as peace: quiet, surrounded by loved ones. However, this is not what I imagine now.
As the only live birth I have ever fully witnessed was in a Haitian tent city, I can tell you this is not how a baby enters this world. There's placenta and blood and screaming. There is crying and heaving and prayers. There are people, especially those who belong to a communal culture, who gather around simply to watch and be a part of this story. There are animals who do not merely lie there. The chickens come in and out of the scene, often being chased off by a midwife or townsmen. There are goats who are eating everything in sight. There are sheep, disgusting, unsheered sheep who bahh off in the distance. There are stinky cows who get in the way and you have to just figure out a way to move them. This is what I imagine this story to be in reality.
And, because of her own country, Laira did, too. She looked at the pictures and literally laughed. She knew, Jesus doesn't come like that.
Because of her, and my time and interactions with people in Haiti, I know this, too. I don't believe Jesus did or does come like that. He doesn't wait for us to be cleaned up. He doesn't wait for the perfect circumstances or the perfect government. He just comes.
Emmanuel: God with us. This name meaning is why it is so important for us to understand the difference between our western story and the realistic one. He comes to be with us, and at what cost? At what discomfort? He just comes. And, He proved to us on his birthday so many years ago that He comes to us in the middle of our literal crap. He comes to us when barnyard animals are running in and out of the stable. He comes to us when we are confused at circumstances. He comes to us when we are in pain and in the dark.
I believe this is one of the most important lessons Haiti continues to teach me. As I go to my events, get dressed up and enjoy myself, I must remember that God is with me when I get offended by a comment, when I feel depressed and angry and when I am struggling. He's not just with me in my picture perfect moments, no, that's just not how Jesus comes. Peace, that true peace, comes from Him entering these circumstances and simply being with us. It does not come from the way we look, the pictures we are in, or the gifts we give. It looks like a perfect God in an incredibly dirty and imperfect world, coming to be with us.