Mexico: Sharing the Holiday Light

The best Christmas present I received this year came in the tear-drop form of a candle flame.

I was at a posada in my neighborhood in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It's a mixed neighborhood -- some ex-pats like my family but mostly large Mexican broods who were nice enough to allow the gringos take part in their Christmas celebration.

In Mexico, Posadas take place every night from December 16th until the 24th. Nine nights to commemorate the nine-day walk Joseph and Mary took from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The posada re-enacts their journey. A young girl dressed as Mary in a veil and light blue frock rides on a burro along with a boy posing as Joseph, his "beard" usually made up of a few streaks of charcoal.

On the night I attended the neighborhood celebration, we sang songs in Spanish in front of a modest concrete house while Mary and Joseph prepared to mount a burro, with a white-flecked face and soulful, anime -- like eyes.

The holy couple proceeded on burro-back along the cobblestone streets while about 75 people trailed behind singing and carrying candles. We stopped at several other houses and at each one, Mary and Joseph and the home owner would sing a pre-scripted song, which basically has the couple asking to stay the night and the owner saying that there's no room.

Though I didn't know any of the words to the songs, I hummed along and watched my sons, who go to school in Mexico and know how this pageantry unfolds, for clues on what was going to happen next.

It was a windy evening, chilly and clear, and I noticed that very few of the revelers, me included, could keep their candles lit. People around me kept approaching each other to lean their bare wick into the middle of the other's flame. Many of us walked carefully with our free hand shielding the candle, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. If I was having luck holding on to my fire, children and old men came up to me to take some light. When my flame fizzled, I reached out to a neighbor for a kick-start. No one asked permission, since there would be no reason not to agree. It was Christmas after all.

But more than that, the fire was a gift that was so easy to share, connecting us to our neighbors that night. Sharing the flame with someone else took away nothing from the giver and allowed the receiver to bathe in the same glow and increased the brightness around us all.

I stopped as I watched an exchange between my nine year-old and a girl about his age. What if all giving were so simple? I thought. What if we all could give without feeling it had cost us something or that we'd lost something? What if when someone's light went out--a family hits a trouble spot after a lay off, say -- we could give those people some of our flame (in any form -- money, encouragement, support, blessings) just as freely as we shared that night, realizing that with more candles lit the illumination is greater for everyone.

Even though I knew such a thing was hopelessly idealistic, I was warmed by the idea, wishing it could be so, encouraged because I'd seen how easily the concept can work on a cobblestone street in the mountains of Central Mexico.

I continued humming happily as I followed Mary and Joseph back to the house where the posada started. There, the couple was symbolically let in. Then the matron of the house and her helpers began handing out fresh, homemade tamales and atole (a traditional hot drink made of milk and corn flour) to the gathered crowd.

Sharing tamales. That was pretty nice, too.