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The gift came early in remembered heritage of cross, star, and stone.

I entered into this holy season as I always do -- in a spirit of forgetfulness. Yes, I dutifully repeated cliches about the travesty of Christmas advertisements on Halloween. Then I promptly skipped Mass on the first Sunday of Advent. Advertisers, in their own twisted way, are far more faithful than I about preparing for the birthday of Christ.

But the magic of the season had its way with me, starting Nov. 28, while walking through the village of Tlaquepaque, on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico. Some friends led me to a shop filled with exquisite ceramics; glazed blue bowls seemed lit up from within. Then I crossed a courtyard where I happened upon a room full of antiques set out willy-nilly: a pile of cowboy spurs here, a chair and faded portrait there.

I glanced around, then turned to go but something tugged at my vision.

It was a framed Star of David. Someone, somewhere, had made it out of milagros (literally, miracles). Milagros are miniature metal body parts that in Mexico one attaches, say, to a saint's statue as a way of praying for a healing. In this case, the maker had used miniature figures of men and women, carefully glued onto now-faded orange felt.

Elated, I left with my purchase and said a prayer of thanksgiving to my Jewish ancestors, the branch that fled the Spanish Inquisition and eventually arrived in the northern reaches of New Spain, now known as New Mexico. As if I had not been given enough, the spirits spoke back, reminding me this was the first day of Hanukkah.

Upon returning to my parents' home in Albuquerque, I placed the image on the fireplace. Early the next morning, I saw I had unwittingly placed the star below a crucifixion carved by a New Mexico santero (a craftsperson who creates saints' images, an ancient tradition here) and above an image of a Mayan priest lifting his hand in a prayer to the gods. The image, from Belize, is etched in stone.

Once again, I felt gifted: It seemed God had shown his face in a trinity of symbols that represent the cultures I inhabit as a Mexican-American woman, a mestiza -- of mixed blood: Origins that will not allow me to negate anything, histories symbolized in the cross, the star and the stone.

I remember that I am child of conquerors as well, those who killed for God or gold, skinning alive the cultures Catholicism encountered in the Old and New Worlds. They refused to see Jesus the Jew, Jesus the American Indian.

How, I wonder, do we welcome Christ in peace, in our time?

When my brother, sister and I were little, we gathered with my parents to sing "Happy Birthday" to a ruddy-cheeked statue of the infant Jesus. We nuevo mejicanos love our santos, our statues representing a magnificent pantheon. Sometimes our santos come through for us, sometimes not, but like family, we want them around.

My Grandma Lucy recalls how women used to sew clothes and baby shoes for the Infant's statue. (A more efficient system was introduced when she was a youngster at school; the Loretto sisters put up pictures of various articles of clothing for the holy child, which students could purchase by saying a certain number of rosaries.)

Grandma, who grew up on a ranch, recalls how family and neighbors carried statues of Mary and Joseph to a different house for nine nights in a row; at each stop they would sing a song, asking for shelter for the holy couple. The custom, which continues to this day although usually in a shorter version, is known as posada (literally, lodging), and has roots in the medieval morality plays.

The nightly forays concluded Christmas Eve, where a designated household -- convinced at last that Mary and Joseph were not thieves -- opened their doors. An all-night vigil followed. In the morning, neighbors enjoyed hot chocolate and traditional foods, especially empanadas -- fruit-filled pastries that are a Christmas staple to this day.

We also prepare for Christ's coming by lighting the way for him, literally. Every year throughout the state you can see luminarias, candles set in brown paper lunch sacks weighted with sand, light the way to houses and churches, creating a soft, coppery glow. (For better or worse, electric luminarias are now available.)

Every year historians debate the origins of the custom. In Grandma's youth, people built farolitos, small, slow-burning pitch fires, near a church or house on each of nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve.

(What about Christmas trees? I wondered. "That's an Anglo thing," Grandma said. "We didn't really see Christmas trees until New Mexico became a state in 1912.")

So many memories of Christmas. There was the time when Dad took us to Taos Indian Pueblo where we had the privilege of seeing my father's godson, Shane, dance for the first time, an event requiring intense spiritual and physical preparation. The dance took place Christmas morning in front of the church. Afterward, we feasted with the family.

This year on Christmas Eve we will light luminarias around the house, then go to Grandma's house. Since time immemorial, the extended family has gathered there for posole, a hominy-based dish introduced to the Spaniards by Native Americans -- and now a staple for Mexicans/New Mexicans, the children of the encounter/conquest.

Far away in time and space from the ranch of her childhood, my grandmother nonetheless carries forth this tradition, this gift. "Si dios quiere," if God wills it, she says every autumn, "I will be alive to make posole this year."

Once again we will eat together, tell stories, unwrap presents. But for me, the gift already has been given, beginning in Tlaquepaque: a heritage remembered, a lifetime to seek ways to embody it to help bring healing to the present day.
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Title Annotation:Christmas '94
Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 23, 1994
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