BY BETH DOHERTY
St Francis of Assisi is believed responsible for popularising the nativity scene. Imagining how Christ was born helped him to pray, and eventually others joined him by his crib.
Two years ago, I spent six months in South America’s second-poorest nation, Paraguay. I was volunteering in an urban barrio of the capital Asunción, and we decided to perform a nativity play.
In Latin America, nativity plays are known as posadas. They take on a special significance to the point where Boney M’s classic Feliz Navidad is played throughout the year round on radio.
The children of the community fought over who would be shepherds and wise kings. They practised their lines for a week.
Six-year-old Michelle dressed up as the ‘star shining in the East’, complete with gold cardboard pointy hat, tinsel and face glitter. A boy donned a tea towel and became a shepherd. Gold cardboard crowns were fashioned with sticky-tape for the wise kings. Mary and Joseph were played by Fabiola and Ricardo, who dressed up in blue sheets and Palestinian-style scarves.
We also needed to find a baby Jesus. We happily settled on the youngest baby in the community, six-month-old Areceli. Very quickly, Areceli – the baby girl Jesus – became known as La Niñita Jesus.
We started with a mass, and then the whole community got together to provide a Paraguayan feast of Sopa Paraguaya, made from polenta, as well as chorizo and sandwiches. The children then performed a spectacular show for the assembled parents and members of the community.
There is debate about the appropriateness of nativity scenes in multifaith societies. However it is perhaps more fitting to discuss what the commercialisation of Christmas means for those who can’t afford it. This includes recipients of Vinnies hampers in Australia and indeed many countries around the world including Paraguay.
A few weeks ago, I received from Paraguay a large box of crafts made by the women of the community where I had stayed. The intention was for me to sell these crafts to raise funds for these women and the community. We can probably expect to receive about $500, which will be a significant help for these women.
One of the women who was instrumental in coordinating this craft group was the mother of La Niñita Jesus. Araceli is now two-and-a-half years old. Her first year of life was touch and go.
With a salary which falls significantly below Paraguay’s minimum wage – approximately $450 per month – Araceli’s mother struggled to nourish the tiny baby, who was constantly ill. When playing her starring role, she was six months old, but the size of a two-month-old baby.
As I sold the crafts at a small “market” at my house, I could smell the aroma of the soap the women had used to wash the crafts before sending them, and it took me back to their community. I took photos of people looking at and buying the beautiful crocheted serviettes, tablecloths and cards, and wondered what the people of Paraguay’s poorest zones would think of my “stable” when they saw the photos.
I come from an ordinary middle-class Australian background which, when compared to Paraguay, puts my family in the top 10 percent in terms of income. This privilege makes it easy to forget that we are celebrating the birth of a baby who was born to impoverished parents in a one-room stable.
Beth Doherty is media officer for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
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