Although this happened years ago, every Christmas it comes to mind. Christmas came at a bad time of the year for our neighbor Rosa. They were in the middle of the coffee harvest, plus there were dozens of chickens to feed and tend, and eggs to gather. There were the house and family to care for and, this being Costa Rican summer, the three children were on vacation. And there were all those tamales to make. Rosa could skimp on the rest of Christmas, but not the tamales!
So a simple portal (Nativity scene) would have to do. The three figures of the Holy Family, nestled on a dish towel and encircled with tufts of dried grass in a corner of the living room, was fine.
But when the children grew into their teens and earned a little money of their own, they wanted to have a real Christmas display, one that would make the family proud. So on a shopping trip into Alajuela they bought gold-colored wrapping paper, figurines of
sheep and shepherds, a donkey, a cow, even a German shepherd to accompany the sheep, and bags of sand in different colors – blue, ocher, yellow and green – to lay out the streets and paths of Bethlehem.
Back home again, they built a stable with pieces of wood from the woodpile. Together they worked out a city plan. They found boxes that were perfect for square adobe houses, which they sprinkled with glitter to catch the light. They moved the furniture out of the way and spread sand on the floor to sculpt hills and dunes and green areas. They cut cypress boughs to fan out behind the stable for a tree and decorated it with lluvias, long strings of tinsel. Out of the gold paper they cut stars, which they hung on the tree, a larger one dangling just over the Holy Family. The daughter found some ribbon in her mother’s sewing drawer and made bows to add to the cypress branches.
When they were finished, they stood back to admire their portal. It was truly a work of art worthy of showing the whole village.
On Christmas Eve the portal was all ready, except for the figure of baby Jesus, who would be placed in the manger with Mary and Joseph after midnight, when the family came back from church. The tamales, more than a hundred, were in a big kettle keeping warm over the embers of the wood-burning stove. The coffee harvest was done for the day. Noche Buena had arrived. Before turning out the lights and closing the door, the family gathered in front of the portal. Father and mother praised the children’s work, and father gave the blessing. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, relatives and friends would come by to share a day of rest and a tamal or two.
It might have been a perfect Christmas, except that when the family returned around midnight and opened their door, they were met with a scene of disaster. They had forgotten about Bigotes, the cat. Mixed, multicolored sand was spread from door to door. Sheep looked like they’d been slaughtered. Mary and Joseph were under the sofa as if they were hiding. Shepherds had disappeared. Bedraggled cypress twigs covered everything. Bows had come undone and stars
had lost points. And the whole house smelled of cat.
That was years ago. The family has since returned to simple portales with the Holy Family residing on a dish towel. If you happen to comment on the simplicity of the scene, Rosa will explain, “What with the tamales, the coffee harvest, the chickens and the house, I just don’t have time for a big portal.”