Costa Rica Christmas
by Jill Richardson
“Por favor, puede cortar un coca para mi familia?” I got the words out slowly, aware of my very sub-par Spanish. That and the fact that I never walk up to strangers and ask them anything, in any language, made my simple desire for a fresh Christmas coconut challenging. The fact that he wielded a well-aimed machete might have been daunting elsewhere, but this was a Costa Rican beach on Christmas Day. Standard expectations didn’t seem to apply.
I had never spent Christmas Eve at a turtle sanctuary, cheering tiny finned creatures’ dangerous dash toward saltwater. I had never spent Christmas Day kayaking through mangroves. And never, ever had I spent it listening to Spanish tunes blaring from a van full of joyful Ticos right outside my door who, obligingly, did cut us a coconut to share for our Christmas dinner. The resulting Christmas dinner of pineapple, spaghetti, coke and coconut definitely set a new culinary precedent.
In fact, our family had never been away from home for Christmas, except for a rare visit to grandparents. Finding ourselves on a Pacific beach in Costa Rica, thousands of miles and dozens of degrees from our Chicago home, meant a departure from everything known. To three kids who howled at the thought of cutting our tree one day later than tradition, let alone not seeing Christmas stockings lined up in the morning on the couch where they always were, this was completely unprecedented—and not entirely acceptable.
Though we loved our little beach oasis, something seemed wrong. This wasn’t really Christmas. Was it?
That oasis, however, was only a wayside stop before getting to the real reason we had come so far at such a time. A day later, in the border town where our family served as missionaries for ten days, our kids began the wrestling through of their expectations versus why we had come. That week, unexpectedly, we would learn to celebrate the real traditions of Christmas.
It took a few days to meet the Nicaraguan families we had come to work with. While our team members chafed with typical American impatience to get to work, I understood quickly that trust was something we could not force, and the best work we could do was to listen and learn. Finally, the local pastor offered what we had been waiting for. He would take us to visit the homes of the Nicaraguan immigrants—families who, in their struggle to survive, had come across the border that lay just over a mile away.
Soon, we were being introduced to families of several generations that filled their dirt-floor houses. Our oldest daughter scooped a baby chick from a family’s floor and cuddled it. Her action echoed that of the young mother sitting in the rocking chair with a two-month old bundle of black hair and blankets. The two young women smiled at one another, agreed in the art of nurturing young life.
Our middle child lamented, for the third time that day, not packing her camera. Her photographer’s eye saw much to capture in the rose-red house across the street and the mischievous eyes of the boys who ran to get mothers to tell them about the strange group all the way from America.
At the seventh house, a little girl peeped her black eyes around a wooden post near her door. Our youngest daughter bent down to her eye level. “Hola.” She offered her own shy smile to a kindred spirit. After a minute of this hide and seek game, the two giggled and chattered away about important girl things, like pink dresses and silly big sisters.
Attempting to continue our walk, we soon realized no one had brought an important fashion accessory if we were to make serious inroads into the neighborhoods—rubber boots. The white soles of my grey walking shoes slid sideways as I tried to make my way across a deep stretch of wet dirt road, and I barely rescued myself from becoming a 5’2” mudball. Disappointed, we turned back.
“They pay so much for that little house,” the pastor said quietly. “The parents have to work three jobs just to have a home. Then they cannot pay for food and diapers for the baby. And they no longer have time to come to church.”
“How poor are these people?” someone inquired. We knew what we saw, but we wanted to know the reality they worked with every day.
“We do not call them ‘poor.’ They have family and happiness, so they are not poor. But they are humble. They work hard and still cannot pay for diapers or school.”
In fact, we realized, “humble” had been the term everyone used. No one here believed in “poor.” Poor was what you were if you had no hope and no spirit. Humble—humble was the description for people justly proud of their hard work and attempt to make a life. It fit the corrugated tin homes with free-range chickens and smiling people. Still, the smiles didn’t change the facts.
Our “wrong” Christmas suddenly turned very, very right.
At the first Christmas, a baby intervened on earth to help people who were, in fact, very poor. People who could not help themselves no matter how hard they tried. Why shouldn’t our Christmas be about coming alongside these humble people? What had seemed so odd a few days before now seemed so perfectly fitting.
We had started taking our kids on mission trips years before, feeling God tell us that they needed to learn early about the world and their responsibility toward it. We also believed they had gifts and talents that didn’t need to wait until they grew up to find fruition. A six-year-old could minister as well as her mom and dad. Now, eleven years later in Costa Rica, that experience had come full circle. They struck out on their own, coming up with unique, viable ideas and solutions. They acted as interpreters when the need arose. They interacted with the people with all their hearts, and it paid dividends on this, their first most unusual Christmas.
The next day, that little black-eyed girl from the house came shyly up to the door of the church where the pastor had requested we hold a carnival. In her hand, she grasped a cluster of flowers she had picked alongside the road as they walked. “Para ti,” she whispered to my daughter, holding them up.
No fir tree, no snow and no presents no longer felt wrong. Mud and rain and spending the present budget on diapers and formula suddenly seemed like a fair way to honor a baby who left everything to redeem our nothing.
And the best present my daughter could have received anyway she got that morning, in the giving spirit of a humble little girl.
Jill Richardson is a writer, speaker, pastor and mom of three. She likes to travel, grow flowers, break into random musical numbers and read everything. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, Earl Grey, the Cubs and dark chocolate. She blogs at http://jillmrichardson.com/.
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