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“Holy Babe” has been in the Saldanha family for 90 years. Photo by Desmond Saldanha

Angela Saldanha: The signs of Christmas are longing to be shared

By  Angela Saldanha
  • December 7, 2017
As we prepare for the coming of Our Lord in Advent, opportunities present themselves to put Jesus back (for a few weeks, at least) into the public gaze.

Returning to Canada after a 25-year absence, I was dismayed to find a glaring lack of Christ in Christmas. Everything was so secular. No indication of the real meaning of the holidays. I wished for a way to remind people what Christmas meant. 

Then one day I walked into a Christian bookstore and spotted a sign: KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS. JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON. Large enough to be seen from across the street, it looked just right to hang in a window. I also found a star, done in tiny lights, and an angel, both appropriate for windows.  

When angel, star and sign were hung, I thought: “Good! A little competition for those Santas and reindeer.” Then I realized my decorations would be seen only by those passing by; this is a quiet street.   

So I took a two-inch button and, in red, printed: KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS. But when I pinned it to my coat, it looked homemade. So I took it to the sign man and asked him to replicate it. I ordered a dozen, and then another dozen that proclaimed JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON.    

During Advent I wore a button every time I went out. Few people noticed, or maybe they did but kept their thoughts to themselves. Whenever someone did comment — favourably — I was so pleased I’d present them with a button.  

Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas inside our home has never been a problem. On Dec. 1, I set up the crib. Over the years we’ve acquired several cribs. One that Desmond bought when we were married 55 years ago. Another one 30 years later in Padua — home of St. Anthony. A couple more we found somewhere. Some years ago, when Desmond’s mother could no longer live in her own home, we acquired another Babe in the manger. 

As a bride of 16, mother had moved with her new husband to a small town in Pakistan. Christmas approaching, she longed to set up a crib. But in that Muslim village there was no shop to supply her needs. She wrote to an uncle in Bombay (Mumbai) begging his help. Within days, the Holy Babe arrived, bundled (appropriately) in straw, in a sturdy wooden box. Since then, the Babe has enjoyed pride of place in our home. He has been with the family for 90 years now and bears many scars. But His gaze is tranquil. He has no parents with Him; I surround Him with angels.  

Our cribs are prominently displayed, so all our visitors must see them. Christ may have been ousted from the public square but He’s very much in evidence under our roof.  

It’s sad that cribs are rarely seen in public these days, except in churches. In Italy, we looked forward to seeing nativity scenes everywhere. I loved going to the market where every little stall depicted the newborn babe.

The sweet shop had a crib made of dark chocolate, the baker’s was made of glazed pastry. The wine shop had an old wooden wine barrel, sawed in half, as a stable. A 50-litre demijohn, with bearded head and flowing robes, became a rather portly Joseph, while a 25-litre bottle was dressed as Mary and a small round flask became a chubby Infant.

On December weekends a neighbouring town featured a live nativity scene. For the Holy Family, it had a baby howling in a most unholy manner, as well as schoolboys in white gowns and wings perched in chestnut trees.  

The most elaborate cribs were in churches. Often they depicted not just a manger, but the entire village of Bethlehem in minute detail. Fields with dozing shepherds, grazing sheep, urchins fishing in the brook, housewives hanging out of windows, gossiping. Men sawing logs, men cheating at cards, women rolling pastry. Black cats prowling on rooftops.

Visiting these churches to see the cribs was a popular tradition. There were seven Catholic churches in Frascati. The oldest, 12th century, had the Holy Infant descending to Earth in a flying saucer. Rome has over 200 churches; we visited many.  

Cribs remained in churches until Feb. 2, Feast of the Presentation. There was ample opportunity for families, especially children, to spend time with the Christ Child. It’s a pity that in Canada the crib remains for such a brief time. I’d love to see it stay a few weeks more. I’m sure others feel the same.

And I’d love to see the Christ Child more in evidence in public places. Why is it that Christmas baubles grow and multiply, while the wise men seem to lose their way and are nowhere to be seen?  

In Frascati, people in the marketplace and everywhere would greet each other with a cheery “Buon Natale!” (Merry Christmas!). Nobody feared that someone might be offended. It was Christmas. And that was that. 

I hope that during “the holidays” we’ll forget political correctness long enough to greet each other as we should: Merry Christmas!

(Saldanha is a freelance writer who lives in Ramara, Ont.)

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