I think that I may have said this on this blog sometime before, but Christmastime is just about my favorite time of year. Especially in New York – with all of the wonderful preparation for the Holiday including the World’s most famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, all the stores up and down Fifth Avenue decorating their windows in clever and festive Holiday motifs, and of course the majestic splendor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral itself, festooned with evergreen branches, poinsettias and a life size crèche – there is no place on Earth that I think could boost my spirits more as the city that Pope John Paul II dubbed the “Capitol of the World”, dresses up in her finest to await the birth of the King of Kings. It is unfortunate this beauty is so short-lived however as practically no sooner has the sun set on December 25th than many people here begin to dismantle all the elaborate decoration as much as to say “well – the party is over…its time to clean up now”. Nothing is sadder than walking through the streets of Manhattan the few days after Christmas and seeing pile after pile of discarded Christmas trees laying prone in the street along with the garbage, awaiting pick up by the Sanitation Department. This year, the situation was made worse by the fact that a post-Christmas blizzard – locally dubbed here our “snowapocalpse” – delayed this pick-up, so the trees sat even longer, half covered in dirty snow. I know many people who make a similar comment about these depressing post-Christmas scenes, noting that at this dark and cold time of year we certainly don’t need such visual stimulation to bring on the post-holiday blues. It always strikes me odd that folks dismantle their Christmas decorations so quickly today; in talking to my parents, they both have noted that when they were growing up, the Christmas tree was almost never put up before Christmas Eve, and at that, never taken down until after the Feast of the Epiphany that we celebrate today. Also known as “Three Kings Day”, today is the day when the Church commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men from the East to the infant Christ-child in Bethlehem, symbolically stressing that Jesus’ saving actions and message was not for the Jewish people alone, but was meant to be for the peoples of the entire world. The period of Christmas – the joyful celebration welcoming Christ into our world and our lives – only begins on December 25; it extends for 12 days (hence the popular Christmas Carol “The 12 Days of Christmas”), and closes with the Epiphany of our Lord to Casper, Melchior and Balthazar – and yet for many people today, the holiday is already over practically before its begun. It makes you wonder if people here really know it’s still Christmas Time at all…..
The last sentence is actually written a bit tongue in cheek: for you see there is another contemporary Christmas Carol – written by the British pop performer Bob Geldof entitled “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (recorded by a broad collection of British pop artists) and first released in 1984 in an attempt to raise funds to combat the terrible famine that had struck the people of Ethiopia at that time. This song – and the “Live-Aid” concert that grew out of the effort – raised millions of dollars for Ethiopian famine relief. I have always liked this song, but this past September the song took on particular significance for me; as readers of this blog may recall it was then that I had the good fortune to have the opportunity to go to Africa with Catholic Relief Services and was able to visit the region of that country – Dire Dawa – that was most hard hit by that famine. While there, we were able to observe the actual famine relief facilities that were initially funded by the funds raised by the “Live-Aid”/ “Do They Know Its Christmas” record promotion and fundraising. Today, the facility – which houses at least a dozen airline-hanger sized food storage and distribution centers full of such staples as rice, grain, corn and cooking oil – is administered by Catholic Relief Services which works with other major international food relief programs to ensure that in this still very food insecure region of the world a famine like the one that ravaged the country in 1984 does not take another devastating toll in the future. You can see some of the photos that I took of these food storage facilities below:
Now that I have been to Africa, I think that I might answer the question “Do They Know It’s Christmas” that is likewise the title of the song a little bit differently. Back in 1984, the presumed answer to the question of whether the Ethiopians knew it was Christmastime was no: presumably because of the famine, but additionally – according to the song – because “there won’t be snow in Africa at Christmastime” – as if snow is what makes the holiday so special! No, now that I have been to Africa – have met and witnessed the faith of the people not only in Ethiopia but also in Tanzania and the other places we visited, I believe that “they” do totally understand that it is Christmastime – perhaps even better in some ways then we do here in the United States, where the mad, commercially-driven rush to December 25th sometimes obscures the real meaning of the holiday, which of course is “Emmanuel” – quite literally “God is with us”. The Incarnation – that God loved us so much that He came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary on Christmas and became human like us – is the key. It is because of the Incarnation that we Catholics can say with confidence that every human person – no matter how old, how rich or poor, healthy or sick, able-bodied or not, regardless of race, sex, class, religion education or orientation, born and unborn, all of us – is made in Image and Likeness of God and possesses such immense dignity that God himself became human to show us how to live, to love and to give. This is in fact why Catholic Charities domestically – and Catholic Relief Services internationally – engages in all of the life-saving work that they do: because every human person deserves a life of respect and dignity. They really get this in Africa, in a way I can only hope that we can begin to appreciate on some level here.
For Christmas as one of my presents this year, my Mother gave me some Christmas decorations for my small (Manhattan studio-apartment sized) tree: they were three beautiful ornaments of African wildlife – a zebra, lion and giraffe – given to me this year to commemorate the life-changing trip I took to Ethiopia and Tanzania this past autumn. When I returned to my home the day after Christmas, I took these three ornaments and put them on a privileged spot on my tree. In years to come, I know that when I hang these cherished ornaments on those trees, I will recall not only my wonderful trip to Africa – but more importantly I hope the incredible lessons in human dignity that I learned while I was there. And rest assured, those decorations – the tree that they are on and the Christmas Crèche that sits on my mantle – will not be coming down until January 6th!