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El programa navideño: Christmas and the stories we tell ourselves

12.19. 2017 Written By: Felipe Hinojosa

Dr. Felipe Hinojosa

Felipe Hinojosa is associate professor of history at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The featured photo is of a Christmas program at Iglesia Menonita del Cordero in Brownsville, Texas. 

This reflection appeared in the December issue of The Mennonite magazine. Only a fraction of our original features and opinion pieces are online. Subscribe today to receive The Mennonite in your mailbox each month.

This is church, la iglesia, from one child’s perspective. This is my story, my life, with the people I loved and love. People with flaws and desires, people who died too young and people who’ve lived too long. People that struggled in silence and people that leaned on each other for ánimo, support.

This is about the Christmas ritual that took place every year at Iglesia Menonita del Cordero in Brownsville, Texas, and countless Latino churches in the United States. This is not a church history, just a story from one kid who sometimes came to church with eyes burning red, who played football in the front lawn of the church and who loved reading Bible verses out loud in Sunday school. I was lucky enough to grow up with a great group of friends at church. Some of us memorized Bible verses, some of us sang really well, and some of us smoked our first cigarettes in the trailers that belonged to the voluntary service unit. That’s just how we rolled. I’m pretty certain none of us remembers my dad’s sermons, but I know we remember each other. And that’s all that matters.

I was lucky to have friends like that. Lucky to have friends who shared this experience of growing up as Mexican-American Anabaptists and evangélicos. For some reason, it made perfect sense to us and it still does.

El programa navideño, the church Christmas program: Was there really anything better? Next to Easter, this was the church’s biggest moment, where we all shined and where our collective efforts came together to produce mediocre dramas about rejection at the inn, a virgin birth and three wise men. The kids—usually in groups from infants all the way to fifth grade—did their manger poses with a restless baby Jesus, several cute little shepherd people milling around, and plastic donkeys, all positioned at the altar as their Sunday school teachers tried (Lord did they try) to sing one or two Christmas carols. El hermano with the deepest voice typically played the role of God, hidden in a room behind the altar holding a mic and reading a script. The Christmas songs from the kids were usually in English, but God’s deep voice boomed from backstage in Spanish.

To be honest, all that mattered was that you wrapped blue and white sheets around those kids. That’s all you needed to turn little Mexican kids into a baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and shepherd boys and girls. Everyone had a part, and we all knew the schedule. From infants to the fifth grade, the setup was almost exactly the same. Parents took pictures, and chaos ensued. As adorable as these presentations were, they were not the reason people from the church and the neighborhood filled the church to capacity on what was usually a cool December Sunday evening in South Texas. And while the junior high and high school kids put on entertaining dramas that covered either not having sex or not doing drugs (somehow we threw the miracle of Jesus’ birth in there), that’s still not what filled the church.

You see, everyone was there for the main event, el drama de los adultos. Los hermanos knew how to put on a show. Nothing compared to the preparation, the production level, the scenes and the character angles with their fancy stage-right exits. El drama de los adultos had it all. And every year it was essentially the same play, maybe different characters, a different timeline, but at its essence el drama was about la familia, an alcoholic father, a tired and hard-working mother and the church group that comes in just at the right moment to save this grieving family. There were tears (real ones), dramatic cuts that left us wondering if this would be the year the family wouldn’t make it, and the father’s alcoholism would bring everyone down. But every year, the actors hit their marks, and every year another family was saved. Year after year, hermanos and hermanas turned in Oscar-worthy performances as the leader of the church elder board turned himself into an unrecognizable drunk, and some of our strongest hermanas transformed into weak housewives in need of rescuing. Yet in the span of about 15 minutes, we witnessed the reformation of machismo and the strengthening of a woman who simply had had enough. It was a standard story, but it meant the world to us.

One of the powerful parts of the play comes right after the church group prays for la hermana in her home. Right after that prayer she makes a decision—many times against her husband’s wishes—to attend church without him. To break the norm and move on with her life for the sake of her children. As the drunk husband makes a dramatic entrance, he is met by his wife, who calmly yet clearly lets him know: “Si tu no quieres ir a la iglesia, yo y mis hijos si vamos a ir a alabar a Dios.” (“If you do not want to go to church, I and my children will go to praise God.”) The drunk husband, wobbling on stage with the customary unbuttoned shirt and the disheveled look, is surprised and usually responds by ignoring his wife.

We were transfixed. The same babies that for whatever reason always make noise in Latino churches as if their lives depended on it were even quiet at this point. And by the end of the drama, not only does the husband vow to give his life to Christ, he also makes a stunning declaration: “Dios me ha llamado al ministerio! Hoy empiezo mi trabajo para empezar una iglesia.” (“God has called me to the ministry! Today I start my work to start a church.”) Not a dry eye in the room. We all knew the ending, but it didn’t matter. You see, that was my dad’s story and the story of countless other Mexican men who had turned toward the gospel and away from the bottle. We’d all seen it. Destroyed homes, grieving spouses, abusive fathers. I can think of at least five or six hermanos in our church who all shared similar stories of turning away from alcoholism and returning to their families and the church.

We loved el programa de los adultos because it was us, neatly packaged in the nuclear family that many of us longed for and with a female lead we all recognized—a woman fighting for her family. It was always a woman fighting for her family. The drama usually ended with a bow from the actors, a standing ovation from the crowd, followed by a corito navideño. I had friends in single-parent homes, friends whose home situations were rough, friends who even with both parents at home rarely felt the love they deserved. And even those of us in good and stable families had friends who struggled with a rough life at home.

For most of us, no matter how well concocted or corny or neatly packed, el drama de los adultos made us feel like things were going to be OK. It put us in the Christmas spirit and reminded us that we all are redeemable.

In my experience, no one does church Christmas programs like Latino churches do. We go all in. It’s a massive production. I miss those days. I’m no longer in a church that narrates its own story back to its people, so that we can see ourselves anew. I miss the candy bags at the end of church and the hot chocolate. But most of all, I miss the people that made up that church and that put those Christmas programs together. People we often didn’t thank, people who worked hard in October, November and the first half of December to organize something we could all be proud of.

So this Christmas, go to your church’s Christmas program. Suffer through the cute little shepherds, the long Christmas hymns, the ugly sweaters, the frantic Sunday school teachers.

Somewhere among all the chaos—the Christmas songs and manger scenes—somewhere in the middle of all of that, you may just find yourself and your community all over again.


This reflection appeared in the December issue of The Mennonite magazine. Only a fraction of our original features and opinion pieces are online. Subscribe today to receive The Mennonite in your mailbox each month.

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One Response to “El programa navideño: Christmas and the stories we tell ourselves”

  1. Joey says:

    Great memories, this was the best time of the year. I was a terrible actor and never had a line. Guess I was just meant to be the shepherd stunt kid. Either way, thanks for the reminder of our wonderful church life. Joey Solis

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