As child I looked at the desert behind our home and struggled to find the festive Christmas I saw on our Magnavox. I saw no magic snowmen or wintry wonderlands here, no sleigh bells, no blizzards and no Blitzens. Only desert.
I wanted to be where the Other Christmas took place, the one with icicles, frozen lakes and one-horse open sleighs.
To further perplex me, Santa Claus with his polar cousins and snowy clime got top billing over the barely noted Nazarene, a humble carpenter born in a desert. Every year we desert dwellers choose snow over sand and, at great expense, we import woodland Christmas props here so that we can stage a frosty wonderland show replete with pagan mythologies and commercial creations. Long ago, Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh gave way to cinnamon, artificial snow and plastic. While vendors are decapitating living trees in northern sky islands to bring them here so we can hang things on them, and then throw them into a landfill two weeks later, we are busily draping our adobe haciendas in electric icicles, decking our halls with made-in-China decor that honors the frozen world, where the chilled are bundled gather in front of yule logs, no doubt praying for the warmth of Bethlehem. This penchant for the Other Christmas is so strong we desert dwellers visit Winter Haven in a sentimental pilgrimage to savor the “Truman Show” representation of the life we abandoned ten thousand sunsets ago because the beautiful and mystical desert spoke to us.
Christmas is here in the desert. You only have to look up at our night sky, a cosmological tableau splashed with a billion stars of wonder, reminding us of the mysteries of existence and asking us to find our own Christmas within. At night we, the blessed, can see the heavens with a clarity that forest dwellers only dream of in their cloud shrouded worlds.
Christmas is here in the desert, where the nights are mediterranean perfect and at dusk the palms silhouetted against the darkening sky conjure visions of ancient evenings in Antioch and Capernaum.
Christmas is here in the desert, where San Xavier’s Moorish dome mirrors the desert temples of Mecca and Jerusalem. What could embody the tenacious spirit of Christmas more than a house of worship built by men driven to the very edge of a savage new desert to tell strangers their mystical tales of a Galilean?
Christmas is here in this desert, in Maria Luisa Tena’s Nascimiento, a shrine that tells the tales surrounding Christ’s birth with an tenderly innocent love that shines as bright as the star of Bethlehem itself.
Christmas is here in this desert, in the modest creche crafted by a desert artisan and displayed at Mission San Xavier that reminds us that the honored infant was the child of a another desert people.
When Christmas Eve comes to the desert the homeless will be rounded up and given warm beds, the cactus wrens will fall silent, one by one the office lights in our valley will go dark, and we will head home to la familia like scurrying quail. While some dream of a Currier and Ives hearth I will feed Mesquite into our chiminea and watch the smoke float up to the stars-- signaling Santa that we are here and waiting, in the desert, for the little pagan to visit the land of mystics.
On Christmas Day presents will be opened, Alleluias sung, and convenience store clerks will wait for the parents who didn’t see the “Batteries not included” labels. Over the dry riverbed and through no woods-- and flying over a pothole or two--to grandmother’s hacienda many of us will go while others will wander off into the desert to find God in a Canyon trail.
And here in the desert silence, where one can find solitude, many will pause to hear the ancient admonitions, in spite of the clatter of commerce: clothe the naked, forgive the trespasser, feed the hungry, and love your enemies, words that sprang from a desert of olives and figs, not the pagan woodlands of fruitcakes and holly, and most assuredly not the cartoon world of dancing snowmen and flying reindeer, commercial creatures that are truly alien to the small desert village where the birth of a child cleaved time into B.C. and Anno Domini.
As I grew I came to see there is more of Christmas in our desert sand and stars than there ever was in Hollywood’s snowballs and elves. While pagan fairy tales may spring from the northern forests, it is in the desert where the mystical has taken root. It is in the desert where miracles come to pass. Merry Christmas.