When I was 8, I went up on the roof, claiming I was going to wait for Santa. Instead I watched “Barbarella” on a distant drive-in movie screen. Most magical Christmas ever.
Magic is the only possible explanation for tiny red Santa hats appearing on the ears of Padre Kino’s horse — out of thin desert air — every Christmas season. I tried to steal them when I was a kid. They’re on there like “Swords in the Stone.” Can’t budge them. And then, suddenly, they’re gone!
The people in my town love Christmas. Every Who in our dusty Whoville worth his margarita salt can name all four of the streets that border Winterhaven, the names of the eight javelina pulling Santa’s sleigh and can set you straight on Rudolph. Every Tucsonan worth a buzzard’s tooth knows Gene Autry may have been a straight shootin,’ singin’ cowboy, but he should have been singing about Rudolph “The Red-Beaked Roadrunner,” not some ridiculous made-up nonsense about a reindeer.
For the newcomer to our reality, Santa’s javelinas are named Tusk, Stinky, Musky, Snorter, Snout, Dopey, Sneezy and Dancer. And every Tucsonan worth his weight in Christmas tamales knows that when you hear a coyote howl on Christmas Eve, it’s a howl of joy. Because that desert pup just got a visit from you-know-who. Santa remembers us all, every gila monster, varmint, sidewinder and, yes, coyote.
In our humble desert village, our people find the ancient soul of Christmas in our shrines, gatherings and songs. This heathen loves to hear the sacred songs of Christmas echo inside our cathedrals, churches and missions, our houses of worship, haunted by the spirits of the zealous missionaries who brought with them fragrant incense, tenacious tales of saints and saviors, and, glory to the newborn king, Christmas.
The people of my town revere a shrine called El Nacimiento, a diorama of the nativity story that leaves pilgrims awestruck with its shimmering, innocent love. It embodies a Tucson ethos of recycling common objects into compelling art that celebrates our stories.
We seek fellowship with one another in fiestas, las posadas, la pastorelas and drum circles where the heartbeat of the our people can be found, thumping out the old, drumming in the new.
And there’s one more thing I love. Last week, Karen Carpenter was serenading me, wishing me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, too, as I wandered in the 72-degree sunshine of the Home Depot garden section looking for a Christmas cactus centerpiece and a tankard of tiki torch fluid for our mesquite firewood.
As I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of our sun on my face, I understood the sublime ache of Dorothy of Kansas. There’s no place like home. Especially at Christmas when the ancient holiday spirits curl out of the adobe like mesquite smoke, when the glowing luminaria cast the softest light on our casitas festooned with chili peppers as red as Santa’s cap, and when the snow-dappled Santa Catalinas are humbled by endless starry nights that would make Van Gogh rub his eyes in astonishment.
With such rich beauty surrounding us, I feel for the misguided newcomers who pine for snow-covered pines, snowmen and Nordic elves made up by those whom I assume were unaware of Bethlehem’s location.
I am convinced the spirit of Christmas is in the deserts of the world; forsaken refuges for healers, sages, revolutionaries and saviors, a clean slate of endless sky above and empty sand below, where sages confront the mystical. That is why, above our blessed heads, we can see a billion stars, one for every desert dweller’s Messiah.
In our very, very old pueblo, we practice the preaching of Mary’s child whether we acknowledge it or not. In our town, we welcome the stranger. We visit the prisoner. We serve the poor. We feed the hungry. We are a voice for the least among us. We forgive. We judge not. We volunteer. We give. We strive to live lives rich with meaning, joyfully. We struggle to love our enemies as we would love ourselves. In our town, we struggle to love one another. Unconditionally. Day in and day out. This is how we fold the idea of Christmas into our daily lives, here in our desert town.
Out here in this hard, beautiful place, we understand what matters in life. And it certainly isn’t material goods. We know nothing lasts out in this desert unless it’s made of stone. Next Tuesday morning, we will be reminded of the truth we all hold dear. The greatest treasure we’ll ever possess in this fleeting and fragile lifetime is the love of our friends and family, with whom we’ll rise to greet the promise of one more Christmas day.
Feliz Navidad, mis amigos.