A Brazilian Christmas Tale

A Brazilian Christmas Tale

by David Brazzeal

The gray-haired pastor wiped the sweat from his brow. “So, in summary, we’ll keep things just as they were last year, ‘ta bom?  The Christmas program will be on Christmas Eve at 20:00, the children will do their program, the choir can sing a few songs and the ladies should bring food for our Christmas meal together as a congregation.”

Mario tried to hide his restlessness with the pastor’s plan by pretending he was dealing with the heat while at the same time adjusting his tall body to the uncomfortable chair. But it wasn’t these things at all; his uneasiness came from way down inside.

Concordamos? All in agreement?” The pastor waited for the unlikely objection and expressed his pleasure with, “Ótimo! So this concludes our Christmas planning meeting. Thank you very much for attending.”

Mario wanted to disagree or say something, but what? He had nothing to add, nothing to suggest, just…well, maybe it was that rebellious streak from his past that he thought he had long since overcome. He kept his seat while the others folded their chairs and placed them back against the wall. They all quickly filed out of the small concrete-block church building, eager to escape the sweltering heat of the unventilated room on a summer afternoon. No one noticed Mario was left alone in the middle of the now darkening room.

Mario was born in Mozambique. He never talked about his rough past, but because of his slightly different Portuguese accent, most Brazilians knew he was from somewhere else. There were a few lines that he had perfected in order to explain how he had come to Brazil. The way he told it, he found a job on a merchant vessel as an African teenager. As the ship slowly passed the Sugar Loaf Mountain and entered the beautiful harbor of Rio de Janeiro…At this point Mario made a sweeping motion across the sky using his long black arm as if to recreate that enchanting scene he saw from the ship. Then he typically finished the story by punctuating that it was at that moment he knew THIS was the place for him to jump ship and start a new life. This phrase was always followed by a loud infectious laugh and maybe a slap on the listener’s back, which seemed to disarm them from probing further into the untold story. The truth is, that instead of a commercial freighter carrying commercial goods across the Atlantic, it was actually a modern day pirate ship that for years carried some of the roughest cutthroats in the south Atlantic.

But that was some time ago. He had started a new life, a completely different life here in Rio. He was now a happily married family man, a jack-of-all-trades when it came to tools, and even a leader in his church. Despite that, he didn’t feel comfortable disagreeing with the pastor in a meeting, especially when he didn’t know why. As he sat still with his rough hands clasped together, his sweaty forearms resting on his knees; he was staring straight ahead through an open window at the glow of weak light bulb. It was hanging crookedly by two wires as it struggled to serve as a street lamp for those passing by outside. Yes, this seemed to be his objection to the meeting – they had just planned yet another Christmas service for the faithful few of the church, complete with carols, delicious food and children dressed up as shepherds and angels, but nothing for the people just outside who desperately needed it most.

As that familiar “maybe next year” feeling came over him, he folded up his chair and placed it gently with the others against the wall. He closed the window and made his way out the door, locked up and trudged up the dark hill.

His wife, Sónia, seemed to notice that he was troubled by something the minute he entered the door of their simple home, but that wasn’t unusual. This unskilled immigrant was often worried about things: not having enough work, not being paid on time, not being able to provide for his family, not being able to move them out of this dangerous favela…just to name a few. Nevertheless, he was able to put it aside once again in order to enjoy an evening at home with his family.

Their ten-year-old son, Leandro suddenly and excitedly ran to the table with the season’s first Christmas card, very proud with himself that he had already read it. Patrícia, their eight-year-old daughter, followed close behind struggling to see the card’s picture. It wasn’t a particularly pretty one, just an old-fashion print of a sleigh gliding through the snow surrounded by fir trees – not a scene that most tropic-living people identify with. Southern-hemisphere countries, who celebrate Christmas during the summer, have reluctantly adopted these snowy images of the season partially due to their global prevalence but perhaps also because of the lack of their own, more suitable traditions. At least this is what Mario thought. It’s because of that, each Christmas Mario refused to decorate a scraggly pine tree but rather chose to decorate a small palm or banana tree. He became quite adept at adapting the lights and the family’s collection of hand-made ornaments to broader leaves. In his own little way he wanted to make Christmas more Brazilian, at least for his own family.

As Mario opened the card, his eye began to tear up as he read a friend’s handwritten version of a famous poem. For him, all the Christmas poems and stories and songs about a poor person giving the baby Jesus the only thing they owned, have always touched his weak spot. He wrapped his big arms around his children and gave them both a big abraço, while trying to hide the tears now rolling down his cheek.  He announced to his kids that they could help him tonight clean the floors at the church. It was a task they thought was more fun than work. They were proud their father was now serving as the church caretaker. He had accepted the job partly out of a desire to help out, however he could always use the extra pocket change it brought in each week.

Mario awoke the next morning, realizing that his tired feeling was not just due to mopping the church floor with the kids climbing on his back the night before. He had the lingering impression of a dream that troubled him, but like most dreams, it was illusive. It wasn’t a dark sort of dream, but one filled with light. It reminded him of sitting silently in the church the day before and staring at the lone light bulb. The light of the dream on the other hand, was much brighter and seemed to spread like the light bulb couldn’t.  Not being able to reconstitute the dream, he flushed it from his mind and prepared himself for another day of work…or hoping he could find some work.

His morning produced its usual disappointments: his bid on some house painting was laughed at for being way too high, the floor tiling job he’d just finished wasn’t able to pay him yet, and the roofing work that was going to sustain him through December completely fell through. The only hopeful thing of the morning was passing a young couple with a tiny, newborn baby, leaving the small clinic at the bottom of the hill. He didn’t know them and wasn’t in the mood to meet them, not wanting to drown their joy with his negativity. Evidently they had just moved in, after all people come and go all the time in this place, typical of Rio’s hillside slums. The lucky ones were on the way out, but not the case for this young family. Mario was headed up the hill the same direction as they were going. He was just behind them as they struggled to negotiate the steep, uneven steps at the worst part of the ascent… watching the mother carefully balance her baby in her arms as she stumbled. Then later, seeing the hovel of a home that the family entered almost made him sick at his stomach. How long would this baby be able to survive the filth, the rodents, the roof leaks, the stray gunfire of this neighborhood? Mario kept on his way and tried unsuccessfully to delete the scene from his mind.

Later that afternoon, Mario headed back to the church to install a couple of old ceiling fans that someone had donated. Missing some of the hanging connectors, which he’d have to recreate, he began replacing some burnt out light bulbs. About that time, the pastor entered and the two men exchanged typical pleasantries. The pastor reminded him to take the ladder outside and replace bulbs out there as well. Mario caught himself staring again at the weak bulb outside the window as he folded the ladder.

“Mario? Did you hear me?” The pastor asked. “So here are a few bulbs I bought for outside,“ the pastor explained, “We need to get them all working before the Christmas program, don’t you think?”

Mario broke his stare and glanced at the bulbs. “Claro, but 40 watts each? Just doesn’t put out much light, that’s all.”

“Well, we don’t want to waste money to light up the outside of the church, do we? I always put the stronger bulbs in the inside where our people are. I’m sure you agree?”

Mario continued his stare without responding.

“Mario? Are you ok?”

Breaking the trance, Mario finally found his nerve to respectfully disagree with this man and calmly said, “That’s just it pastor, we’ve got to somehow get the light that’s inside this church and spread it all over this hillside.” He slowly lifted the ladder, his eyes betraying the hidden idea brewing in his mind. “Pastor, I know we just had the Christmas planning meeting last night, but, uh…does it have to be just like last year?”

“Well, I guess not, but we did agree on it. Besides, what else would we…I mean, do you have a better idea?”

The church caretaker confidently and slowly said, “Yes. I. do!”

Mario’s voice instantly quickened as he spit out hints of the idea, “Let’s see…we’ll still need the choir to sing, but as much and as long as they can. People can still bring food but we’ll need about 10 to 20 times as much.”

“Wha…What are you talking about? The pastor blurted out. “Are you doido?”

“Look Pastor, you’re going to have to just trust me on this. Anybody that can swing a hammer – I will need their help too.  Oh…and candles, tin cans, paint, plants and…we’ll need all of that we can get!” Fortunately the pastor realized that Mario was a dependable guy and if he did have some crazy idea for Christmas Eve, at least he knew he’d pull it off. So without a second thought, he decided to take the risk, follow Mario’s direction and try to explain to the others in the church what he didn’t even understand himself.

The next few days, Mario could be seen scurrying around to all the stores where he’d been a faithful client over the past 10 years. He found himself using the same phrase again and again  – “Look, just trust me,” as he asked the store owners to donate material, paint, food, flowers, depending on the nature of the store. He was actually surprised at the response. As his final trick to close each deal, he told them if they didn’t like the results he would personally pay for the merchandise himself. Of course, he punctuated the phrase with his loud laugh that he used to cover up another of his little lies.

The even harder task ahead was to convince the faithful at church, and even his own wife, that he wasn’t completely off his rocker. It was difficult to maintain the element of surprise while at the same time explaining to the various participating church groups what to prepare for. Over and over again he pleaded with, “Olha, just trust me!” but church people don’t like to be left in the dark. They are always asking when a meeting starts, how they should dress, and what would be the order of the program.

Besides all of this, there were measurements to be made and calculations to figure. Most of this had to be done secretly at night, a very dangerous task in a slum controlled by drug lords. One night at the top of the hill he surprisingly ran into Carlinhos, the “boss” of all of them. He was only about 19 years old but considered the most powerful man on the hill and not because of his compassion and cooperation with the residents. Mario felt an unusual sense of calm persuasiveness as he explained what his wild plan was all about. Mario communicated passionately as the drug boss listened devoid of any emotion. It was soon clear to Mario, though, that there was a much more powerful force present when the teenager simply nodded in approval.

Finally, the 24th arrived. Mario could hardly sleep the night before, being more excited than his children when opening their Christmas presents. He had just yesterday reminded all the stores to deliver their donations to the bottom of the favela hill that morning. All morning long, he and a huge team of neighbors unloaded, organized and delivered the materials. The food went to the church kitchen where a group of neighbors were cooking whatever they could concoct from the random food supplies. The building materials were hauled up the hill and stacked beside the bakery. The plants and paint were deposited beside the fruit stand. Most everyone in the favela had heard that Mario was collecting tin cans and candles so the containers he had set out earlier in the week were full and overflowing.

In the distant background, the choir could be heard rehearsing in the church. Their number had more than doubled after Mario encouraged them to invite their neighbors who loved to sing.  Their repertoire had doubled as well, thanks to some teenagers who produced a simple but elegant folder of all the Christmas songs they could think of.  The familiar smells of sautéed garlic and simmering black beans began to waft over the hillside. Cooking had spilled outside of the church kitchen and into many surrounding homes.

More than once, Mario paused in amazement.  So many people working so hard for an event they knew so little about. He also encouraged everyone to grab an afternoon nap if they could, warning that the real work would come later on that night.

As sundown approached, he instructed some of the teens of the church along with their friends how to drop a little wax in the bottom of the tin cans and stand the candles upright. Then he placed some of the cans carefully about a meter apart on both sides of the path and then with an upward sweep of his arms indicated to follow the pattern all the way to the top of the slum. “When you get to the top,” Mario instructed, “let me know and I’ll show you the final stage of the path. By then we’ll be ready to light them.” The kids excitedly took hold of the enormous task and quickly recruited friends to help.

Mario continued to organize small groups around various other tasks like: cleaning the trash out of gullies, repairing broken steps along the upward path and spreading the word that everyone was to wear red and green tonight.

The event really didn’t “officially” begin. There was too much going on with too many people involved in too many places to harness it all into an opening ceremony.  It naturally began when it became dark enough for the candles to be seen. The candle lighters began their task at the bottom of the hill accompanied by the choir who solemnly advanced with each freshly lit candle. As the path of light spread up through the twists and turns of his normally bleak slum, the news spread across the hill even faster. Soon a huge crowd of the curious had appeared from every direction, eager to make room for the candle lighters, the choir and men still hauling materials on their shoulders. Many observers, after scanning the unprecedented activity, pitched in to help.

Meanwhile at the top of the hill, Mario was showing the final destination of the candle path and therefore revealing the entire plan for his Christmas Eve “service.” The path ended at the door of the little shack where the new family with the baby, the Souza’s, had just moved in. A circle of bewildered churchgoers formed and Mario moved to the center and tried to quiet the chatter. “As you know…” Mario shouted in attempt to hush the crowd. He restarted once he had their attention. It was the moment he had been rehearsing in his mind for the past two weeks. “As you all know…tonight is Christmas Eve. It is the night that we celebrate the birth of a baby that brought light to our world and to our lives… and even into my own life.” He paused realizing the he was doing something to which he was completely unaccustomed, but continued. “On that first Christmas Eve, the angels invaded the darkness of some poor shepherds with a bright light and singing.” Mario paused again, turning to see full extent of the crowd of onlookers. He caught sight of Patrícia and Leandro who came running and grabbed onto both of his legs. Mario could see the fierce pride on their faces, making him even more eager to continue. “You see, God chose those simple people…people a lot like us here… to be the first to know about the birth of his son, Jesus. They went to see the baby and no doubt, they took a few gifts to give them.  The baby was born in what was probably just an old wooden shack like this one. Like I said, the gifts were simple, maybe a shepherd’s staff or some flowers or maybe just some shepherd snacks. Maybe some of them sang a song for him, who knows.” Mario laughed and couldn’t help but notice how he had connected to the crowd. He kept going. “So instead of our normal service inside our church, I thought we would try something that is more like that first Christmas Eve. Tonight, at least for this one night of the year, we want to bring light into the darkness… into the darkness of this morro where we all live.” A few people applauded. “And for at least one family, we’re going to bring a few simple gifts. The gift of light…the gift of singing… the gift of beautiful flowers… and the gift of delicious food.” As Mario reached this crescendo, everyone clapped and shouted as the young family looked to the ground in embarrassment. When the temporary jubilation quieted, Mario continued, “And to somehow express our gratitude to a long ago baby that still brings light and peace into our lives, we want to give this other newborn baby and his parents the gift of…” Mario paused and struggled to keep the tears at bay… “The gift of… a NEW HOME.”

The crowd, confused at first, looked around at each other, unable to understand what they just heard. One by one they began to connect the dots and realize what was about to happen.  Just then one of the men raised a hammer high in the air and shouted, “So let’s get to work!”

Mario raised his arms, interrupting him and explained further, “Yes! yes…that’s right! José gets it! Tonight we are going to tear down and completely rebuild the Souza’s house. I’ve done all the calculations and all the necessary material is here. All I need is a lot of help!” Several men got agitated in anticipation of the ambitious project. “Now as we work the choir’s going to sing all night up and down this hillside. And this food you’ve been smelling, well we’re going to first serve a delicious Christmas meal to the Souza family and then to all the rest of you.”  A cheer went up from the crowd. Mario struggled to continue, “So pace yourselves, take turns, help each other, work in shifts, but do whatever it takes to keep the work going, the candles lit, the choir singing and the food flowing ALL…NIGHT…LONG!”

The crowd, which had now become a multitude, erupted into rhythmic shouts and cheers. Someone started leading the crowd in singing Joy to the World as many shared their song folder to those willing to sing with them. Ladders flapped against the wooden shack in preparation of the roof’s dismantling.

Well, it all happened pretty much as Mario had planned. The dilapidated wooden Souza house was replaced by a simple cement block home. It was painted blue and given a traditional terracotta tile roof. Shrubbery was planted outside. Flowering plants were placed in window boxes and roses graced the table inside. The hillside was cleaned up and the extra bushes were planted all along the hillside path.

The next day Mario was one tired but very happy man! The following Sunday, the little church was overflowing with people wanting to be a part of this light and love that they had seen so genuinely expressed a few days earlier. First among them, of course, were the Souza’s with tiny baby Josué.

The next few years saw an expansion of the little church and its influence in the favela as well as a continuation of this marvelous Christmas tradition that a simple African man began. Through the years, Christmas Eve houses were built for a 90-year-old woman, a family with 2 mentally challenged children, a deaf man and for several other newborn babies. Other small churches in other favelas adopted the idea. People from all over Rio picked up the habit of working in the candle-lit favelas as their Christmas Eve service. 

***

It has now been 15 years since that first event. This year, however, is destined to be very different. Mario, unfortunately, will not be able to lead the building of the new house. Soon after last December’s project he developed a crippling disease. Throughout the year it worsened, leaving him confined to a wheel chair and unable to speak clearly. Leandro and his new wife, however, are more than ready to step up and continue the tradition. But, for the first year ever, there will be no secrecy as to who will be graced with the new home, because of the extensive TV news coverage of the upcoming event, everyone in Brazil will know.