A carver patiently shapes a little wooden horse for Balthazar to ride to Bethlehem. As the figure comes to life in his hands, a tradition that has lived for generations continues. When the first santeros molded the images of the Magi, they had never seen a camel; they had to use their everyday experience, and that experience involved horses. At home this past Christmas vacation, I can see the tradition is alive and well in the new carving my mother has added to her collection of saints.
Mom still embodies the significance of epiphany even today. She would go to our backyard with us to prepare for the arrival of the Wise Men. Out in the cool night, we would pull grass off the ground placing it on a shoebox. I remember the grass was short, and I pulled a lot, for after all, camels came from the Orient. I figured, or rather my mom explained, that the camels would be hungry after such a long trip. The box of grass along with a cup of water, for camels get thirsty too you know, was left next to our parents' bed. In the morning, the Magi had left gifts after feeding their mounts. Mom placed her box too and to this day still does even though our "wise man" doesn't ride a camel nor a horse.
Who arrives first--Santa Claus or the Three Wise Men? The naive, young child would answer Santa Claus only to have his godfather explain that the Wise Men arrived in January while Santa Claus came all the way out in December. This piece of humor is reflective of the changing tradition at home. After all, Christmas was, and still is, the celebration of the Holy Child's birth. Santa's sleigh didn't hit Puerto Rico well after 1898, and his arrival wasn't necessarily well taken. Countless Puerto Rican children were probably scared by the fat bearded man with the red coat, the big sack, and the bone chilling howl of "HO HO HO!" just like the regionalist writer (if this term can be used given it is the closest translation I can come to "costumbrista") pictured in "Santa Cló Va a La Cuchilla" ("Santa Claus visits La Cuchilla Sector"). The children in that classroom yelled and ran for their lives putting as much distance between them and the big red thing. Many years later, Puerto Rican kids, myself included, wait for jolly old Nick in December.
However, those children still wait for the Three Wise Men in January. Some of you may think that kids have it good down there. Getting gifts twice makes for a good deal (for kids anyway). Yet, this fact reflects two things. First, is the gradual adaptation of the American culture into mine, and second is the struggle and triumph of my native culture that refuses to die. However, as with Christmas in the States, our Christmas and Epiphany traditions are threatened by consumerism. The true significance of Epiphany at home is threatened just as Christmas is threatened in both countries. Yet my faith is steady that the significance of Epiphany will not be lost; it will live side by side with Santa and Midnight Mass and January 6th.
Next summer, my best friend will become my life companion. Such an event reaffirms my faith in Epiphany because some day it will be my turn to take the children outside to find foliage. Probably it won't be fresh tender grass, but the symbol will exist for them as it exists for me. Santa will come all in the way in December too, and the two traditions will coexist, but those times are off in the future. For the time being, I have not celebrated Epiphany with my family for a few years now. Due to the sudden cessation of the season after New Year's, I can't help feeling that another part of me was left back in my island just as the carvers that strive to preserve the tradition are still at home.
The time actually came. I got married that summer, and our daughter came shortly after. It seems only yesterday I was a young high school teacher. We have continued the tradition to the best of our ability. She went out last night, got her grass, so did we, and we opened our presents this morning. We had to get up a little bit earlier so as to be able to spend some time together before parents had to go to work, and she had to go to school. An epiphany is basically a sudden realization or insight about the nature of life. The Three Wise Men who visited that baby had their realization about the child. Educators are fortunate when their students experience an epiphany; I know I have been lucky on the ocassions I witnessed such. There is a sense of wonder, regardless of any religious persuasion or no persuasion at all. What I discover every year is the importance of family, of the times we make for ourselves, of the moments we will treasure, the memories we make. Epiphany reminds me of where I came from and where I have yet to wander.