It’s become a tradition in Boggel’s Place to challenge Gertruida – who knows everything – to tell the patrons at the bar a new Christmas story on the night of the 24th every year. Not any old story, though. The theme has to be Christmas, of course…and it has to be (more or less) true. Over the years she has told them the story of Bethlehem; the wonderful tale of Pete, Santa’s helper; and how – on Christmas day – wars were stopped to allow soldiers to join in singing ‘Silent Night’. This year is no exception – she’ll have to come up with something fresh.
“Come on, Gertruida, it’s time for your story.”
Gertruida smiles happily. “Mmmm…okay. Pick a theme, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Servaas stares at the dry desert outside; this summer has been particularly dry and hot. The stunted shrubs of the Kalahari are struggling to survive, with only a few dust-covered leaves as evidence of life.
“Flowers,” he says with a mischievous grin, “tell us a Christmas story about flowers.”
Gertruida doesn’t bat an eye. “Okay…”
It’s been a harsh year for the small family. They usually managed to make enough money by selling eggs and chickens; but that year some disease had struck, killing off most of their stock. Supplementing their income by knitting and cutting wood didn’t help as much as they’d have liked, either. Pepita’s father had to leave to work in the city while her ailing mother became more and more bedridden.
But…it was the night before Christmas. Even if her mother was too ill to leave the home, Pepita was determined to attend mass in the local church. Maybe, she thought, her mother would be blessed with improving health if she attended the service.
Oh, she knew about the tradition in town. Like in the rest of Mexico, the townsfolk would bring gifts to place before the altar in church – usually beautifully crafted gifts, even money or a variety of foodstuffs. And…she had nothing to give. No gifts for the Son of Bethlehem. This caused her to walk slowly, wondering if she shouldn’t turn around and head back home. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she set her jaw: she’d go anyway! She had to pray for her mom…
The cheery greeting from behind startled her. It was Pedro, her rich nephew. He was dressed in the finest clothes and carried a large, wrapped box. Despite the fact that Pedro lived in the better part of town, the two of them often played together and got along quite well.
“Oh Pedro…” She sniffed loudly and wiped away the tears. “I’m so ashamed. Look at me! Look at my clothes. And…I have no gift to offer…”
Pedro felt sorry for her, but what could he do? Even if he had money to buy a gift for her, the village shop was closed on this holy evening.
“Uh…I dunno. You have nothing? Nada? Really? Maybe it’d be better not to go?”
She only managed a nod.
Pedro saw how distraught she was and suggested that they sat down to think. There, at the edge of the dusty track, the two of them decided to pray for an answer. Should she go? Face the ridicule of the town with her threadbare dress and grubby feet…and no gift?
Anything, Pepita. You can bring anything…as long as you do it with a pure heart.
Pepita looked up in surprise. She had heard those words quite clearly, as if they were spoken right next to her. But … it certainly wasn’t Pedro who spoke. The voice was far too beautiful – it sounded like a woman…didn’t it? And look, Pedro is over there, and the voice came from…here...?
Pepita looked around. The only thing next to the road, was a wilted weed. Could she? Should she…? The voice said anything…didn’t it?
“And so the little girl walked into that church with a meagre bouquet of…weeds! Oh, the villagers pointed fingers and whispered furiously, but Pepita proceeded down the aisle to lay her weeds at the feet of the statue of Mary and Jesus. Please, she whispered, this is all I can bring. But…I bring it with love. With a pure heart.”
Gertruida tells the story so well – you can hear a pin drop in Boggel’s Place.
“Well, that little girl scampered from the church and went home. Her mother was still as ill as before. The pantry was still empty. Nothing had changed.”
That night, Pepita cried herself to sleep…again.
It was just after dawn that the excited voices outside made her sit up.
“Pepita! Pepita! Your weeds! Come, have a look!”
She peeked through the torn curtain to see a mass of people outside. Pedro stood right in front, beckoning urgently. After a hasty goodbye to her mother, Pepita stepped outside. What was this all about?
“Come! Come quickly. You have to see this!”
The crowd swept her along, but when they got to the church, they stepped aside – forming a guard of honour as they urged her inside. And when she did, she fell to her knees.
There, in front of the altar, her weeds had changed during the night. The altar was now festooned with the greenest leaves, the reddest flowers Pepita had ever seen.
“Those red flowers are now part and parcel of the Mexican Christmas tradition. It’s a beautiful flower, which is why the Aztecs also dedicated the red blooms to their deities. It was so pretty, that the American ambassador to Mexico brought it to America in 1828.
“Now, when you look at these flowers, you’ll recognise the shape of the Star of Bethlehem. The red represents the blood of Christ, of course – or love, if you prefer to think about it that way. And the specks of white? That’s the sign of purity. All in all, these flowers – called ‘Flores de Noche Buena’ (‘Flowers of the Holy Night’) in Mexico – contain many symbols we’d associate with Christmas, but it is the message of humility and honesty that truly speaks to us.
“Christmas is not a time for extravagance. Forget the dazzling diamonds, the glittering gold and the glamorous gifts. Do what Pepita did: whatever you give – if anything – give it with a pure heart. Give it with love. It is, after all, not the price of the present that counts – it’s the cost.”
“Huh?” Vetfaan sits up straight suddenly. Gertruida can be sooo…oblique!
“In this world, Vetfaan, we look at the tag in the shop. We calculate the effect on the budget and the impression we want to make on the receiver. The more opulent the present, the greater goodwill, see? It is as if we manipulated the whole idea of Christmas into a system of trying to impress others.
“But it shouldn’t be like that. Love and purity aren’t self-sustaining characteristics. They represent hard work, compassion, kindness and conviction. That’s the cost, my friend, and it’s sadly lacking in so many presents that’ll be exchanged on Christmas day. Love and purity remain the most precious gifts anybody can give on Christmas day. Or on any other day, for that matter. It’s priceless…“
“The flower, Gertruida? What’s it called?”
“It was called after the American ambassador, Servaas. Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett. The Aztecs called ‘Cuetlaxochitl,’ and it’s botanical name is ‘Euphorbia pulcherrima’. Everybody knows it as Poinsettias, but I prefer ‘Flower of the Holy night’.”
Boggel holds up a hand. He has to know. “And what happened to Pepita and her mother, Gertruida?”
Gertruida falls silent for a while, thinking hard.
“Well, you won’t believe it! Because it was Pepita who brought the miracle to the town, all the gifts in the chapel were given to her and her mother. There were food and clothes, money and gold, ornaments and many more presents. Oh, they were so happy! It was the best Christmas ever! Her father returned from the city and her mother recovered completely.” She sighs happily. “Such a wonderful, miraculous ending…”
Of course Gertruida lied – just a little bit – about the ending. The Mexican legend of the Flores de Noche Buena doesn’t elaborate on what happened to poor Pepita, nor does it say anything about the fate of the family. But it was Christmas, after all, and Gertruida felt the obligation to bring hope to her listeners. It’s been such a hard year filled with so much trials and tribulations, she knew they’d simply love a happy ending.
No, it wasn’t wrong of her to twist the tale a bit. She did it with purity and love – which are the main ingredients of miracles, remember?
A huge ‘Merry Christmas’ to all the readers of Rolbos. May you and your loved ones experience this Christmas as a special one, filled with grace and blessing; kindness and hope.
And love, of course…lots of Love…