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The Magic of Nochebuena

Photograph by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez

When I was a girl, my mother had to drag me out of the house to attend Sunday morning Mass with her. But Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was different. I went with eager anticipation. Maybe it was the freedom to stay up past my usual bedtime, the way our kitchen smelled of freshly baked cookies and homemade pasteles, or the promise of presents, but Christmas Eve always felt magical.

I remember my mother talking about how she celebrated Christmas as a child in Puerto Rico. How she filled a shoebox with hay for the horses, and left it at the foot of her bed in the evening. In the morning, the hay would be gone and there'd be a small gift. At the time, I didn't know the tradition she was talking about was El Día De Los Reyes. I don't know exactly when she stopped celebrating that holiday, but I imagine it must have been around the time her family moved from Puerto Rico to New York. My mother left Puerto Rico when she was 9 years old. By the time my brother and I came along, my mother had embraced the Christmas tradition of attending Mass at midnight.

Moments before we were to leave for Mass, my mother would send us downstairs to wait. We never thought anything of it. She was always the last one out of the apartment. She went around, turning off lights, checking the pots (if any) on the stove and straightening up before leaving. Then my mother, brother and I would walk in the cold, admiring the holiday lights in the neighborhood. My father never came with us.

It took me years to realize that my mother was Santa. That her staying behind wasn't about turning off light switches, but about putting out presents.

Before going into church, we'd stop to look at the nativity scene. And then my mother ushered us through the crowd to find our seats. She liked sitting in the front.

I always thought our church was beautiful, but during the holiday season it was a spectacular sight of bright red bows and rich, green garland; dimly lit with its earthy-scented air, the church on Christmas Eve was a place of serenity. And all that could be heard was Father John's voice carrying from the marble pulpit to the last church row as he read from the Gospel of Luke. At the end of the service, the choir sang my favorite holiday hymn: Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

By the time we returned home, Santa Claus had come and gone, leaving presents under our tinsel covered Christmas tree. We didn't have a lot of money, but Christmas was the one time of year when we felt special. Santa always made sure we got at least one thing we wanted and all the things we needed like socks, underwear and pajamas.

Some of favorite Christmases were waking up to the sound of laughter coming from the living room. I'd walk out in my pajamas and find my god parents and "cousins." We'd stay up until the sun rose, talking, eating and listing to Christmas music.

It took me years to realize that my mother was Santa. That her staying behind wasn't about turning off light switches, but about putting out presents. We may not have had many presents to open up on Christmas Eve, but my mother gave me a gift that has stayed with me long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

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