By Marba C. Josephson
To no other people in the world could Christmas bring the peculiar, pulsating happiness that it brought to the children in the unique little town of Colonia Juarez, Mexico, in the early 1900's. For those to whom Christmas means making a list and stepping into a store for riotous purchase, this story will seem meager. To those who were privileged to experience one, no "boughten" Christmas will ever equal it.
Juarez was an anomaly. Listed officially as a Mexican town, it led a hybrid life of its own, a rare combination of Mexican and American customs.
Named for a great Mexican hero, Benito Juarez, its existence was a queer shuttling between American tradition and Mexican living. The houses that rose on Mexican soil were faintly reminiscent of the New England home which had been transplanted, lookout roof, dormer window, and all, to the desert lands of Utah, and now sprang up, alien and aloof, in the rolling Mexican wastelands.
While nostalgia clung to the buildings, it gradually vanished from the minds of those who, acclimatized, began to relish the full flavor of mañana. They soon learned that full flavor cannot be extracted from life unless the bustle of industrialized activity is permitted to run down somewhat. Once accustomed to the even, easy temper of the warner climate, these Mormons accepted with gratitude the more even keel of their transplanted lives.
Probably in those days Christmas was simpler throughout the world. But it was true that simple activities brought intenser joys. For weeks before the awaited day, adults whispered in corners and behind closed doors, and spelled out long-sounding words, and winked knowingly when little packages were smuggled into the house to be taken into the master bedroom and carefully hidden.
During the months that immediately preceded Christmas, boxes and cans were solicitously gathered and treasured in the window box of this special bedroom. There they accumulated until a week or so before Christmas. Then behind a locked door--with the key in the lock to prevent peeping--the wives of the neighborhood would gather and set to work. Incidentally, that was the only time that a door was ever locked in Juarez.
To the children who clustered outside the door, heaven itself could not have presented more allure. There was a divine odor that no locked door could restrain, and tiny noses, sharp as any hounds', sniffed in the aroma that meant more in youthful lives than nectar and ambrosia could have possibly meant to the ancient Greeks. Not even chemists with their knowledge could have explained satisfactorily to the intense children that the odor was merely a solvent for the gilt with which their sewing boxes were being decorated. Even today any of the children whose first memory of Christmas dates to the Mexican hegira cannot catch the fragrant odor of banana oil without suffering acute homesickness for those Mexican Christmases.
Preparation for this gala event was not limited to the mothers. Sister Lewis, whose beloved youngest daughter lived in Juarez, traveled the hazardous distance to learn at first hand how Kay was getting along.
Once in Mexico, Sister Lewis entered into the community life with zest. Even though many times a grandmother, one of her first actions was to enroll in the Juarez Academy so that she might learn how to speak Spanish. She also could instruct the youngsters in the intricate stitching of Christmas gifts far from inquisitive parental eyes.
Flour sacks were clandestinely whisked out of bureau drawers and taken to Sister Lewis, who knew exactly the right amount of lye to drop into the suds so that the printing would fade, leaving beautifully creamy cloth that with clever cutting and sewing could be transformed into undreamed-of beauty.
Many and varied were the uses to which the sacks were put. But first of all they must be ever so carefully measured and cut and hemmed. And no careless or lazy child could hope to escape Sister Lewis' zealous eye. Making a neat hem was a veritable proof of being of superior blood. The fulfillment of the nursery rhyme "sew a fine seam" was an essential test of all who wished to remain in Sister Lewis' sewing class.
If there was any aristocracy in democratic Juarez, it was the aristocracy formed by Sister Lewis when she admitted or rejected those who wished to join her sewing circle.
When the hemming was finished to the satisfaction of Sister Lewis' kindly but critical eye, she brought out an array of transfer patterns and with a flatiron--always kept heating on the clumsy, wood-burning stove--she let the girls stamp their flowers and their butterflies in the corners or the center of their choice handwork. While the girls sewed and wrapped, Sister Lewis taught them Church songs, so that Christmas morning they would not only present the gifts, but in the evening they could also sing solos, duets, trios, in their shrilly melodious children's voices.
There were other preparations that the children could make even better than adults. Mistletoe, a luxury in the States, was to be had for the picking in Juarez. Clinging to the tall cottonwood trees, it made inviting bait for the boys and girls who, barefooted, shinnied up the smooth trunks of the trees to where, high up, the parasite flourished. Having reached the topmost branches, the children would gather the leaf groups with their white crown of sticky berries. Hanging from lamps, it made an inviting decoration. Who in the States ever possessed enough money to spend it extravagantly on mistletoe with which to decorate the packages?
Even in Mexico Santa Claus came with his reindeer and sleigh bells. St. Nicholas, after all, is a matter of imagination, not of Fahrenheit. And Yankee-bred mothers could make the snow fly even in the dusty streets of Juarez. So vivid were the storytellers that children born and reared in Juarez knew the sting and exhilaration of the snow they had never seen, felt the pull of unused muscles as they listened to the tales of skating and sleigh-riding in Zion.
Always into the stockings went some of the goodies of the north, sent by longing grandparents or absent fathers in order that their loved ones might not be too completely weaned from older customs or forget in the more temperate region the land of their rightful inheritance. In this south land, there were rare tasties that even Yankee palates craved and were denied in the north.
On Christmas morning, with a shout, the children rushed to the "parlor" where everything had been carefully laid out the night before. The girls would receive their sewing boxes--mysteriously smelling of the redolent banana oil--complete with thimble, needles, thread, pins, and scraps for sewing, as well as the ebony needle sharpener, shaped like a strawberry. The older daughters might have scissors, but the younger ones were content with the promise that on good behavior they would be allowed to borrow them.
In the foot of the stocking was the treat of the day--a large orange. So scarce were oranges that the youngest ones were instructed how they should skin them, saving the yellow peel to cut out into fancy false teeth. Slipped into place, these orange teeth were sure to offer hours of grotesque amusement. While oranges grew lusciously, extravagantly, along the western coast of Sonora, the adjoining state, getting them into Chihuahua presented difficulty. Piled in sacks on patient burros, which then moved laboriously along the foothills, over the mountains, and down into the valleys, they at long last reached the Colonia Juarez children. It was small wonder then that great whoops of delight preceded the prying out of the golden globes from the stockings. With what joy they cradled them in their hands, hoarding them against their mounting appetites.
After the morning prayer of gratitude, the round of visiting began. At each home, the eating of some toothsome dainty was in order until at last even the bottomless stomach of childhood seemed to lose its elasticity, and the most delicate pastry or candy went begging.
Christmas evening was the climax of the day. A program was planned in which every member of the family took part, by song, story, recitation, or dramatization. Nowadays it seems strange, perhaps, that from this little community have come so many leaders of Church and educational activities. Those who lived there know why: they were trained in self-confidence by their experiences in home evening performances. Moreover, their love of literature was fanned to life beyond life by the stories that these mothers loved and told.
Uncle Remus, "The Prince and the Pauper," Rhoecus and his bee--all gained new luster from the lips of these mothers. Strangely enough, many of these children did not realize that they were being trained so that never could they be tempted to read the salacious, the tawdry in books or magazines. Those mothers in an isolated community laid well the foundation of appreciation for the true and the great in literature.
Sometimes the whole community would gather on a Christmas evening for a real play presented in the Juarez Academy. The love of drama was not a century plant to the Mormons, flowering infrequently, but rather the very stuff of life, and wherever they went, little theaters blossomed.
Always the last thing in the evening, family prayers would be held, in gratitude and reverence.
Throughout the day, there was a unanimity of purpose that made the Christmas of Colonia Juarez unusual. Because of the oneness of ideals, the Christmas celebration was free from the brawling and carousing that characterized similar celebrations in many towns of like size. No saloons were to be found in Colonia Juarez. Only reputable buildings were erected: shoe shops, for the Mormons were thrifty; harness shops, for they needed equipment that their horses might plow the land; a cannery, for they must provide in a time of plenty against a time of need; a planing mill, for they must have some way of getting material for building homes; a gristmill, for wheat is essential for life; and a cheese factory. All these and more were erected by the industrious Saints. Peace and prosperity flowered in the wake of the Mormons, in Mexico as it had on the desert lands of the Great Basin.
All this peace and prosperity had its complete blossoming on Christmas day, a day of complete accord with the One for whom it had been named. Friendliness and good spirit, unselfishness and prayerfulness mingled to make it a day to be treasured against the time of another Christmas.
The Improvement Era, December 1948