Perhaps nothing else in my childhood fills me with such longings as does the grace of Christmas. Every-thing most marvelous for me at that age became, in my memory, embodied by this feast. The joy of Christmas! It was an intense, calm, sweet, and elevated joy that imparted order and equilibrium!
The joy prior to the celebrations
As Christmas approached, every-thing was imbued with a certain peace and recollection. It was something that my soul felt, like a whisper coming from far above, more eloquent than any speech, inviting me to pay no attention to other things. It seemed to me that a principle of purity, clarity, honesty, goodness and candor descended upon the earth and changed the souls of all men: human wickedness receded and Angels spread their wings. I truly had the impression that they were descending to earth…
Ten or fifteen days before Christ-mas, a sense of expectation already began to take hold, and joy was be-ginning to come down upon the small city of São Paulo, filling every nook and corner.
For the children, this feeling had nothing theoretical about it: there was an eagerness for the coming of the Child Jesus, but at the same time, the perspective of the Christmas festivity in its human and earthly aspects. This is part of the harmony and nuances of soul, which only the Catholic Church is capable of transmitting.
Preparing the children’s Christmas
Dona Lucilia, my mother, was the center of the family when it came to dealing with the little ones, because she had an extraordinary knack for it and had immense affection, the out-pouring of which greatly pleased the children. If she had wanted to, she could have run a school perfectly, with the utmost calm, sweetness and gentleness.
As Mama was the animator of Christmas, it was in a certain sense her feast.
She took advantage of a custom of her time and milieu, while at the same time reacting against it. We were in a period of special prosperity in São Paulo and the families organized grand Christmas parties, giving good presents to their children and preparing Christmas trees with all sorts of ornaments and countless edibles. However, for the children this tended to place the focus on the enjoyment of life, and the religious aspect was but vague, when it even existed.
Thus, Mama made use of the children’s party, but adding a very strong note of piety to it, to convey to us the idea of good, licit, honest and earthly joy that is sanctified by the juxtaposition of sacredness.
Large boxes arrived at our house from the stores, which the grown-ups immediately took and “confiscated”, so that the children could not open them. They were, of course, presents and decorations for the Christmas tree… We also saw the ladies secretly departing and returning loaded with packages. Sometimes we would eavesdrop on the preparations and the phone calls would begin between us and our cousins, telling them the latest news.
December 24 began altogether differently from the other days. First thing in the morning some delicacies were served, leaving, however, the tastiest for the evening. The strong aroma of honey bread – Honigbrot, as Fräulein called it – was in the air, and I ate plenty of it, with butter.
Mama would go to the outskirts of São Paulo to buy a pine tree that fit in the playroom and, with the help of Fräulein Mathilde, she decorated it with something new each year: a big and beautiful star, a paper an-gel framed in a circle of gold, blue or dark green. There were all kinds of ornaments! The children were forbid-den to enter during the preparations, being sent out to the garden, weather permitting.
By five or six o’clock in the afternoon, the movement in the streets was starting to decrease. All the lights in the houses of the neighborhood were lit, giving them a more festive air, and at times the formal rooms – which usually remained closed on ordinary days – had their windows wide open. Christmas trees could be seen erected here and there.
All of our cousins arrived at our house in the evening, and then we were gathered in a small, intensely illuminated room. There were about twenty children, speaking to each other in a more respectful and elegant way than usual, for we were in gala attire. Nevertheless, we were not paying much attention to the conversation, for we could hear the whispering of the grown-ups, and could see mysterious trays coming in, and we were excited, wondering what was going to happen!
Finally, around nine o’clock, Mama would appear announcing that the Christ-mas party was about to start.
Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht…
Then we would join hands and begin to sing Christ-mas carols – generally Ger-man ones, due to the influence of our Fräulein and the governess of our cousins, whose language we all spoke.
Above all, we sang a song which in Portuguese translates as “Noite Feliz” [Silent Night], but whose lyrics in German read as follows:“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.” – Silent night, holy night. Everything sleeps; the Holy Couple alone keeps vigil.
We descended the great marble staircase, carrying the statue of the Baby Jesus with His little arms open, adorned every year by Mama in a different little robe. We would walk around the garden singing; and when we arrived at the playroom, the door was still closed… At last, it was opened, and we entered, finding the room completely transformed! For me, that was a tremendous delight: the Christmas tree, prepared in the German way, was topped with a gold or silver star, with an angel. On the branches there were little paper figurines representing Angels and Saints, lighted candles and golden, red, blue, silver and green balls in the most vivid tones. I was enchanted with the pine tree and found it beautiful, but since I was desirous of a greater perfection, not existing in earthly things, I saw the Christmas tree as the image of a plant that might exist in terrestrial Paradise.
It seemed to me that the charm of the tree was greatly enhanced by the fact that there were candies and chocolates hanging amidst the decorations. It is possible that Mama placed them there, thinking of my insatiable appetite. In the four corners of the room there were tables full of sweets and snacks, one of which was reserved for homemade punches of jabuticaba and other fruits. Singing all the while, we formed a circle, making our way around the tree, at the foot of which was the nativity scene with statues, figures of shepherds and, of course, the donkey and the ox, which were never lacking.
Two steps away from the evergreen tree was Mama, enchanted with the innocence of the children and smiling at those who arrived. She seemed to have a Christmas tree in her heart for each one…
The formal recommendation was that we remain holding hands and that we not begin to eat or drink before having prayed. I believe that I was one of the first to show signs of tiredness at a certain point, which she – knowing her son like the palm of her hand – was quick to understand, and she would have the circle stop. How-ever, she never let on that she was doing this because of me, so as not to give me the idea that she was fulfilling my every wish…
Praying before the Nativity Scene
The celebration of Christmas proper began. Mama knelt down with all the children before the Nativity Scene, placed the Child Jesus in it and said some rather long prayers with great gentleness, piety and seriousness. I have the impression that she composed the prayers at that moment, dedicating them to the Child, Our Lady and St. Joseph, and asking for various different graces. Her prayers were repeated by the children gathered there. As the commemorations unfolded, complete order was maintained by Mama’s simple presence, in an irreproachable manner. But, just to be sure, the governesses kept watch and would not hesitate to severely reprimand any child who dis-obeyed. However, during the prayers, only our Fräulein remained with us. She was Catholic, and she also knelt, but the other was a Protestant, and she withdrew so as not to take part in the prayers.
After Mama rose, we would take each other’s hands again and circle the pine tree three or four more times, singing.
The Christmas feast
The children had ravenous appetites, and I was one of the captains of the feasting. I have no doubt that I was generally the first to begin eating, for that was my way of being, and we were not at an age for dieting or penance…
Before long everyone was talking, eating, and of course playing a lot, in the Brazilian way.
One can imagine what it must have been like with a group of twenty children eating and drinking as they pleased! Being very fond of colors, my attention would quickly be turned to some golden or orange sweets, in the form of small rings, numbers or animals, which were sugarcoated on the outside and with different liqueurs inside.
Mama would remain standing, watching everything with benevolence, but keeping things in order, with the help of Fräulein Mathilde and the other governess. From afar, we could hear the echoes of the songs of other children who were also celebrating their Christmas. There was hardly a sound to be heard in the streets, as the commemorations were held by families inside their homes.
All this offered us a bright, pure and virginal happiness that was not disturbed by any intemperance. None of the children were misbehaved or rude, and they all played with each other in an ambience of entire serenity, surrounded by that peace which seemed to emanate from the images of the Child God and of Our Lady, spreading through-out the room. This joy transmitted something to us that I am not sure how to ex-press well, but it was the idea that a Child had been given to us – “Puer natus est nobis” – and that a great joy had descended from Heaven. I had the feeling that I was living Christmas! For me, it was as if the Child Jesus really was born and was among us!
Our party lasted for about two hours. At a certain moment, we would hear the bells of the churches start to ring, and then the adults would leave to attend Midnight Mass, to which the children were not taken at that time. We were living in an age of very strong anti-clericalism among certain sec-tors, and there was a fear that there might be disturbances during the celebration.
Christmas still had the delights of repose in store for us. The bed linen had been changed that day. How nice the pillow was! How soft the mattress! I slept enveloped in the remembrance of Stille Nacht, with the satisfaction of innocence.
Was the children’s Christmas over? No! The best was yet to come.
Receiving the gifts from St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas was a Bishop of Asia Minor who took great pity on those in need, especially families who were impoverished because of financial misfortune and other reasons. This prelate was in the habit of passing by the houses of the poor on Christmas Eve, throwing gifts through the windows and running off. And so the tradition was established that on that night, the holy and jovial Bishop passed by all the houses of the world, leaving toys for the children while they slept. We believed in this visit, and I was an enthusiast of St. Nicholas. In saying goodnight to us, Mama reminded us that he would come to our house and leave toys for us. Naturally, I was very excited and wanted to catch St. Nicholas by surprise as he delivered the gift, but he was so quick, and I went to bed so sleepy, that this never happened! However, at four or five o’clock in the morning I awoke out of curiosity, wondering if St. Nicholas had already come. In fact, he had already passed… I remember the delightful impression I had when I turned over and suddenly felt the weight of a large box. I thought: “Did St. Nicholas get it right?”
Nevertheless, I did not react by lunging upon the present. I reasoned as follows: “Is it not better to enjoy this expectation than to spoil it now by playing excitedly and then not being able to sleep anymore? In this way I will continue hoping and will be able to take proper advantage of the pleasure.”
At seven or eight o’clock, we had the best wake-up of the year! On no other morning – except if I was sick – would this happen: I would wake up and find Mama at the foot of my bed, watching me and enjoying the pleasure I would have in seeing the gift. Over the course of my life, I have never contemplated such a gaze. And she did not know that, for me, her joy was a better gift than the toy!
When she saw that I was fully awake, she would hold out her arms and say:— Filhinho! [Little son!]
And before opening the present, I went straight to her arms, for that interpenetration of souls was worth much more to me.
My happiness began with that motherly hug, and as I embraced her, I kept looking at the box. Then, one of the greatest delights of Christmas began, which consisted of untying the ribbons, the bows and the strings, and tearing the box if necessary, to open it and see what St. Nicholas had left. I do not recall a single time when he brought less than I had asked! I marvelled at the coincidence and thought: “Isn’t it amazing… how St. Nicholas knows everything!”
A luminous hiatus between the 25 and 26
On December 25 there was what they called “the burial of the bones”: we ate the delicacies and drank the last of the punch left over from the previous evening, but we separated and put aside many packages of sweets not yet opened to give to the poor children on New Year’s Day, and more were bought for them.
That evening was a luminous hiatus, full of suavity, peace and sweetness, giving me the impression that the whole sky, with its stars, was imbued with honey and perfume… It seemed to me that the sound of the bells carried further and that an enormous joy enveloped the whole city, pervading even the dark gardens and recalling: “Christ is born! He was born in Bethlehem!” We went to sleep under that sacred breeze of Christmas, with the deep and pleasant sleep of a clear conscience.
Taken, with slight adaptations, from: Notas Autobiográficas
[Autobiographical Notes] São Paulo: Retornarei, 2008, v.I, p.479-496.