It was December 24, 2002, and I had just arrived in a village of ~150 families at 11,000′ in rural Guatemala to live for two years. I had actually been scheduled to arrive 2 days before, but was targeted by a criminal gang on the bus en route to get to my home and they robbed me of all my money. I had to return to the capital seven hours away, file a police report, and wait for a small reimbursement.
I had a bad head cold and no food in my house; there were no stores in town and everything in the nearest city (a 2-mile walk, followed by hour bus ride) was closed for the holiday, with no buses running. A Guatemalan woman who did not know me at all brought me a small Christmas Eve dinner and sent her small boy to keep me company while I ate it so I would not be alone. This first Christmas away from home made me really start to reflect on the US values around holidays that I grew up with. It was also the beginning of 8 more years spent the same way: broke in the developing world for the holidays.
What I learned about:
When I worked for an international community in upstate NY, we had friends’ dinners for people who worked with us and could not be with family; when I moved overseas, that concept intensified. In small communities here, nobody is left out- everyone from the rich city relatives to the street people are provided for.
Presence Versus Presents
The art of being present- truly present-is one I realized we had lost in our US highly competitive, individualistic and consumer-driven culture. In fact, many communities are striving to bring back what we have here in Guatemala: a sense of place, history, and connectedness. In our struggle to make a show of how much we can buy for each other, we have made the person the least of our focus. The US is one of the most stressed and overworked nations. Parker Palmer’s groundbreaking work on building community starts with the concept of building and creating space, something I have witnessed first-hand.
For Christmas Eve here, gift-giving is not the focus. We stand around a fire wrapped head-to-toe in the freezing cold, enjoy a churrasco, and watch fireworks at midnight. Another huge difference: we do not open gifts in front of company. Gift giving is not obligatory; if a gift is received, it is appreciated and the giver thanked, but a big fuss is not customary.
Developing World Struggles
The nature of life here in the developing world means that almost every year, every person is affected by some traumatic event, creating a huge sense of loss, emotional flashback and loneliness at the holidays. Last year, I lost 3 people close to me, while another fought for his life with a treatable medical condition he could not afford to treat. I sat with a friend whose 6-year-old niece was raped by a juvenile cousin. Another year, we held a prayer circle and a woman who had lost her daughter to pneumonia broke out sobbing. I cannot stress enough how important our Universalist practice of saying, “you are not alone- I am here for you,” is in these moments. Holding space and lighting candles can be very powerful tools for aiding prayer.
Guatemala also has retained another custom that is largely lost in the US, but a very powerful connection tool- that of non-sexual touch. Men and women and children hug other men and women and children as a routine part of cultural interactions, especially important during the holidays. When the woman in our prayer circle started crying, while saying nothing, two of us simply placed our arms around her and held her and let her cry. It was what she needed. What so many need.
How Being Left Out Hurts the Most of Anything
Isolation kills. A powerful tool implicated in most forms of domestic, religious, workplace, and community abuse is weaponizing inclusion and exclusion. The non-inclusion of the “other” is a standard part of many US communities. Fascinating statistics show that Americans are particularly closed about interacting with people outside of their own race, class, and culture. That is something that many people I interact with in the developing world have overcome.
Many people are uncomfortable around others who are “different” or hurting because they are not taught how to initiate meaningful conversation. The UU community has some wonderful tips for avoiding common inclusion mistakes when talking to young people, that can be adapted to many different situations including reaching out to people of different cultures in your community.
Gift Giving: aka, The Joy of Socks
It’s not that people in the developing world do not exchange gifts, it is just that gift-giving is neither the central focus of our holidays, nor obligatory. I give gifts to those closest to me every year. The last 2 years, I have not had the financial resources to do large gifts. I gave of my talents instead: I gave gift certificates for my development classes and for book manuscript preparation, I gave offers of photography portrait sessions. Other years I have given small practical things- warm hiking socks from international companies and other things that are considered small luxuries here.
Previous years, my coworker and I made a donation to the poorest community in his town- we bought 50 notebooks with boxes of crayons, pencils, a ball, some candy, a toothbrush, and a small toy, and I made a step-by-step guide for drawing a bird, of which we made 50 photocopies. We delivered the packages the day after Christmas to an entire village of children who had received nothing for Christmas- we did not advertise it, we just did it. My partner spends every holiday season reaching out to women and children in prisons and our city’s orphanage. The point here is that in our culture, somebody is always donating their time to reach out to those less fortunate- and seldom getting recognition for it.
The Importance of Identity and Your Own Ritual
Living far from where you were born and raised has an emotional toll that only those who have done it truly understand. I have learned that we all need some sense of ritual to remain connected to our own identity. No matter what my budget, there are three non-expensive things I do every year at the holidays to connect me to my family and community. The first is I cook apple crisp every Christmas morning, and put live flower arrangements on my tree. These things connect me to my mom and family. The second is I allow myself one small new ornament purchase every year; this is for me. The third is I ask my community to share music with me on social media that they discovered/ rediscovered throughout the year. This leads to great conversation in the universal language of music– which transcends culture, place, religion, class, etc. (here is a song suggestion from me this year). I also participate and help others participate, in a yearly international Christmas poetry collaboration.
How You Can Make a Difference in People’s Lives
When you invest in corporations, you help CEOs and shareholders enrich their bottom line. When you buy from small business owners and Fair Trade businesses in your network and community, you are directly supporting people like myself to celebrate the holidays how we most want to. The same is true when you donate to people and organizations working directly on the ground. Ask around your networks- I think you might be surprised how many people are volunteering their time, reaching out to the excluded, and otherwise having a non-material holiday experience who would welcome your kind words of support, $5 donations, time spent volunteering with them, help to reach fundraising goals, etc. These are lessons that we, who spend our lives in the field, have taken to heart.
Rachael Shenyo is a US national living and working in Central America as a development specialist, scientist, writer, and life coach. In her coaching, she specializes in helping people find and hear their inner voice, and act upon their life goals. In her scientific work, she works with climate change. Her professional profile may be found on LinkedIn.