Christmas in Lima, Peru

Photo: Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (, The Little Christmas Piper (8296550488), Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (, The Little Christmas Piper (8296550488),

It was approaching Christmas 1995. All the big stores in Lima were full of Christmas trees and tinsel. Around December 20th, Charo said to me: “How are we going to celebrate Christmas with this fledgling community?”

That the time was so short reflects the ability of Peruvians to improvise. Charo was one of six lay missionaries who had come from the parish of Our Lady of the Rosary, some three kilometres away, to help form a Christian community around the intersection of five roads called Sweetpotato Bridge. So, the seven of us met with five interested locals and began to plan how to celebrate this special feast.

The first task was to decide on where, as we had neither chapel nor space to call our own. It would have to be in the open and visible to the public, as we were trying to spread the Word. Charo and Beto decided on a space of dirt in front of a mechanic’s workshop and a fruit stall. It was also open to one of the roads that passed through the intersection. This called for a little bit of negotiation with the fruiterer and the mechanic, which was very easily done.

Next came the essential traditional ingredient: a live crib. There was a young couple who had come to Mass once in a while, but they had no children. Maruja knew where they lived, and so she would contact them and ask them to be Mary and Joseph. Maruja herself would provide a child from some willing parents in her own parish. But we also needed animals. As one of the locals knew a neighbour who had two sheep in his back yard, he would ask him to loan them for a couple of hours on the evening of the 24th. And he did this. He had always bought his lucerne from Peter, who had a stall in the market.

The patch of dirt that had been obtained would also have to be watered on the morning of the 24th to lessen the amount of dust that would cover the Holy Family, the faithful, and the curious who might show up.

The next task was to communicate to the public the fact that Christmas would be celebrated by the faithful near Sweetpotato Bridge and that all and sundry were invited. So the 12 of us got together and invited each other to prepare six posters to be plastered on posts, shop fronts, houses, wherever. They could be any colour, any size, depending on the artistic abilities of the designer.

Beto also promised to get a sound system from one of his parishioners, as it would be necessary in case the choral abilities of the gathered would not surpass the noise of the buses and the last-minute shoppers.

Come 7.00pm on the night of the 24th, the posters were put up, the earth was watered, and the dust had settled. One of the locals brought a large piece of carpet on which the Holy Family could sit in front of the altar. The altar was a small table from the market. Another brought two benches for the elderly to rest on, and the sound system had been plugged into the mechanic’s workshop. So by 7.30pm, all was ready to go, and there was a total of 12 of us present. You could add to this a dozen curious and hungry kids.

At 8.05pm, Mary and Joseph arrived much to our relief. Five minutes later, two reluctant sheep appeared and were placed on each side of the altar, dogs being kept at a distance. The parents of the to-be-loaned baby had also arrived and so Mary, having received the baby, hid him under a poncho.

By about 8.30pm, and after a third rendition of Silent Night in Spanish, a reasonable crowd had gathered, so we decided to start.

The first highlight came when, after the Gospel, Mary revealed the presence of a child and held him up, a beautiful bouncing six-month-old boy. Everyone clapped, and the kids shouted.

The second highlight was at the end of the Mass when we and the locals served everyone present hot chocolate and panteón, a local sweet fruitcake. It was really for this moment that the kids had gathered, being well aware of the long tradition. To wind up, it was time for a final Christmas carol, Christmas hugs (abrazos) all around, and thanks to the organizers, not to mention the sheep and the babe.

Everyone helped return loaned property and then went home to celebrate with their families, sharing probably a meal of chicken and rice plus hot chocolate or warm champagne. And all knowing that the birthday of the Lord had been well celebrated with the nascent community of Sweetpotato Bridge and that they had been part of it.

Columban Fr John Hegerty lives and works in Australia.

Listen to "Christmas in Lima, Peru"

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