Kissing Baby Jesus

I will never be cool. I’ve never kissed a woman, other than in the most forced greeting, and even then I make great efforts to avoid doing so. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but it’s just not my style. But an effort to be polite, I bowed and kissed Baby Jesus. It was agonizing.

Not all Christmases are festive and joyous or even as picturesque as something Noman Rockwell could’ve dreamed up. Some are spent in lonely bars. Some are spent with odd lots of relatives and a police presence. Others are spent looking for Chinese restaurants. And some are simply awful.

There was Christmas Day in Iowa City, dining at Denny’s. The bar exam review course would start the next day, and for the next ten days I would be the sole occupant of the FIJI house with Mother Guy’s blessing. For at least a couple of decades, she was housemother to the fraternity of every important male at the University of Iowa.

More than a few Christmas spent aloft on a plane, fleeing flyover country.

Christmas Eve at the Villa Montana, more than any place else during my adult life.

Christmas Day volunteering as a Candy Striper.

A Christmas Day drive to the countryside beyond San Miguel del Monte and ending up at Paseo Altozano.

Christmas in Buenos Aires, heralded by fireworks and a complete and total absence of traffic, not a taxi cab in sight.

Christmas Eve in Florence, successfully scoring a simple black doll over my mother’s entreaties to opt for something fancier.

The awful ones have their place, if for no reason other than to be memorialized in blogs like this. And here’s mine, which is far more dreadful than the Czar of Tzurumutaro could ever contemplate.

A few days before Christmas, more than a decade back, I found myself an unwilling guest at a neighbor’s Christmas Eve dinner. I’d armed myself ahead of time with a tale of other plans, but the sly old lady, whose own kids had the foresight to leave town, was a step ahead of me, telling me that the rest of my family, which amounted only to a sister and her husband, had already accepted. I did not know at the time that she’d already pulled that trick on them. We were trapped.

Christmas Eve started off with mass at 9 p.m., seemingly quicker and more cheerful than usual, with the padre starting off with a hearty “Buenas Noches” and ending with aguinaldos of cookies and candies for everyone.

We came armed with a Costco pecan pie and Ensalada Navideña, and it was a good thing we did. The culinary offerings awaiting us amounted to macaroni with ham and pineapple and a single pollo rostizado. And this was not a poor family.

The holiday feast over, we were invited to admire the nativity scene which extended along the entire side of the room and around the corner, replete with giraffes and elephants and zebras. Maybe even dinosaurs and a statue of Benito Juarez. As the clock struck midnight, and with great ceremony, the hostess presented the infant Jesus surrounded by candy, not for a bris, given that eight days had yet to pass after his birth, but for adoration and besos. He travels around the table from one guest to another, which didn’t take long, given that there was a total of six humans at the table. I am last, my sib and sib-in-law rolling their eyes and laughing under their breath, but I have not a clue of what awaits. And then he’s handed over to me. Never mind that I had not the first clue what to do with him. “You’re the madrina, and you’re supposed to place him in the nacimiento,” I was instructed. Oh.

Not only am I supposed to kiss Baby Jesus, I’ve been tapped to lovingly place him in the cradle.

Now, I know it’s a tradition, but it struck me then, and it still does today, as just downright creepy. Not the idea of blessing their Christ child, but asking me to do the honors. What were these people thinking?

Meanwhile, gunfire pierced the night air, and we casually tried to identify the kind of weapon used. Mostly .22s, we figured. I would’ve gladly placed myself directly in the line of fire if it would’ve meant avoiding that episode of kissing baby Jesus. Walking home, some of the other neighbors were sitting outside warming themselves in the fogatas in the street, inviting us to join them for a tequilito. I could’ve used several before what will always be remembered as the saddest, most horrific Christmas Eve in my life.

Lesson learned: even if you have zero plans, make up some. And engrave them in stone.