The sleepy hamlet of San Francisco lies along the western coast of Mexico, on a small peninsula that pokes into the Pacific like a little thumb. To the north of the hamlet lies the dense rain forests of the Sierra Madre. To the south are lagoons where macaw, great blue heron, and many other colorful birds gather and take roost. Between these two points, a pearl-white beach stretches languidly in the hot summer sun.
Young Pepita lives inland from this beach in a grass hut with her parents and two younger siblings. Her father is a poor Cora farmer who works the verdant Sierra Madre valleys, tending maize, beans, tobacco, fruit trees, and sugar cane. But what he is really known for is his ability to stand silently under the dense canopy of jungle, squinting upward… waiting… waiting so patiently…and then there! He points unerringly to the wiki or the kwatcha, making their calls as easily as if he, too, were a bird.
Pepita’s mother descends from the great Huichol tribes, famous for their extravagantly colorful beaded yarn tapestries. Today, she is not feeling well enough to pick up her threads. In fact, Pepita’s father, too, is wearing the shade of an underripe banana as he wipes the sweat from his brow, frowns, and shakes his head.
No good. The lime trees will have to be pruned tomorrow. He lays back down with a chill, leaving Pepita to manage the household.
Pepita does her best to care for the littles, to cook and clean and check on the burro in the field. As she runs her errands, one child strapped to her little chest and another in the dusty wooden wagon behind her, she sees how the other, wealthier families begin to decorate the church for Christmas. She hears the excited whispers about the special gifts they are making for the baby Jesus in his manger, and about the wonderful preparations being made for the Christmas Eve processional through town.
Oh, the singing and the lit candles! The people’s faces bursting with joy and good will as they make their way through the streets of the village to the church, where Padre Gonzales carefully places the figure of baby Jesus in the manger.
The very best part: the wonder of stepping directly into the nativity scene and becoming part of it – lifted on song and firelight, adoration and devotion – to place that very special gift for the baby.
Pepita rushes home to prepare something herself. But what?
She tries to take up her mother’s threads to weave a blanket for baby Jesus. There is so much color! So much potential beauty and grace! But her fingers are too small, and they tangle clumsily in the threads. By now, the littlest is squalling for a soaked torilla, and the toddler has capsized the basket of beans over the floor.
The next day another idea comes when Pepita finds a scrap of hide her father had stored. Carefully, she slices small bits away and tries to sew some little leather boots for the baby Jesus. But alas, her needle is too thin and cannot pierce the dense leather.
Try as she might, Pepita can think of nothing to offer. Sadly, she realizes there will be no processional for her. No wonderful nativity. And worst of all – no gift to give the baby Jesus.
All too soon, Christmas Eve arrives. The sun fades behind the ocean, and Pepita hears laughter and the excited voices of the village children.
She tries to ignore the happy anticipation outside her windows as she lays a cool cloth on Mama’s forehead, then rubs Papa’s feet.
What child is this, who, laid to rest…
The soft strum of a guitar. Small, hand-held bells. Voices raised in song.
Pepita lays the toddler down, telling her, again, the story of last Christmas and how magical it was – and how magical it will be again next year.
This, this is Christ, the King…
Pepita burps and shushes the baby against her shoulder, then lays her down in the rough hewn cradle Papa made last year.
Tiny flickers of light cascade across the walls of the dark room where she sits, rocking the cradle. The singing is so joyful, so full of celebration and devotion! With a glance back at her sleeping family, Pepita slips away into the night and hides in the weedy bushes along the pathway to the church. The leaves are large and soft against her cheek as she nestles back away from the path. At least she can watch quietly from the embrace of the foliage, and maybe even sing along as the people trail by.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh…
The people pass with their candles, their songs, their gifts. Pepita discovers she cannot sing – not tonight, for her throat is dusty and dry with sorrow.
She steps out onto the now empty path, and watches the villagers file into the church. When she turns toward home, there is a quiet movement in the shadows at the side of the path that startle.
“Hola, Pepita,” says the man quietly, in a calm voice that settles her pulse.
“Hola, Senior.” Pepita cannot see him very well, for there is no moon tonight. But she does not recognize him.
“I have a message for you.”
Cautiously, Pepita frowns and tilts her head.
“Your mother and father are going to get well soon.”
“Really?” She exhales a heavy burden of anxiety she didn’t realize was weighing on her.
“Si. All will be well with your family again. You see?” He points to the window of her house, dark when Pepita left, but now flickering with candle light. “Your aunts have arrived to tend the babies, and watch over your parents. Why don’t you go to the church tonight to see the baby Jesus?”
“I… I tried to make a blanket, and then the threads! And I tried to make the booties, but the needle!” The words gush out of her in a tumble. “I have nothing to give, Senior, nothing to put in the manger for the baby Jesus. And my aunts are as poor as we are – they will have nothing for me to bring. I cannot go.”
“Pepita, whatever you bring to Jesus, he will accept it and take joy in it, for it comes from your heart.”
Pepita glances around desperately for something – anything – she might bring, and her gaze falls upon the lush green leaves of the weed bush by the path. They look almost black in the starlit night, and they are plentiful. Perhaps they will make a nice frame for the other gifts? Pepita turns back to the man, but he has disappeared without a trace of sound.
Slowly, with a heightened sense of her breath, her hands moving, her feet soft against the warm earth, Pepita gathers clusters of leaves from the weed bush. They nestle quietly into the crook of her arm as she carries them to the church.
Inside, it is bright – so bright! – with candle flame and incense and the surprised glances of the people as she moves forward with her bundle.
Gradually, the music stops, and the murmuring begins…
What has she got there? Weeds?
What is she doing!
Pepita has brought weeds to the baby Jesus!
The rustling voices carry anger and judgment, and are accompanied by piercing gazes. But when Pepita sees the manger, her breath slows and she hears only a broad and comforting silence as she kneels down and places the leaves carefully around the manger to decorate it. Her hands move gently in the wash of light until she is done – and then she closes her eyes.
In the fullness of the Silence, a wide and rushing river springs forth and begins to pour through her…
Gratitude, fresh and vibrant, for her family!
Gratitude, large and embracing, for the man on the path!
Gratitude, full and deep, for dark green leaves in the night!
Gratitude, sweet and true, for her life!
And most of all, Gratitude, pure and ever-blooming, for the wonder of Jesus and the promise of Christ.
A startled cry rises from the people, and Pepita’s eyes pop open.
The weeds! Each cluster of green leaves is now topped with a crown of brilliant, ruby-red stars!
Outside, in the morning, Pepita’s parents sit happily in relieved recovery, shaking their heads in quiet amazement at the beautiful spectacle before them, for the entire village has burst at the seams overnight – and is now surrounded and infused with the same brilliant, ruby-red flowers covering and crowning Pepita’s weed bushes.
These are, of course, Poinsettias. They are Fire Flower, La Flor de Navidad, Christmas Flower, La Flor de la Noche Buena…
The Flower of the Holy Night.
May the joy, beauty, and Ever-Present Light of God illuminate your heart and spirit, this holiday season, and always!