Alipio Páez, "Lelo," at his home in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico
Every year of his adult life until his death at the age of 95, my Cuban grandfather Alipio Páez set up a Nativity scene or nacimiento that could easily compete with the elaborate window displays put on by Macy's.
Not satisfied with presenting just the figurines of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the cast of usual characters, Alipio would turn the living room of his small house into the whole town of Bethlehem. This was not ''just'' the Bethlehem described in the Gospels, but a Caribbean-style Bethlehem -- with abundant palm trees, rivers, houses on the hills, tall blooming trees, all set up on papier-mâché mountains painted in shades of green and brown. My meticulous grandfather even had plastic pigs and cows to keep the miniature sheep and their shepherds company.
No matter what new addition he came up with, Alipio's Bethlehem always centered on the glorious crèche, the physical place where the deepest and most complicated elements of Christian theology became flesh. My earliest Christmas memories all center on that humble stable, where the mystery and wonder of the word ''Incarnation'' came to life for me. The virgin birth. The Son of God conceived in Mary's womb. A baby in Mary's arms, both true God and true man. Even as a child, I understood the unspoken truth that the colorful Christmas tree was meant to take a back seat to the stunning Bethlehem scene.
el nacimiento, the main event in Alipio's Bethlehem
By bringing his own world of pigs and palm trees to Bethlehem Alipio was not saying that the biblical details of the Christmas story were unimportant to him. It was entirely the opposite. By bringing to life the surroundings of the story beyond the historical pesebre, the humble crèche, my grandfather emphasized the central truth -- the actual point -- of the story! God so loved the world that He came to be one with each of us, right where we are.
Like Alipio's beautiful nacimiento, Christmas traditions for Hispanics are often a gentle incarnation of the sacred within the ordinary. Through traditions that inspire all the senses -- with songs and sights and delicious smells -- Hispanics bring to life and celebrate the familiar birth story of Jesusito, reminding us what's most important about the Christmas season.
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Alipio's full Bethlehem scene