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Christmas I remember best: I discovered Christmas in Argentina

People walk towards a Christmas tree at Plaza de Mayo, back dropped by the government house, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
People walk towards a Christmas tree at Plaza de Mayo, back dropped by the government house, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Natacha Pisarenko, Associated Press

The Christmas of 1983 is one I will never forget. As a young 19-year-old, I found myself halfway around the world in Victoria, Argentina. Argentina had just lost a bitter war to Great Britain over the Falkland Islands or Las Malvinas, as they were called in Argentina. The economy was experiencing inflation of more than 2,000 percent. Money earned that day had to be spent that day or changed to dollars on the black market, or the next day it would be worth half as much.

Everywhere I looked, I saw extreme poverty. Panhandling was a way of life for just about everyone in this small town, which boasted very few people of means and its fair share of poverty. Small children wandered the streets asking for bread or money, fearful to return home without anything for fear of a father’s wrath.

My companion and I went to visit a very poor family who lived in the “Villa,” the poorest part of town, late on Christmas Eve. Cardboard boxes rudely taped together formed the walls, while dirt adorned the floors of the makeshift home. We sat down on the only two small wooden crates in the house while the rest of the family sat on the dirt floor.

The oldest daughter, about 9 years old, opened a small cooler and removed two pieces of bread. We began to refuse, but the father said it would honor him if we would share their evening meal. We knew that they didn’t have any other food in the house. I humbly ate the piece of bread, constantly wiping the tears streaming down my face, knowing that I would offend the entire family if I didn’t eat.

When we left the home later that evening, we had been fed both physically and spiritually by this humble family, who despite their extreme poverty, expressed a belief in God and told us that they knew he loved them. I was struggling with my emotions as we walked toward our warm comfortable flat.

Somewhere along our pathway home, we decided to do something about what we had seen. Our combined monthly draw against our savings accounts amounted to just over $90 each. We stopped at the corner store and purchased about $20 worth of food and a small refrigerator that cost us an additional $35. Every family in the Villa had somehow finagled electricity, and as a result every cardboard box had an antenna that protruded from the roof, giving the small cities an interesting look.

Christmas morning was met with a short heavy rainstorm followed by clear skies. We grabbed the items we had purchased the night before and carefully walked along the muddy path carrying our Christmas gifts. When we clapped our hands to let the family know we were there, the father came out of the house with a puzzled look on his face. When we explained to him that we had brought Christmas gifts, his eyes lit up with surprise. He welcomed us into his home and we once again sat down. We both felt that we had given this man and his family a great gift, one that they would never forget. However, once again the good Lord taught us something we could only learn in such humble circumstances as the ones we found ourselves in.

As I looked around at the children who anticipated the father handing them some of the gifts, I saw a gleam enter the father’s eyes. This time he really surprised us when he instructed his wife to separate the food and to only keep enough for the Christmas meal. He then asked to be excused as he gathered the excess food and walked outside into the warm Christmas air with the leftover bags of groceries and went out and called to his neighbors.

We followed to see what he was going to do. One by one, he gave each of his nearest neighbors in his Villa something from the bags and wished them a Merry Christmas. I can’t express my feelings adequately enough except to say that on that Christmas day, I saw a humble man who could’ve been bitter against God because of his circumstances in life, share the gift he had been given, even though he didn’t know where the next meal for his family would come from. I saw the light of hope kindled by a loving God through this man’s actions. I learned that the lessons the Savior taught us can be relearned over and over again, can be in essence rediscovered at critical times on our lives and remind us all of the true nature and spirit of Christmas.