It is sunrise on Friday, just a week before Christmas. The morning smells fresh and the sun shines strongly. A light breeze fills the air with that cool Christmas feeling. For a foreigner, it would almost feel like spring, but for Salvadorans, it feels like Christmas.
Christmas Traditions in El Salvador
To celebrate Christmas in El Salvador means to mix a variety of traditional Christian beliefs and adopted Western customs.
A Salvadoran Christmas still carries a strong meaning that brings families together. Despite the Christmas trees, the fireworks and the red, green and white flooding the environment, Salvadoran people try honor the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Jesus.
Santa Claus is known for appearing in TV and print ads, but people ask children if they already wrote a letter to little baby Jesus instead.
Christmas at Church
In Soyapango, a municipality of San Salvador, it is time to celebrate Christmas at the Lighthouse Child Development Center, a center for impoverished children run by the Central American Mission Church.
Soyapango is north of the San Salvador metropolitan area. It is an industrial zone, with factories for brand-name beverages and a local shoe brand. Soyapango is also home to thousands of lower middle class to lower class families. According to the last census, it is the third most populated place in El Salvador, representing 4 percent of the population (nearly 250,000 people). Soyapango is also a stronghold of the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13 gang.
Yet, all that smoke from the factories and trucks, and the danger and crime, seem to fade away because it is Christmas time.
Most families celebrate on Christmas Eve, but for the children at Lighthouse, that Friday, December 17, becomes Christmas. The special event has been planned for months, and arranged for days, with love and enthusiasm from the center staff. All week they have been working on the final arrangements — the food, the decorations, the packaging of the presents.
Every Compassion center in El Salvador presents a yearly schedule of the events they will hold, to plan and budget accordingly. The Christmas celebration is one of the biggest. It does not only mean lunch and piñatas for the children, but it also reminds them that there are people who care for them, at the center and also far away.
Their sponsors think about the children, and it is because of them that this celebration is possible and that the children receive a present for Christmas. Raul and his team recognize that effort made by the sponsors to bless the lives of the children, and they put their best efforts toward that celebration.
When asked about the average situation of the children in the community, Raul answers,
“They come from three communities: San Luis, October 10th, and March 16th. These are places with scarcity, dust floors, aluminum walls. Some people must survive on $1 a day. Our children do not want to go on vacation because they know that they will lack the meal they receive at the center, and also the love and hugs.”
Knowing this reality changes the perspective, and for Raul and the team it is not a celebration on the calendar — it is the opportunity for a blessing.
For Brother Raul and his staff, to host the Christmas event means an opportunity to put a smile on the face of each child and teenager at the center. They hold the celebration for the teenagers two days earlier, on Wednesday.
“With the older ones we make a special dinner. They all dress up. We start at the temple and then each of the tutors accompanies their students one by one to the place we prepare with the tables.”
Today, Friday, is reserved for the little ones. There are flowers at the center of the tables, all decorated with white tablecloths. But the nice lunch is just the frosting. They have prepared a special Christmas program for the children.
“In other years we just had a piñata. This year we had a clown who performed a small play to teach the children that their heart must be just for God. We wanted to do something that will have an impact.
“Nobody gives attention to these children. They might live in the capital city, but they have no attention, no love. What our center gives is love, understanding, and attention. We want them to know that somebody thought about them.”
The program starts with songs and games in a “Father Abraham” fashion. The clown presents the play. Then it is piñata time, followed by lunch. While the children enjoy fried chicken with fries and salad, all of them homemade, the staff starts to prepare for the moment that all of them wait for: the Christmas presents.
Christmas Presents for Impoverished Children
Raul says that in past years, most of the children chose shoes over the gift options they are given, including toys and clothes, because it serves them to go to school. For many children, the shoes that they received for Christmas was the only pair they received for the year.
This year, since the new government said they will provide shoes and uniforms to all the children in the public school system, the best long-term need the center can fulfill is the school bag, something that even the parents have agreed to. The children will remember every time they see that school bag that there is a sponsor who cares for them.
“Our parents understand that there is someone on the other side of the world making an effort to help their children because they love them. It has a big impact to know that someone cares.”
“Thanks for providing for one more Salvadoran — one that will become a doctor, a lawyer …. Thanks for being a Good Samaritan, for giving us a hand and caring for our children. For a smile that you put on their faces, or a tear that you wipe off their cheeks, God will bless you.”
Thank you for taking a peek into Christmas in El Salvador. Make it a merry Christmas and give a gift to a child living in poverty!
Originally published November 5, 2010. Additional photos by Alejandra Zuniga.