I suppose our first mistake was driving the Lexus and the 4-Runner as the Christmas sleighs of choice to deliver all of the presents to the needy. More about that later.
We grew up poor, but every Christmas, I remember my Mom taking my brother and I to the mall to buy presents for the kids who lived at the orphanage. Going to the mall at Christmas and seeing the giant teddy bear that talked to us and all the Christmas decorations was half the fun. We would take the gifts home and wrap them and then deliver them to kids who rushed to greet us with excited faces and large, sparkling eyes. They lived in dimly-lit, dorm-room style houses that always looked in disrepair. But they were so excited every year when they saw us coming through the door. Whenever I would look at them, I could not imagine having to spend Christmas without a Mommy or a Daddy. I wondered about how each child had come to live there and my heart sank when I imagined the possibilities. No matter how poor we were, there was always somebody worse off. I decided long ago that I would teach my children the same tradition of giving to those who are less fortunate.
This year, my wife and I volunteered to take a crew of seven junior high kids, a big pile of presents and food and a Christmas tree to a needy family in Webberville, just East of Austin. We left straight from church, so we were in our Sunday finest. That was our second mistake. We packed the tree and the food into the 4- Runner and the presents in the trunk of the Lexus and we were off. We sang Christmas carols all the way to Webberville until the roads turned to dirt. Then the roads turned to mud. Sure enough, the road the Ceballos family lived on had deep muddy ruts in it that looked like several big trucks had fought to get through and lost. But, I was undaunted. We had presents to deliver.
I stopped short of the mud pit and got out to survey the terrain. It looked like if we stayed to the left of the mud-pit, the ruts were not as deep and we might be able to get through. I put it in gear and vowed to keep moving no matter what. Into the pit I rolled and my tires started spinning. “Got to keep moving,” I said to myself. I turned the wheel from side to side and kept the gas peddle down and “walked” the car to all the way to where there was an almost dry, grassy clearing on the left where I pulled off. I got out and looked back to check on Rose. Her 4-Runner was not actually a four-wheel drive. Sure enough, she was stuck in the pit and she was doing the worst possible thing. Gunning the engine and digging herself deeper. These Wisconsin girls can sure drive in snow, but not in good old-fashioned Texas mud. I waived her off and all the kids piled out of her 4-Runner and into the mud in their church clothes. Little Mexican kids stood on the side of the road just staring at us as though we were crazy. Why would anyone knowingly drive into a mud pit?
I left Rose and the kids with the vehicles and walked down the muddy road to see if I could find the Ceballos house. Only half of the cinder-block houses and mobile homes had addresses on them. No one seemed to know who Maria Ceballos was or where she lived. But I discovered that a little further down from where our cars were, the road was drier. There were no mud pits and there were cars coming from the other direction. I walked back to where Rose and the kids were. They were all happily marching in my direction carrying the tree and bags of presents with them. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Isn’t this where they live?” Rose asked. “I thought that’s why you pulled off the road.” “No, I was pulling off because the road was getting too bad. I don’t know for sure where they live.”
The kids dropped the Christmas tree in the mud on the way back to the car. So, now we had a slightly muddy Christmas tree to deliver. I was trying not to get frustrated. It was Christmas, and we were there for a good cause. I managed to get Rose’s 4-Runner unstuck and over to a semi-dry spot. “We’re gonna have to go around to the other side,” I said. The mud is not as bad if you come in from the other direction.” But that meant we had to turn the cars around and drive back through the same mud-pit we had just driven through. By now, I felt like a pro. I laid the hammer down and sent mud flying everywhere and made it through with no problem. Rose, unfortunately, got stuck again. A couple of young guys saw her desperately trying to get out and gave her a push from behind with their hands. She baptized one of them in mud as she finally spun out of a hole and made it to the other side. “Sorry,” she shouted from the window. “No hay problema,” came the response. I’m sure the last thing they wanted was a couple of yuppies with a pack of teenagers stuck right out in front of their house for the rest of the afternoon.
We went around and we found the right house — thanks to the help of some young men who were out in their front yard playing with roosters on leashes. I asked them in Spanish if these were cock-fightin’ roosters and they proudly responded “yes” and told me the names of each rooster. They sounded like Spanish versions of the Top-Gun fighter pilots’ nick-names. They showed me a few battle scars that one of the roosters had suffered as though they were medals of honor.
I told one of the men out front that we were bringing “regalos de Navidad” and he shouted my message to the open windows of the Ceballos house. Almost immediately six little Ceballos kids came spilling out of the house with wide-expectant eyes. “Donde esta Maria Ceballos?” I asked, and the kids all pointed to the open door of the cinder block house. I could see Maria peeking at us shyly from behind the door. “Okay, guys, everybody unload the gifts and follow me,” I said. Seven junior high kids, Rose and I descended upon the little home and set up the tree on the cold, concrete floor of the living room. Then came all the presents and the food. The Ceballos kids immediately began fondling the presents and looking for their names on each gift. Little Tiffany Wilson was carrying a stuffed kitty with no name on it, but she knew who it went to. “Quien es Daisy?” she asked Maria and a little girl raised her hand. Tiffany walked over and handed it to her and she snuggled it closely to her chest and smiled. It was a beautiful sight. We sang the only Spanish Christmas carol that we all knew — “Feliz Navidad,” and said a prayer of blessing upon the Ceballos’ home.
As we walked out of the house, the men outside had decided to have some fun with us. They released the cocks and immediately they started fighting. Our kids just stood there staring in confusion with their mouths open. “Why are they fighting?” a little girl asked. “It’s their instinct,” I said. “When you get two male roosters together, they will always fight. This is one of the biggest sports in Mexico.” Except in Mexico, they put razor blades on their feet and let them fight to the death. Everybody places bets on the rooster they want to win. The rooster left standing wins. Just about that time, one of the men asked me if I wanted to bet $5.00. That was our cue to leave. “Gracias. Feliz Navidad,” I said, and we piled seven muddy teenagers into our muddy cars and left.
As I thought about it, I realized that the Ceballos family could have very easily been my family five generations ago, when my ancestors first came to Texas from Northern Mexico. Those guys out front with the roosters could have easily been my uncles. I imagined that I had gone back in time to give my family a Christmas tree and a pile of presents and food and I wondered how I would have felt as a little kid seeing piles of presents being brought into our house – totally unexpected. My heart swelled with excitement.
And then I wondered – what if we really could go back in time and give our own ancestors a gift. What would you give your ancestors, knowing that it could one day benefit you? My imagination ran wild. Would I give them the gift of education? A million dollars to invest over the next five generations? Stock in Coca Cola? Political connections like the Bush’s or the Kennedy’s? Faith in God?
And then I realized that God had already gone back into my past – way back. All the way back two thousand years ago. God had given me the greatest gift of all – the birth of his son Jesus Christ. And I smiled.