The experience of the Nativity that we celebrate every year naturally rouses feelings of joy and thanksgiving. The importance of the Advent season is that it tells us how to be receivers, and receiving is a humbling act that requires a recognition of some form of poverty within us.

A most welcome December, and a most welcome Advent season. We often joke on an annual basis around this time, saying “where has the year gone?” It is reasonable to expect, however, that this year we may be slightly more relieved to realize that 2020 is nearly complete. In preparation for Christmas Eve, I’ve been reading a little compilation of Christmas and Advent reflections titled Watch for the Light. In it, I came across a poem by Saint Óscar Romero, titled “The God We Hardly Knew.”

No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God—for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God.
Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.

The message is clear enough on its own, but it brings to mind two other famous poems by Latin American artists, both of which are appropriate to introduce in this essay and during this time of year for their messages about gratitude and hope. The first is a children’s story, originally recited with a rhyme scheme, titled “The Poor Old Lady,” by the Colombian poet and fabulist, Rafael Pombo. Pombo is known and loved throughout Colombia and Latin America as a children’s author similar to Tomie dePaola for his fun, lyrical stories and animated books. Both authors, moreover, belong to an older generation where children were brought up with fun, mythical stories that imparted positive but importantly realistic messages about life. I grew up reading and memorizing Pombo’s stories (they also teach excellent Spanish diction because Pombo intentionally inserts tongue-twisters in his stories to encourage proper pronunciation) and have the hunch that English readers, especially here at The Imaginative Conservative, will enjoy reading his poem for the message it imparts. Fables, as we must surely know by now, are equally as salutary for adults as for children. Tolkien said as much as well! And there is never any harm done by allowing ourselves to become children again and read something whimsical. The poem-story is quite long, but I hope readers will indulge my full translation (rhyming lamentably omitted), for the poem is really quite amusing:

There was one an old lady
Who had nothing to eat,
Only meats, fruits, sweets,
Cakes, eggs, bread, and fish
She drank broth, hot chocolate,
Milk, wine, tea and coffee,
Yet the poor one could not find
What to eat or what to drink

And this old lady did not have
Even a little ranch in which to live
Save a large house
With its vegetable plot and garden

No one, no one cared for her
Except Andrés and Juan and Gil
And eight servants and two pages
Dressed in livery and bow-tie

She never had something to sit on
Except chairs and sofas
With foot stools and pillows
And support for her back

Neither another bed, except a big one
More gold than an altar,
With a mattress of soft feathers,
Plenty of silk and plenty of frills.

And this poor old lady
Every year until her end
Had another year of age
And one less to live

And upon seeing herself in the mirror
She was always frightened there
By an old lady with glasses,
a hat and a wig

And this poor old lady
Didn’t have anything to wear
Except dresses of a thousand cuts
And thousands and thousands of fabrics

And were it not for her shoes,
Sandals, boots, and pumps
Barefooted on the floor
Would walk the unhappy one

She never had an appetite
Upon finishing her meals,
Nor enjoyed her total health
When she wasn’t feeling well

She died from the ills of wrinkles,
Now stooped over like a tree,
And never again complained
Of neither hunger nor thirst.

And this poor old lady
Upon dying left nothing more
Than money, jewels, lands, houses,
Eight cats and a troupial bird.

Sleep in peace, and God permit
That we may one day enjoy
The hardships of that poor one
And to die of the same cause.

Pombo’s stories possess a similar tone to those of the Grimm Brothers, since the ending leaves us feeling uneasy. Still, the message is essential, and one can’t help but wonder if Saint Romero had this little story in mind when he was writing his own poem (he would have likely read Pombo’s story in his youth). The message of both Romero’s words and Pombo’s story goes beyond criticizing material wealth. Poverty is a necessary state of mind and spirit in which we recognize that we are not complete, regardless of what we have. Sure, the “poor” old lady should have been grateful for what she had, but the deeper message of being grateful—and the greater spiritual impact that gratitude has—is tied to a recognition of poverty, which we can (and should) always find in our lives.

The American Methodist theologian, William Willimon, reflecting on Saint Romero’s poem, wrote that while it may be more blessed to give than to receive, it is more difficult to receive for the burden of reciprocation that it bears:

I suggest we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story—the one according to Luke not Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.

The importance of the Advent season, particularly of the Nativity, Mr. Willimon expresses, is that it tells us how to be receivers. “We are receivers before we are givers,” and this is a difficult concept to understand because giving is an act of power. He explains our mental reasoning thus: “I want power—to stand on my own, take charge, set things to rights, perhaps to help those who have nothing.” Mr. Willimon’s statement is certainly not meant to indicate that giving is bad, only that receiving is a humbling act that requires a recognition of some form of poverty within us. This is the message that Saint Romero imparts, and the one that Pombo’s Poor Old Lady never understands. The ending of “The Poor Old Lady” is facetious: It would be nice to have everything that she has, but it certainly would not be nice to be like her. To die of her same cause is at once enviable since she had everything, but at the same time lamentable because she never saw it in that way. So what is a child, or an adult, to gather from this story? For one, humility. Mr. Willimon similarly concludes his reflection on Romero’s poem with the following thought: The Biblical Christmas message “calls us to see ourselves as we are,” empty-handed. Poor and ready to receive.

Then comes a time for gratitude. The experience of the Nativity that we (may or may not) celebrate every year, and the reveling in its miracle and gift, naturally rouse feelings of joy and thanksgiving. Here, I am reminded of another famous Latin American poem by the Chilean composer, Violeta Parra, titled in English “Thanks to Life.” The song is esteemed by many to be one of the most beautifully composed Spanish-language songs and has been translated into several languages. Again, the verses are equally evocative when translated into English, even if the rhyme scheme gets lost, and it provides a pleasant backdrop for musing about the year that has passed:

Thanks to life, which has given me so much;
It gave me two stars, and, when I open them,
I perfectly distinguish what’s black from what’s white
And in the high sky its starry depths
And in the crowds the man I love.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much;
It gave me an ear that, in all of its range,
Records night and day, crickets and canaries,
Hammers, turbines, dog barks, rain showers,
And the tender voice of my beloved.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much;
It gave me sound and the alphabet:
With it the words that I think and declare:
“Mother,” “friend,” “brother” and “light” illuminate
The route of the soul of the one I am loving.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much;
It gave me the march of my tired feet;
With them I walked cities and puddles,
Beaches and deserts, mountains and plains,
And your house, your street, and your garden.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much;
It gave me a heart that shakes its frame,
When I see the fruit of the human mind,
When I see good so far from evil,
When I see the depth of your light eyes.

Thanks to life, which has given me so much;
It gave me laughter and it gave me tears;
That way I distinguish joy from pain:
Those two materials that form my song,
And the song of you all, which is the same song,
And everyone’s song, which is my own song.

Thanks to life.

Parra’s poem closes in a way that is appropriate for thinking both about the Advent season and, more broadly, the years of our lives up to now. Along with Pombo’s “The Poor Old Lady” and Saint Romero’s “The God We Hardly Knew,” we now have a message of poverty and humility that turns into gratefulness.

The three poems introduced in this essay diverge from my usual writing for The Imaginative Conservative, which pulls heavily from English literature and European philosophy. Still, the idea of featuring something foreign and unfamiliar seems perfect for this time of year, not least because it reinforces the universality of the Christmas spirit and the people, from all walks of life, to which it speaks. Certainly, we have all been Pombo’s Poor Old Lady at some point in our lives, perhaps more periodically than we’d like to admit. While Pombo’s character is not originally a Christmas character, I suspect also that some readers might have been reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge when reading the poem. Indeed, when reading Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the first time, I was reminded of the Poor Old Lady whose life I grew up reciting without putting much thought into her story. The similarity is uncanny. Of course, this is what literature teaches us: Connection is everywhere. To close this essay, then, I will translate the two opening stanzas of another poem by Pombo—this one no longer a children’s story—titled “December Night,” written in Bogotá in 1874:

A Night like this, and contemplated alone
My heart cannot suffer it:
It gives a pain of irresistible beauty
And such a deep fear of God.

Come to share with me what I feel,
This that, overwhelming, overflows in me;
Come to make finite for me what is infinite
And embody the angelic feast.

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The featured image is “Queen Victoria’s Christmas Tree” (between 1850 and 1851) by William Corden (1819–1900) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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