“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
— Matthew 2:11-12
Christmas is the season of taking. After all the Black Friday deals, the Cyber Monday deals, the treks to this mall and the better one, the maxing out of every last credit card in your purse, Jose Feliciano on the radio 20 times a day, and (for you “poor unfortunate souls” still stuck back in Chicago) the long commutes in slush, who could be blamed for forgetting it’s not what you get during Christmastime that matters but what you give?
Most people, adult or child, Christian or heathen, instinctively know it’s good to give. According to its more pious observers, however, the spirit of giving embodied by Christmas originates in the Epiphany, the visit by three gift-bearing magi following the birth of Jesus. Parents tell their kids the unlikely story in hopes that they’ll learn a thing or three about generosity. If that doesn’t work, then there’s an old white guy who lives at the North Pole and watches you at all times, ready to cross your name off his list of well-behaved gift recipients. If that doesn’t do the trick, then there’s another, even older white man who lives in the sky and is watching at all times too and even knows what you’re thinking and what’s in your heart. And if that doesn’t do it, there’s always everlasting torture in Hell. “So be good, for goodness’ sake!”
For most wypipo, Christmas ends when the clock strikes midnight on December 26. But for many Latinos, ever reluctant to stop the party, Christmastime officially wraps on January 6, el Día de los Reyes. (Those who have to go to misa the following Sunday make up another set of unluckies, yet others don’t quit the merrymaking till the Fiesta de la Luz on February 2.) Mom was either bourgie or broke, so we only celebrated Three Kings Day once in our family, though I was aware of it every year through Mexican classmates and friends. As with Día de los Muertos and Halloween, I always thought of Día de los Reyes as a somewhat purer version of its overly commercialized cousin. I won’t pretend that the observance of Three Kings being more allá than acá had nothing to do with my belief; nearly all customs from the Old Country, because they’re less tainted by the profit motive, carry the same patina.
While Mickey and the Mrs. are beginning to cash in on Baby Jesus and the kings, nowadays I don’t think much of Día de los Reyes. After all, since it now appears doubtful Jesus ever existed at all, much less as God in the flesh, we can be almost certain a newborn wasn’t visited in a Palestinian manger by three strangers carrying precious metals, a bit of oil and some resin. A sad fact of human nature, or at least human society, is that many of us require such celestial fairy tales to be convinced that being good is good. For believers, being good isn’t good enough unless it’s backed by a heavenly sanction or, better yet, a commandment. Then there are others, admittedly a few, for whom no amount of kings could convince one way or another. They rely strictly on the little they know, the little they’ve seen, and their consciences. As one of this growing godless minority, January 6 holds a special place for me not because of the magi’s meeting with the baby god, but for a confluence of another, though not entirely unrelated kind.
January 6 happens to be the birthday of Carl Sandburg, who was born in a little house on the Illinois prairie in 1878, long after Balthazar is said to have hauled his myrrh to Bethlehem. After a stint in the 6th Illinois Infantry, having landed at Guánica under the command of General Miles during the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in July 1898, Sandburg joined the Socialist Party of America and, from 1910 to 1912, worked as a secretary for Milwaukee’s Emil Seidel, the first socialist mayor of any major U.S. city. It was in and around Chicago, however, his home during much of the 1910s and ’20s, where Sandburg came into his own as one of the country’s most iconic poets.
Most of Sandburg’s verses are so understated yet so powerful that the words stick to the psyche like Sticky Tack. Take, for example, his poem on child labor in early 20th-century Chicago:
Of my city the worst that men will ever say is this:
You took little children away from the sun and the dew,
And the glimmers that played in the grass under the great sky,
And the reckless rain; you put them between walls
To work, broken and smothered, for bread and wages,
To eat dust in their throats and die empty-hearted
For a little handful of pay on a few Saturday nights.
Though written a century ago, no where have I found a starker contrast between the haves and the have-nots, between makers and takers, than in Sandburg’s depiction of an immigrant worker eating his simple lunch as a train flashes past filled with the oblivious well-to-do:
The dago shovelman sits by the railroad track
Eating a noon meal of bread and bologna.
A train whirls by, and men and women at tables
Alive with red roses and yellow jonquils,
Eat steaks running with brown gravy,
Strawberries and cream, eclaires and coffee.
And then there’s the famous homage to my hometown, Chicago, in which he describes the former industrial capital as being:
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
History has a penchant for crazy coincidences. In 1941, on the very day of Sandburg’s birth (he was alive and 63), President Franklin Roosevelt delivered the annual State of the Union address, in which he reflects back on a decade of economic hardship, and gives an eye toward the outbreak of yet another war in Europe:
Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy.
The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
From there, Roosevelt lays out his vision for a “world founded upon four essential human freedoms”:
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
The mythical Jesus, Sandburg, FDR — these are the three kings which spring to my mind every sixth of January, followed by a fourth King a week or so later. The first gave me my earliest conceptions of kindness and generosity. Sandburg taught me to see the invisibles, those who are the real source of this country’s immense wealth. FDR showed me that a president could be a member of the wealthy elite and still push for a world founded on social and economic justice. The fourth King taught me all these things, and then some.
Featured image: Phil Roeder/Flickr