Zuñiga reflects on why few Mexican-Americans are putting up nacimientos anymore. “They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to be bothered to learn what the story is all about. You still see a lot of it in Mexico. It’s how I’ve raised my children. I can say that none of my kids are on drugs, and I’m real proud of that.”
Located at the corner of Sicard and Irving in Logan Heights, St. Anne Catholic Church is the diocese of San Diego’s poorest and least-known parish. Father Robert Nikliborc, 72, has been St. Anne’s pastor for 31 years (he tried retirement for seven months and was brought back because he missed the work and the parishioners missed him). At a Saturday-morning Mass for children studying catechism, Father Nikliborc talks about the origins of the nacimiento during his homily. “People ask me, where does this come from? Where did it start? It started with St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. It’s been a Christmas tradition ever since. It’s our obligation to pass the good news on, just as St. Francis did.” After Communion, Maria, the church’s caretaker, kneels in front of the church’s official Nativity scene, hovering over a large statue of Jesus lying in a manger.
The children at Mass made their own nacimientos, a tradition Father Nikliborc says has always been part of parish life. The altar of St. Anne’s is surrounded by 33 miniature Nativity scenes, all handmade by children between the ages of 6 and 12. Some are as simple as drawings on poster board. Most are primitive models made from cardboard, covered with wrapping paper, magazine clippings, felt, grass, string, cotton, and other disposable items. Some of the figures are ceramic, but most are paper or soft clay. Prizes are given for the best nacimientos. First prize, a bicycle, went to Valentina Ramirez Huezo, aged 7. Atop her nacimiento is a letter written on a yellow piece of paper cut in the shape of a star: “Dear Baby Jesus, I am glad it is almost your birthday. Thank you very much for my house, food, and family. I’m very happy you were born so you can help us. I love baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, and St. Joseph. Merry Christmas to all.” The figures are clay. The stable floor is made of pressed wood, and the roof is covered with contact paper with a brick print. Two small branches from a fir tree stand alone as trees in front of the stable.
Valentina’s cousin, Denise Huezo, aged 9, has a nacimiento made from cardboard, covered with red gift wrap. “It took me about two days to make it. We don’t have one at home anymore. We had one from a long time ago, but it kept falling down and stuff, so we had to throw it away. We couldn’t fix it.” Behind the Holy Family is a blue-crayoned background with a Star of David made entirely of Popsicle sticks. Intertwined through the star is a red heart made from a pipe cleaner. The infant Jesus is a tiny ceramic figurine; a construction-paper Mary, held up by tape, kneels before Him. St. Joseph is conspicuously absent.
Another nacimiento has a poem taped to its roof that reads: “Christmas is the miracle of Christ’s birth. The Virgin conceiving, miraculous and amazing. A star shining, angels praising, shepherds kneeling, throngs adoring, joy increasing, spirits soaring.”
Edgar Ramirez, 10, holds his nacimiento and explains its construction. “The stable is made from twigs from a tree. The grass is made out of string. The figures are hand-painted. I got them from Mexico. The star over the stable is tinfoil.”
Father Nikliborc knows Ruth Zuñiga as a parishioner and has seen her nacimiento many times. He was not aware, however, of her Christmas play. “We put one on this year at the church. The children did it for midnight Mass. We have a girl who is the parish queen, and we darken the church and she brings the baby Jesus up with one light shining on her. We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Spanish and English, and that’s how we start our midnight Mass. I call it ‘midnight Mass New York time,’ because we do it at nine o’clock!
“But I think these little nacimientos are really something. It takes some time for them to do it. These more elaborate ones are probably done with the help of Mama and Papa. Even the drawings — when I first started here, they were mostly drawings. I think this is good for the kids to realize that it’s Jesus’ birthday.”
The secularization of Christmas bothers Father Nikliborc, and he is proud of the Mexican culture that resists it. “For years, even now, they don’t wait for Santa Claus — they wait for the Niño Jesús, the baby Jesus. It’s His birthday, and that’s how they’ve been brought up. Most Mexicans don’t receive gifts at Christmastime. They receive gifts on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. Most of them will be receiving gifts then. People outside of this parish adopt families within the parish and provide them with Christmas. I go around to a lot of homes to bless them, and there are a lot of nacimientos in the homes. When I was a kid in Chicago, we took the branches off the apple tree in the back yard and made our nacimiento — a big one — in the house, with three Christmas trees behind it with all-blue lights. Since there were nine of us in the family, there were nine sheep lined up. The black sheep got a stick for Christmas because he or she misbehaved!” He laughs. “We sang carols. We kept our nacimiento up until February 2, which is Candlemass Day. Only we called the nacimiento the ‘Christmas Crib.’ ”
On 38th Street, one block south of National Avenue, Enrique Elizalde’s modest home blends in with the rest of the houses. Like his neighbors, Elizalde, 48, has Christmas lights on his house, but unlike the others, he has a nacimiento in his yard. Part manufactured, part homemade, Elizalde’s nacimiento has statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a shelter of Christmas lights. A mechanical Santa Claus is perched near a saguaro cactus. A sleigh with reindeer is on the roof. A palm tree of Christmas lights sits in the middle of the yard, and an angel crowns the scene from the back fence. Though far less elaborate than Zuñiga’s, Elizalde’s nacimiento is no less inspired.