Christmas 1948 Recalled Sixty Years Later
Sixty years is a long time, a lifetime for many, too many. When I was in my teens I wasn’t sure that I’d be alive after the magical year 2000, let alone 2008 on the verge of 2009. Of course, I also wasn’t sure I wasn’t immortal. I’m still not sure but it seems marginally less likely.
In my early twenties I envisioned that 2008 would be very different than it’s turned out to be. I’d optimistically assumed that we would have reached our potential rather than squandered it in senseless wars and in the accumulation by very few of most of our world’s resources, to the detriment of everyone, even them. But here we are, at the end of the most devastating eight years of misgovernment in United States history, with the world in conflict and the economy in shambles, as though there’d been a deliberate attempt to merge the status of the world economically in late 1929 and geopolitically in 1934.
So, what do I recall of the world sixty years ago today?
Obviously, very little, I wasn’t two and a half years old yet, but I do think I remember that Christmas eve, my first Christmas memories. Reasonably enough they take place when I was a small child in Manizales.
It was Christmas Eve at the Hotel Roma, my grandmother’s Hotel Roma, a place etched in my soul. It was located in the very heart of Manizales, across the street from the National Palace (a Roman style government edifice that represented the central government in the region) and down the block from the great basilica cathedral, just south of the intersection between Carrera 23 and 22nd Street. Further to the south 22nd street continued down an extremely steep hill where, about a half a mile away, we then lived in one of two small adjacent houses my grandmother owned. The Hotel was a remodeled colonial style three story 19th century Manizales grand house with an open entryway on the first floor that ran all the way through the building to a large kitchen patio at the rear. It had no elevators and the kitchen was served by a huge coal and wood burning stove that may have been subsequently converted to oil of some kind. The third floor was especially beautiful to me because it was so light and airy, fluidly lit by the sun streaming in through sky lights, with the natural lighting filtered down to the second floor in many places through clear glass floor tiles. At the head of the stairs on the third floor I recall a very small but beautiful sitting area where, on occasion, my siblings and friends would gather. I especially remember one occasion after I discovered that, according to Catholic tradition, even lay people could administer sacraments, and I decided to very broadly interpret the concept: as I recall I re-baptized everyone present. I may even have offered them a nontraditional communion of French bread and Coca Cola.
One of the things that made the Hotel Roma famous at the time was the quality of its restaurant, impeccable service, a beautiful setting, formal but comfortable and the best food in the city. Even today my Manizales childhood friends feel a rumble of hunger titillating their stomachs when they remember our adventures there. But every Christmas Eve, the restaurant was converted into something even closer to the little bit of heaven we all recall. Through my grandmother’s generosity it became an instrument for the gentle Galilean, an echo of his pleas for us to love one another and to especially love small children.
As I recall (I may be wrong and it might have been the next year or even the one after that), in 1948 I was playing my first theatric role, a big one: I was “el Niño Dios” in front of a packed house of the city’s poor. If I’m right about the timing, I was about two (well, two years, five months and two days to be more precise). Perhaps somewhat less mature than I should have been for so imposing a role.
The hotel’s dining room had been set up as a poor child’s heaven. As I recall, everything was in shades of white; all the tables and chairs had been set in a giant rectangle with me in a chair in the middle amidst a gigantic pile of gifts: toys, clothing, toys, shoes, toys, candies, and a hugely elaborate manger in a corner. I don’t recall a Christmas tree though. My grandmother, mother, aunts and brand new baby sister sat nearby watching me. My father wasn’t there, or at least I don’t remember him there.
I remember the beautifully innocent grateful children, my contemporaries of the soul if not the body, as they approached me to receive their gifts. They and their threadbare clothing were scrubbed clean and their manners and manner were impeccable. It was the happiest day of their year
I was a spoiled young aristocrat then, not quite understanding why I was giving away those wonderful toys. So, … I kept one; I remember it well, a little silver cap pistol. That was a mistake. Perhaps a mistake that shaped my life and my self-perception. Perhaps a mistake I’ve spent a lifetime trying to correct.
It was my last gig as “el Niño Dios”. Reasonable enough. I’d proved unworthy of so delicate and meaningful a role. Proved to most people (if not perhaps to my grandmother) that I was not the second coming.
 © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Ocala, Florida, 2008; all rights reserved