Christmas Eve Moon Over Mendoza – Nochebuena and Giving Back to Those in Need
It is the day before Christmas and I am sitting in a rented apartment overlooking Independence Plaza in Mendoza, Argentina. I am alone on this Christmas Eve without my family for the first time in my life. When I booked my current journeys, I knew this would be the case. And while I miss my two sons and the rest of my family very much, I believed when I booked my trip months ago, that this time away would be good for me and my heart.
Looking out of the window, above the beautiful park on this 92°f sweltering summer Christmas Eve night called “Nochebuena” in Argentina, the light from the Moon over Mendoza seem to be different tonight.
VIEW THE VIDEO / IMAGES: This Post has a brief companion video from the Christmas Eve charity event. Because I was focused on giving back and not creating a video, there is only limited content. While it’s not the best quality, the brief video will give you a sense of this magical night, some of the wonderful people I met and some of the beautiful music the locals sang.
Click on the link at the end of this post view the Exploring With Bruce Youtube channel video.
The radiance of this bright solstice-time moon had a soothing quality, and as I took in its beauty, I felt a sense of peace. I was planning to settle in for the night and prepare a Christmas Eve dinner for one, but after a few minutes I began to have a restless feeling.
I felt like I was being drawn to leave and go somewhere…… but where?
Unlike other cities, Mendoza completely shuts down on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There really was no reason to leave my comfortable little place because nothing was open. I had considered going to the old historic Basilica in Downtown Mendoza to view a Christmas Eve service in this country. Unfortunately, I had heard the Basilica was closed that night as well.
FYI – My good friends know that it has been some time since I spent an important religious holiday participating with Organized Religion, but I thought it would be an interesting cultural experience.
Waffling a little back and forth, I kept looking back to the Moon. As I saw how it cast this beautiful glimmering light on the streets and trees outside, I had this unexplainable motivation to get up and leave the apartment right away.
A few minutes later I was strolling around downtown Mendoza. With the exception of a few people here and there walking to some nearby holiday gathering with food and a wine bottle in hand, all shops were closed, the streets were deserted and there were virtually no cars on the road.
Then, for some reason again, I had the idea of a church service. I had this strange feeling that this was exactly where I needed to be tonight. But again, where?
I happened to walk by the Basilica and the sign on its shuttered doors confirmed it was closed. “If this big place is dark, I guess all the other churches are too”, I thought. Wandering back in the direction of home, I kind of chuckled to myself. “I can’t believe I’m disappointed that I’m not going to church tonight,” I thought with a grin. I define myself as a “spiritual” guy, but I also know some others might label me a non-practicing heathen because I am a bit ignorant of how religious institutions work. Normally I’d be OK with that, but tonight my lack of knowledge on church protocol definitely wasn’t serving me well.
As I was walking home, I noticed a single individual slowly approaching me on the sidewalk from the opposite direction. As he came closer the person made eye contact with me and slowed down just a bit. Now I’m not staring at a map or looking around with that confused “I’m lost” look here. I know what that is like, and how sometimes polite locals passing by will approach you to see if you need help or directions. In this case, I’m just walking straight ahead back to my place because I figure there’s nowhere else to go. So that’s why I took noticed of this person slightly slowing down.
I’ve learned when you are traveling, you always need to be aware of your surroundings. Who is approaching you, who’s behind you, what’s the vibe here, etc. So as discretely as possible I size this person up, and I didn’t get any negative feelings about him at all. In fact, he looked like a really nice easy-going person. I think, “Well, …. if he is slowing down, maybe I’ll just ask one last person a question about where an open church can be found.” I know this sounds crazy, but as I turn to engage this man, he had already stopped and turned to my direction with a smile. It was as if when he was approaching me, he was already expecting me to ask him a question.
“Excuse me. Would you know if there is another Church near here? The Basilica is closed and I wanted to attend a service tonight.”
Strangely, he seemed to have detailed answers for me.
“There are only two churches I know of with services tonight. There is a very nice and very large Church several blocks to the North. However, there is a smaller Apostol Church that is close by, just 4 blocks this way. The services start soon.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. Feliz Navidad.”, I said with a smile as I turned to walk away. Standing, he nods back to me with a smile as I walked on.
Although the big church sounded like it might have provided a more elaborate Christmas Eve program, I am not sure why, but I knew immediately that I was going to go to the smaller and more local church. I had only taken a few steps away from this stranger when I heard his voice once again, “Have a good time. I think you will enjoy it there.”
As I looked back with a smile and said an additional thank you to him, I noted that he was still just standing there with a very kind expression on his face, not moving forward. I turn and continue walking.
I’m only about 10 or so strides further down the street when I think to myself, “That was a weird comment ….. ‘You’ll have a good time … There’ …… (?) …. I never told him which church I was going to….?” I chalked it up to language translations and moved on.
A few seconds later, I decided to cross the empty street. Looking back to my left to watch for cars, I noted where the kind stranger was standing in the middle of the block a moment ago, but now, he was gone.
“Huh? He couldn’t have made it to the end of the block by now,” I thought. “Maybe he ducked into a hotel….?“, but that thought passed quickly, because wherever he went it didn’t matter now. I needed to get to the small church before the service started.
I arrived at the local Apostol church. It’s not a cathedral. It is a simple but pretty brick masonry structure constructed between two larger urban units on a normally busy street in downtown. There are a few people milling around outside the church and I approach them. One woman with a bright yellow blouse and blonde hair speaks a little English. There are unfolded tables scattered about, and the woman tries to tell me what is going on, but I am not getting much of the info. I grasp that there is some kind of charity work happening, but I don’t understand what the work is, if it has started or it is finished, or if it is happening today or tomorrow. I tell her in my very limited Spanish that I am from out of town, and would like to volunteer and help if I can. She seemed delighted, but the services were starting and she smiled as she motioned to me to go inside.
The church has a small, humble sanctuary with only a few hundred parishioners. It’s hot and stuffy inside on this warm evening before Navidad, but the worshipers are happy both with the lightness of the ceremony and the oscillating fans blowing air throughout the Nave trying to keep them cool. The congregation sings songs that are a highbred of folklorico tunes and traditional hymns. The music really touched me. You can hear some of it in the companion video to this post (see the link below).
The church’s head Padre has a broad smile and welcoming demeanor. He holds new babies up to the congregation, I assume to welcome them to the community. It was a gentle, sweet and loving atmosphere. I listened intently to the sermon for some of the one hundred and twenty-ish words I know in Spanish, and while the vibe of the service was very pleasant, not knowing the language well limited what I could gain from the program. During an intermission, something told me to go outside.
This is when I realized why I was drawn to this place.
The front of the church and the entire street outside was now packed with people. There were crowds everywhere, but somehow in the middle of all this commotion, standing all alone was the woman with the yellow shirt and blonde hair that I had spoken to earlier. In all of this chaos, there she quietly stood, looking right at me with a huge smile like she was waiting for me. I approached her and told her I wasn’t clear on the volunteering work and when it started, and said again I wanted to help if I could. She grinned with excitement and said, “It’s Now!”
“We are feeding the people in the streets Now!” ….. And with that, I was conscripted into the volunteer wait staff to feed the homeless in Mendoza, Argentina.
What I learned from this woman who was now leading me by the hand into the kitchen, was that the congregation of this small church decided to provide a Christmas Eve dinner to people living on the streets and those in need. And now, I was part of this giving-back event.
I found this incredible. Here I was this stranger from a foreign land who just showed up out of nowhere asking to help and give back, and instead of people looking at me with an untrusting eye and full of doubts, they welcomed me with open arms and gratitude. But there was no time to chat now, more guests had shown up than expected and it was time to start serving dinner.
Despite our limited language abilities, we sorted out that I would help serve drinks during the dinner under the watchful eye of Joseph, a friendly older gentlemen who knew about as much English as I knew Spanish.
On the blocked-off street in front of the Church, a couple hundred guests of all kinds of back grounds and circumstances sat, quietly ate and expressed thanks. After working for nearly 3 hours serving drinks, my serving partners Joseph, Miguel, and I were asked to finally sit down and to rest and eat.
Together, we shared the same humble meal of basic empanadas and white bread sandwiches that were being served to our guests.
As we sat and shared our Christmas Eve meal, we talked (as best we could) about our families, our lives, and our evening together. I smiled. Even though I very much missed my family and also some of the holiday traditions I enjoyed from back home, being a lone traveler in a foreign land and receiving the gifts of their hospitality, love and the sense of belonging from such sweet people, made me feel grateful for this very special Nochebuena Christmas Eve giving-back experience and my special Holiday dinner with my fellow volunteers.
I hope I will always remember the feeling of peace in my heart I felt that day, and the inspirational qualities of that beautiful light that radiated from the Solstice Moon over Mendoza.
May that special light shine down on you and your loved ones today as well, and for all the years to come.
Click on the link below to view the Exploring With Bruce Youtube channel video: