Christmas is enchanting. Maybe it’s the twinkling lights on frosty streets, the aroma of holiday baking or merry music everywhere. For me, it’s a magical return to childhood. When I was little, the infant Jesus began my family’s exciting lead-up to his birthday.

My mother would carry the baby Jesus down from a closet shelf to an “altar” in the living room. He was life-sized, made in Italy, with caramel-colored glass eyes and a delicately painted bisque body. He would lay on a doll-sized manger with real hay. My parents couldn’t afford the other creche characters, so the Holy infant went solo.

I never thought of baby Jesus as an orphan. Back then, we three kids oohed and aahed around him as the “new” member of our family each December.

My mother was reverent, “Be careful, he’s not a toy. He’s Jesus.”

My father was practical. “If you kids break it, that’s it.”

My parents were Filipino immigrants, steeped in the Catholic faith. We had altars in the hallway and bedrooms. Two big pictures of Jesus and Mary, side by side, had eyes that seemed to follow me. As a child, I’d make my mind go blank, clear out any thought crimes, each time I had to pass the pictures.

Christmas preparations were very exciting for my mother. In the Philippines, the big celebrations happen on Christmas Eve. During my childhood growing up in San Francisco, it meant a big feast, opening presents, midnight Mass and more food.

I don’t recall anything about Santa’s naughty or nice list, or that a new Barbie could poof into a bag of coal if I didn’t behave. I do remember my mother’s excitement about angels, the birth of the King of Kings, and how much God loves us no matter what. Always in the present tense. “Now it’s our turn to remember him,” she’d say as we’d set out for midnight mass. Hearing Christmas carols about angels, shepherds and divine glories lifted my young spirit on wings of gratitude.

I didn’t grow up with a God premised on wrath and punishment. To me, God was both invisible and avuncular. Maybe sad and disappointed when I didn’t act on my higher instincts, but always willing to brush aside the past and start over.

This is how my mother spoke of God. It felt as real and convincing as the love of my aunts who lived in the Philippines. I never doubted their love because my mother spoke of her sisters often as if they were present. Invisible as they were, I believed my aunts knew us and we knew them. Perhaps, it’s how we form an attachment to the unseen.

Decades later, the baby Jesus is the star of our Christmas, now surrounded by the full complement of creche companions, placed there by my two granddaughters.

Watching the twinkling lights reflected on frosty streets, I can still feel an inner hallelujah.
Email Suzette Martinez Standring at