When Yonel Ismael spent his first Christmas at the orphanage, he got an orange and some crackers in a plastic bag. No tree. No presents.
“That was what it was like in those days,” he recalls. “We were lucky we got anything at all.”
Yonel was five years old at the time. It was a different organization with a different set of priorities.
Yonel Ismael, executive director, stands proudly next to the orphanage’s Christmas tree.
Today, more than 30 years later, Yonel is our Haitian executive director at the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage. And because he remembers Christmas with just an orange and crackers, he takes special pride in making sure the holiday is a hugely memorable event for all 53 children.
And I mean huge.
“We start with the Christmas tree, which goes up early in the month,” Yonel details. “Then we really get going on December 20th, right after school is out. We have tournaments between our kids at different levels. They have a tennis tournament, a soccer tournament, boys, girls, little kids, older kids.”
All of these are conducted, mind you, on a 45-foot patch of dirty concrete. Kids have to navigate potholes as well as each other, and the “fans” in the “stands” are just members of our orphanage cheering from picnic tables.
But it’s loud. It’s spirited. It’s fun. And it works.
“On Christmas Eve we crown the winners,” Yonel says. “And then we have the big meal.”
This meal also has its tradition. It started, back in Yonel’s childhood, as the one night of the year that the children got to eat chicken. Today, chicken is a regular part of the weekly menu.
But goat is still special.
“We have a man named Siqua who comes every year and gets a goat. He prepares it and then our cook makes it special,” Yonel relates. “The kids love it. They talk about it all year long.
“This year our cook (we call him “Chef Harry”) wants to do a buffet, too, where he has fried plantains, rice, beans, some fish.”
If all this sounds like a big deal, it is. On purpose. Giving children something to anticipate, especially children who have gone without for so long, is a deliberate act.
Still, none of it compares to Christmas day itself. That’s when the annual “Christmas Play” takes place.
Actually, it’s more like a variety show.
Over the course of a few hours — in front of an audience of staff, teachers, and family members who are invited every year — the kids do everything from solo violin performances to group dances. There are readings. There are speeches. Some kids talk about what Christmas means. Some read Biblical passages. Some sing holiday songs. Some play piano.
Our various bands, the teenaged boys, the teenaged girls, the middle-aged mixed kids, all do at least one number. And then comes the Christmas play itself, in which the kids re-enact the entire Christmas story, complete with Mary, Joseph, wise men, even sheep.
The kids look forward, every year, to finding out what role they get to play. Of course, the meatier parts tend to go to the oldest kids. But that hardly deters the joy. One year, when she was four, our little Chika played a sheep. It is one of the favorite photos we have of her. You can see in the magic in her eyes and her effusive smile, the sheer delight of being…involved.
Chika, Christmas 2013. Photo credit: Jennifer Hambrick. Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
And that is really what all this is about. Being involved. Having a holiday that is more than just a perfunctory bag of crackers. Doing something. Performing something. Creating something. Anticipating something for months – and finally having it come to pass.
Scenes from a Christmas play
And sometimes, tears
For most of the kids, Christmas day is an endless unfurling of joy, including the much-anticipated stocking emptying and the present unwrapping. The kids get a number of small gifts that are all the same, such as shoes, hoodies and Bibles. And then there will be a few special things that are purchased or donated by others and organized and delivered to Haiti with precision skill by a handful of folks in America, including Patty Alley, Connie Vallee and Janine Sabino.
But Christmas is not without its challenges. It is the one day of the year that parents of our children tend to come visit, if they are alive or have the means to get to Port-au-Prince. Of course, many of our kids do not have parents. But those who do wait all year sometimes for a glimpse of them. And invariably, someone does not show up, and the child is crestfallen.
When that happens, the nannies, the staff and the other kids all step in. They offer hugs. They dry tears. They tell the child to focus on the positive things. But it does damage. I can’t deny it. It is something we anticipate every year and stand ready to fight with extra love and attention.
Beyond that hiccup, Christmas at the orphanage is a tapestry of laughter, squealing, music, prayers, and an annual reminder by Yonel — who is also the orphanage’s spiritual director — that the day is not about presents.
“I remind the kids that on our birthday, people give us gifts. But on Jesus’ birthday, not only do we celebrate it — but we receive presents also. That’s the type of love that Jesus spread and shared. And that’s why we say Jesus is love. That’s what Christmas is truly about.”
The coming days will be frenetic for Yonel — not unlike a director in the final days before a Broadway musical opens. The stage must be erected. The decorations done. The costumes — which have become quite elaborate for an orphanage! — have to be organized.
But because he still remembers a more meager holiday season, Yonel, now 37, is the perfect person to manage the annual tradition.
“I always look forward for it,” he says. “It brings me joy, because I get to do something for the kids that I didn’t get. Things I never dreamt of. Now I’m the one that can bring smiles to the kids’ faces, to make them feel happy, to make them feel that they are at home.
“For me to play a role in that now — that’s amazing.”
You think that’s amazing?
You should try the goat.