It was Advent probably my second or third grade year. The community kids had gathered for Sunday school in the room that tripled as living room, Sunday school room, and church narthex. Hoping the answer would be “Navidad,” Dad asked us which day was the most important day in December. The automatic and boisterous reply was “el ocho, el ocho!”
The town of Apolo, Bolivia, where I spent first, second, and third grades had its “definitive foundation” on “el ocho,” the 8th of December, 1690, by the Franciscan missionary Pedro Saenz de Mendoza. The community’s full name was Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Apolobamba clearly linking the founding of the town with the Roman Church December 8 festival of the Immaculate Conception (a non-Biblical Roman Church doctrine that Mary the mother of Jesus was conceived without sin). To this day, “el ocho” is celebrated with dancing in the streets, “bull fights” where capes with money sewn to them are tied to bulls’ backs and the town’s “brave” young men try to grab the capes, and parades with a statue of the Virgin. It is truly a day of greater import to the “apoleños” than Christmas.
As important as Christmas is, it was hard, as a youngster, not to get caught up in the euphoria that engulfed this isolated town of 600 people during the “ocho” festivities. Dad tried to shield us from the drunken revelries that doubled or tripled the town’s population, but we wanted to see and be part of the goings on. We wanted to stand by the rickety pole fences that were erected around the town’s square to watch the “torreadores” despite the fact that the fences were often easily broken through by the running bulls that tried to evade the taunts of the town’s young men.
Somehow, through it all, we did find Christmas and the celebration of the Nativity. In our home at least the 25th took precedence over the 8th; and we learned that Advent and Christmas were more than celebrations of a birth 2000 years ago. We learned that while we celebrated the first coming of the Christ, we also looked forward to His coming again. This prayer became real: ‘Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.’