A Christmas story, Klong Toey style

Every year the children at Mercy Centre are caught up in the spirit of the season and the stirring tale of the troubles and courage of Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus and one devoted donkey

They tried to lead a normal family life, but they were always looking back over their shoulders ... never quite sure if Herod's soldiers knew, when they killed all those children in Bethlehem more than eight years before, that Jesus had escaped that horrible nightThe children at our Mercy Centre don't really worry about time and space, so yesterday, today and even tomorrow all become ''right now''. If a story rings true to them, they ''buy in''. Like all kids, ours have an unerring sense of what's real and what's fake. And without exception, they like the story of Christmas. So here at Mercy, we celebrate Christmas every day, but especially on Dec 25, when we follow our Sacred Traditions.

This year the children are planning their own Christmas pageant. First rule: No adults allowed. After that was established, a serious game of rock, paper, scissors ensued to decide who would play the lead roles of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, and let's not forget the donkey _ a now grown-up puppy given to baby Jesus by the shepherd children.

But before the play on that special day, our very own Mother Maria always retells the Klong Toey Mercy Centre version of the Christmas story. This is how it goes:

Our sacred books say that before the family's flight to Egypt and even before Mary gave birth to baby Jesus in Bethlehem, before the star arose in the East and the Magi came to worship the newborn child bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, the Angel Gabriel asked the Virgin Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and she consented. Gabriel also told Mary that her older cousin Elizabeth was pregnant and that her son would be named John the Baptist. Mary decided to travel the 80km to visit her cousin and to help. Joseph, who was engaged to Mary, said: ''It's madness for you to travel alone. It's a five day journey with robbers always around. I'm coming along.'' Then Joseph spoke to the donkey: ''Donkey, you have to carry her and you must be gentle. You must be alert at night also _ make noises to warn us if bad men come around.'' So Joseph walked and Mary rode. They travelled from Nazareth town to the foothills where cousin Elizabeth lived, stayed about three months and made the perilous journey back home.

A short time later Joseph and Mary were on another journey to Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus was born. They were found by the Magi, who warned them that King Herod was killing all male children to try to take the life of the holy infant. Joseph had a dream in which an Angel told him in a strong loud voice: ''Go! Now! Run.''

Mary wrapped the baby Jesus against the cold winter night and Joseph spoke to the donkey again: ''Can I trust you? You must carry Virgin Mary and baby Jesus to Egypt. You must not falter, not stumble, no matter how rough the road might be.''

How would they survive? Virgin Mary had kept some of the gold given by the Magi. There would be enough _ almost enough _ to keep them when they arrived at the border with Egypt. To avoid robbers, to survive until Joseph found work. And Mary kept the myrrh, used to anoint the dead, with a premonition, somehow knowing as women do of the ominous days to come.

Fleeing into Egypt that very night, Joseph walking, running, Mary with baby Jesus cradled in her arms, riding on the donkey. Travelling by back roads, trying to go unnoticed, to avoid soldiers or strangers.

Even eight years later, back home again, living totally ''off the main road'' in Nazareth town, Mary and Joseph felt they could never be safe enough. They tried to lead a normal family life, but they were always looking back over their shoulders ... never quite sure if Herod's soldiers knew, when they killed all those children in Bethlehem more than eight years before, that Jesus had escaped that horrible night.

Eight years later there was a new Herod _ son of the old Herod _ but like his father he would kill them for sure if he knew Jesus was alive. They'd settled down in Nazareth _ their home before ''the troubles'', because it was a good place to raise a child. Off the main roads, just one water well. A place no one noticed. But work was often scarce in Nazareth for Joseph the carpenter and stonemason. Sometimes he had to travel, make day trips to work in neighbouring towns. If nearby, Joseph would take the eight-year-old boy Jesus along. He would lead the donkey carrying the work tools as Joseph taught Him to become a master carpenter. Mary would prepare food for them as they left at dawn, telling them be careful, be safe.

Of course, the evenings were quiet, in those days before electricity, radio, TV and mobile phones. And Jesus loved to ask Mary and Joseph to tell over and over the story of His birth.

And so it is in our Mercy House, as Mother Maria tells our children the Christmas story. It's true, we can't find much to verify parts of our version in the original Latin and Greek scriptures, but these stories, legends have passed on by tradition through the centuries, and thus are truer than true. Our children ask Mother Maria which Bangkok bus they should board to take them from Klong Toey to visit baby Jesus, and what is Jesus' favourite food, and would the donkey be able to pull their three-wheel cart that they ride on for fun?

And could they play with the puppy, now grown-up? And they ask Mother Maria how did a now grown-up dog go with them into Egypt?' And they answer their own question: St Joseph carried him in his sack, cuz when baby Jesus took a nap, for sure puppy dog slept next to Him.

They decided ''make believe'' that they would charge money for a ride in the cart pulled by the donkey and give the money to baby Jesus. Since Jesus loves everyone, they knew he would share the money so they could buy candy.

We wish you all a wonderful Christmas.

Fr Joe Maier is the director and co-founder of the Human Development Foundation in Klong Toey. For more information, call 02-671-5313 or visit www.mercycentre.org.

About the author

Writer: Father Joe Maier
Position: Reporter