MILBRIDGE – The town’s first full-fledged Christmas on Main Street celebration, slated for today, has an unexpected element: participation by the town’s growing Hispanic community.
Ordinarily private and family-oriented when they aren’t at work, Milbridge’s year-round Hispanics are stepping forward this year for a small taste of Christmas, Down East-style.
It wasn’t the craft fair, wreath sales, horse-drawn carriage rides, caroling or tree lighting that has compelled them to take part; it was the chance to build a display of a Nativity scene on the porch of the Main Street house where they gather for language lessons and socializing.
The setting is Mano en Mano, which translates to Hand in Hand. The house is owned by Candace Austin, a Milbridge volunteer who has turned her downstairs into a seven-days-a-week respite and resource center for Washington County Hispanics.
Doors downtown were being judged Friday by members of Milbridge’s celebrations committee, and awards will be announced today. The potential for a prize, however, wasn’t the motivation for Edith Flores when she and others spent hours in the cold on Thursday afternoon carefully arranging their display.
“This represents Christmas for us,” said Flores, 24, who settled in Milbridge five years ago with her family from Mexico seeking seasonal work. The town has a population of 1,200.”This is what I remember from my childhood. It didn’t matter if the Christmas tree was up or not; we had to have the nacimiento [Nativity display].
“We did not do this to win the contest. We did this because of the feelings we have at Christmas. We feel very happy, very close to one another.”
Months after the blueberry harvest wound down in August, Milbridge has become a year-round home to more Hispanics than ever as they patch seasonal jobs into year-round employment. The families, who initially come to work in the area’s blueberry fields, are predominantly from Mexico and other Central American countries.
More than 100 people, some with family, stayed on this year to work for Worcester Wreaths in Harrington, and about 80 are working at a sea cucumber processing plant in Milbridge. Twenty more are working at a sea cucumber processing plant in Addison, Austin said. Flores herself works as an aide at the Narraguagus Bay Health Care Facility.
Half a porch wide, supported on a plywood structure, the Nativity scene is surrounded by moss that Flores’ older brother gathered from the woods. Small toy figurines are tucked into the moss, all pointing to a star that hangs from the front. Straw is woven into the design for the look of a manger.
To Flores, the porch is perfect.
“For us, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. The star is the signal that Jesus has been born, and that’s why all the small toys are looking at the star.”
Holiday gifts aren’t exchanged on Dec. 25 in the Mexican tradition, Flores said. That happens on Jan. 6, celebrated in Hispanic countries as Three Kings Day.
Even sooner comes Dec. 12, the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which honors the patron saint of Mexico.
Dec. 16 is the start of Los Posados, which involves fiestas on nine evenings leading to Christmas. Children go door to door in search of “the inn” in representation of Mary and Joseph being turned away, and different homes are host to parties each evening.
Aside from the porch decorating, the Hispanics in Milbridge won’t engage in much public celebrating of their holiday traditions. Most of them are in the United States legally with appropriate documentation, but they still have fears of losing the opportunity to work here.
At some point, community members will gather at a private location for a Mass in Spanish, relying on a Down East priest who is bilingual, Flores said.
“I don’t know if it’s the weather, but we are not seeing much movement or many people,” Flores said, meaning that the community members aren’t mingling as much.
Hispanic families will put up smaller Nativity scenes in their homes and continue working until they get the day off at Christmas, Flores said.
The idea to take part in Christmas on Main Street was embraced by Flores and her family in particular, after Austin suggested it recently.
One local Hispanic family was the inspiration. The Valencias of Gouldsboro, who visit Mano en Mano regularly, would have helped decorate the porch if they could. That family’s Christmas season means so much to them that they are taking vacation time from their jobs at the Stinson sardine plant to return to Mexico.
Austin, who has opened her home and heart to the area’s Hispanics for more than five years, traveled to Mexico for Christmas three years ago as the Valencias’ guest.
“What Mexicans do at Christmas is absolutely beautiful,” Austin said. “I wish they would do more celebrating here at Christmas, but they must feel that working is more important.”
Last year, some community members came to Austin just days before Christmas and asked her to help organize a party. More than 100 people, including many children, turned up to enjoy the four pinatas that Austin had made and filled with candy.
This year, no one has asked Austin yet to make arrangements for the same thing. Sensing, however, that the Hispanics may indeed feel a twinge of missing their usual celebrations as Christmas approaches, she already has reserved a hall, just in case.
“We have to have a fiesta,” Flores said after the porch decoration was done.
“We are here to help you do that, if that’s what you want to do,” Austin replied.