In 1986 our family attended a Christmas Dolphins show at sunrise. While the military dictatorship in Chile hastened to its eventual demise, I was then a young mom living in a seaside hamlet where we still didn’t have telephones (or a bank, gas station, or pharmacy either, though that doesn’t enter into this story).
But that season, I pretty much felt like Mary—carrying the weight and fate of the world. Everyone in our neighborhood needed something from us, it seemed, and then both churches we ministered in decided to hold their Sunday school Christmas programs on Christmas Eve. And they wanted—expected—us to be there, of course.
Really, we weren’t opposed, but that schedule presented a complication: We lived in one town on the Big Island of Chiloé, while the second church was located on another island, a short ferry ride and a half-hour drive away. We’d have to finish the first program, duck out quickly, and hope to catch the ferry in time.
In your twenties, you think you can do everything, don’t you? We figured we could manage it with one program at 7 p.m. and the other at 9 or a little later. We could probably just scrape into the other village in time.
Then—I can’t even remember how it came about—we invited another missionary family as holiday guests. And we were thrilled to host them, but as it turned out they didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve. Less than an hour before Program #1, we picked our visitors up at the bus stop and settled them into their rooms before dressing to run over to the church.
Afterwards, the 16-year-old son of the family was eager to accompany us across to the other island. His mom and dad, understandably not so keen. They’d traveled all that day and the previous night So my husband and I rushed off with our two little daughters and a teenager in tow.
In the (Southern Hemisphere) summer…
…we often got out of our cramped pickup to enjoy the sea breezes during the 10-minute crossing on the small single-deck ferry. But not tonight. We needed to be prepared to speed off as soon as the ramp was lowered. In our hustle and bustle, we couldn’t take time to appreciate the creaming wake spray and twinkling village lights at twilight. Our thoughts roared louder than the ferry’s motor.
Just before we landed on the opposite shore, one of the deck hands approached the open window of the driver’s side of our vehicle. “Just so you know,” he said, “this is our last run tonight.”
“Oh.” My husband frowned. “When will you cross next?”
“Seven a.m.” He offered an apologetic Latin shrug. “Sorry. Boss’s call.”
A lump like a frozen turkey sank into my stomach. Of course, they wanted to hurry home to their families—Christmas Eve is Christmas in Chile. But we had to make an instant decision: Keep going and spend the night in the other town, or turn around and go home ourselves.
Did we really have an option? We could hardly disappoint the church folks at this last minute. However, I worried a bit for the missionary kid’s parents. They’d wonder what had happened to us, and there wasn’t the remotest possibility of communicating our unexpected dilemma to them. But what else could we do?
“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” – Roy L. Smith
Despite the inescapable choice, I grumbled internally. The second program had been lovingly prepared, I’m sure, but I barely took it in. Why did the islanders always insist on their unbreakable holiday traditions? They certainly weren’t thinking about our family’s convenience tonight.
And after the show finished, we discovered that—figuratively—
There was no room for us in the “inn.”
Bless them, these were warm, hospitable people. But their invitations were for another day, not for when they planned to head home to their family gifts and get-togethers. They herded us to makeshift cots in an unoccupied house nearby.
Nothing for it except to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. We went to bed by candlelight—the electricity and water were disconnected. Though our teenage visitor remained unfazed—a cheerful good sport—I was concerned about my baby. Not a newborn on the breast, but a toddler who still went to sleep with a bottle. I’d brought along a few extra diapers, but nothing in the way of food or overnight supplies.
Unless you counted the treat bags of lollipops and toffee. My overtired, over-sugared 4-year-old whimpered, “It smells weird here.”
She was reluctant to settle down, because yes, the place reeked of dust and decay, mold and mildew. Kind of like…a barn. A stable…? For the first time in my life, I too experienced a tiny sliver of what it must have been like for Mary, away from home in a strange bed on the night of all nights.
Our mattresses poked and prickled like mangers stuffed with hay. I heard mice and other creepy crawlers rustling in the corners. No toothbrushes or toiletries or tree lights. No carols or cookies for us, though the rest of world partied and feasted.
Why am I here? I wondered, sighing. And what’s more…
Where’s the glory of God in this?
To say I felt disgruntled would be an understatement. During one of the most depressing nights ever, I slept the dreamless sleep of the drained and desolate. Amazingly, we all did—even the children. And dawn came soon enough, piercing the threadbare curtains with stabs of early summer light.
We got up and got out as soon as we could. By 6:30 a.m. we waited at the ferry ramp—unwashed, untidy, and hungry—and watched the dock on the opposite shore with anxious eyes. Finally…the ferry launched out on its first crossing of the day.
“That’s what Christmas memories are made from, they’re not planned, they’re not scheduled, nobody puts them in their blackberry, they just happen.” – Deck the Halls (2006)
Sunbeams streamed up the channel from the Andes in the east. A red-gold carpet unfurled atop the shimmering sea. While my husband drove the pickup aboard, the rest of us strolled on and leaned against the starboard railing, basking in the morning sunshine. That in itself was a Christmas miracle in a land where it rains 13 months of the year, they say.
I repented. The unanticipated overnighter—though annoying and awkward—had actually given us a sunrise adventure. Perhaps the glory of the Lord hadn’t “shone round about” last night, but…
Joy burst upon us in the morning.
That was gift enough, truly. But then our teenage guest pointed across the waves. “What are those? Not dolphins!?”
Yes, that Christmas, dolphins appeared out of the blue, you might say, weaving back and forth over the golden ribbon of light until they reached our side. Then they stuck with us, an entire pod of them, somersaulting, high-diving, leap-frogging alongside the wooden ferry.
The children squealed and clapped in glee at their antics. They probably would’ve jumped right into the ocean with “las bellas toninas” if their dad hadn’t firmly gripped their sleeves. My older girl tried to toss them a fistful of toffee for their trouble, but they raced on by without stopping for a sniff.
The Chilean black delfín or tonina is Florida’s snub-nosed country cousin. But that morning our Christmas dolphins put on a performance not only worthy of SeaWorld, but for the glory of the Creator whose birth we celebrated. And for the pleasure of His loved ones. Even the 16-year-old couldn’t hide his huge grin.
The girls waved off our new friends as we landed on the rocky shore of our town. When we pulled into the driveway of our home, all still lay in quiet shadow. Our guests hadn’t even noticed our absence. They slept right through “in heavenly peace” and missed…well, not quite everything, not the barbecue or the beach, but the best present of all that day.
“Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance—a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved.” – Augusta E. Randel
That Christmas Dolphins show was just for me, I knew. Toninas often glided along with the fishing launches in Chiloé, but they rarely appeared in this narrow strip of channel water between the two islands. We never glimpsed them again in that spot, in several crossings a week over eight years.
So I missed Christmas Eve at home that year. But I will remember God’s gift that Christmas morning for the rest of my life.
And the Christmas dolphins planted the seed of a story in my mind. A few weeks later, I began to write Destiny at Dolphin Bay…