Fascinated by their crafting tradition, I worked with Subanens to form a project called Subanen Crafts. Each year, we create Christmas cards depicting the ordinary and thoughtful ways that Joseph and Mary cared for each other.
Christmas Cards that Celebrate the World that God so Loves
by Fr. Vincent Busch (USA), Columban missionary priest assigned in the island of Mindanao, Philippines since 1975 is shown with Subanen crafters
The Subanens are an indigenous people whose ancestral habitat is the highlands of Western Mindanao in the Philippines. Guided by the Columban Sisters who had been living and working with the Subanens since 1983, I began working with the Subanens in 2000. I saw how their traditional way of life helped keep their habitat healthy, and, how, in turn, their habitat provided their daily food. I also witnessed how the beauty of their habitat evoked an awareness of the spiritual dimension in the natural world, and I learned to appreciate how they communicated with that dimension through music, ritual, and dance.
The Subanens practice an old crafting tradition. They developed clever ways to shape rattan, bamboo, grasses, and palm leaves into baskets, tools, furniture, mats, hats, roofs, walls, musical instruments and even use them for the walls and roofs of their homes. Fascinated by their crafting tradition, I worked with Subanens to form a project called Subanen Crafts. Each year, we create Christmas cards depicting the ordinary and thoughtful ways that Joseph and Mary cared for each other. In this article I’ll share stories about how their cards celebrate Christmas, the beauty of their habitat, and the ordinary yet profound acts of caring people.
The process of designing cards began with listing ordinary, thoughtful ways that the Subanen people cared for each other and their habitat. Based on that list, we selected activities that Joseph and Mary might possibly do while living in a stable. My job was to create card-sized drawings of Mary and Joseph doing those activities.
This first drawing is an example of what the cards look like before being colored. It illustrates Mary holding Jesus securely in a Subanen-style sling while Joseph repairs the manger. The idea comes from how Subanens constantly repair their tools, belongings and homes.
I drew Mary and Joseph within an image of our planet – the temporary shelter of all God’s creatures. Above Mary and Joseph I drew the mountainous habitat of the Subanens which provide them with a safe and bountiful home. It recognizes that just as Joseph made the manger a safe place for Jesus, the Subanens need to ensure a safe and healthy environment for their children.
The next card features Joseph giving Mary some food. Subanens make nutritious soups using leaves, vegetables and root crops from their small garden plots. To cook, they need water and firewood which are readily available if their forest and its streams are healthy.
This card calls to mind the words in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”. The words that phrase that make it a prayer for the common good are “Us and Our”. How limited that prayer would sound if it said, “Give me my daily bread.”
In the Philippines, economic policies which were expected to contribute to the nation’s progress and development turned out to be detrimental to the common good. These policies allowed extractive industries to make quick profits at the long-term cost of polluting and degrading the nation’s seas, rivers, forests, air and farmland. For instance, logging companies deforested huge areas of the Subanens’ homeland from 1950 to 1990. These companies made huge profits, but caused permanent damage to the food-producing forest and soil of the Subanens in the process. The damage went beyond the Subanens’ homeland. Without forest cover, monsoon rains caused torrents of muddy water to cascade down the mountains, clogging irrigation systems and smothering coastal reefs and fisheries. In the aftermath of this deforestation, many Subanens left their homeland to seek work in cities and towns as servants and menial laborers. In our small way, the Subanen crafters are working with programs of the Columban Sisters to restore their God-given habitat so that its ecosystems might continually provide a better life for all into the future.
The next card shows a thoughtful shepherd bringing some kindling wood to Mary and Joseph as fuel for their warming fire. This image has a meaningful background story. I once saw a Subanen man carrying a huge bundle of kindling wood down a steep mountain trail. I learned later that this man regularly hiked 10 kilometers or about 7 miles to town so he could sell his load for a few coins – enough to buy a few handfuls of rice for his family. The Subanen families support each other through such ordinary but profound acts of love. This card honors one such act and, in doing so, helps us see the deep love that the Christ child will experience with his parents.
In this next card, Joseph is sweeping the stable while Mary spreads a blanket over the manger. In due course, Mary and Joseph will deeply feel the joys and sufferings of Jesus throughout their lives.
The bible points to this parent-child bond as an example of God’s enduring love for his people: “Can a woman forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child of her womb? Though she may forget I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15). Jesus expands the embrace of God’s love to include all creation: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16: 15). In our cards the globe represents the whole of creation that God so loves.
In the last card, Joseph is pouring water into a basin while Mary puts fresh straw in the manger. For the Subanens, fetching water often involves a steep downhill hike to a forest-fed stream.
As deserts spread throughout our overheated planet, thousands of people, mostly women, have to walk greater distances to get water for their families. Jesus praises those who give drink to the thirsty (Matthew 25: 37-40) so it makes sense that he would praise people who, through their work and their way of life, enhance the ecosystems that provide that water.
In the vastness of the universe the Earth is but a tiny, fragile “stable” for all God’s creatures. God so loved the world that he sent his Son to be born in that stable. In its wee corner, I have come to know many Subanens who nurture their life-giving habitat. Their Christmas cards celebrate the ordinary yet profound ways that they care for each other and for the world that God so loves.