Josefina's Surprise

Published in 1997; author Valerie Tripp; illustrators Jean-Paul Tibbles and Susan McAliley


It's the second Christmas since Josefina's mother died. Last year, Christmas came so soon after her death that no one felt like celebrating. She wonders if this year will be the same, but Tia Dolores reassures her that it's okay to be happy. Her mother would want Josefina and her family to enjoy Christmas. Josefina's sisters remind her about Niña, the doll that was given to each sister the Christmas she was eight, dressed in a new gown sewn by their mother. Because they were in mourning, Josefina never got the doll, even with an old dress. Francisca excitedly reminds Clara that Josefina can have Niña this year, but Clara is evasive when asked where the doll is. Has she lost it? Josefina, wanting to share in the tradition that her sisters shared with her mother, hopes not.

The whole village is getting ready for Christmas. Parts are being assigned for Las Posadas, the annual Christmas play. Tia Dolores suggests that Josefina might want to play the part of Mary, but Josefina says she's not ready yet: the songs she would have to sing remind her of her mother, and she doesn't want to cry in front of everyone. As the preparations for Christmas ramp up, Josefina finds herself surrounded by people fondly remembering her mother: the special gifts she would give their families, the talent she had for decorating the church, her sweet and generous nature, the beautiful altar cloth she embroidered for Christmas mass. It's comforting for Josefina to know that her mother still has an impact in people's lives. She's looking forward to getting the altar cloth ready, and so are her sisters, especially Clara who's been missing their mother terribly the more she sees Christmas being done differently without her there.

But when the family opens the trunk holding the altar cloth, they find that the flood damaged the trunk enough to let in water and mice. The cloth is dirty, stained, mildewed, and chewed. Josefina's father can't even bear to stay in the same room and has to leave to compose himself. The girls and Tia Dolores are all in shock, but Tia Dolores is sure they can make it beautiful again. She declares that tomorrow they will wash the cloth, mend it, add some new material, and embroider more designs on it, making it once more beautiful in memory of Josefina's mother. Later that night, Josefina sees Clara slip something out of the trunk: Niña! Clara buries her face in the doll and sobs. Confused, Josefina tells Tia Dolores about what she saw. Wisely, Tia Dolores tells Josefina that just as Josefina is not yet ready to play Mary because of how much she misses her mother, so Clara is not yet ready to give up Niña. The time will come; Josefina must be patient and let her sister take comfort where she can find it.

Morning comes, and Tia Dolores, Ana, Francisca, Clara, and Josefina set to work on the cloth. They decide to embroider things their mother loved. Josefina gets her memory box to inspire them, and they start stitching out things like a sparrow, a sprig of lavender, and a primrose. At first Clara declines, saying it makes her miss her mother too much (the girls learned the special style of colcha embroidery from their mother). Tia Dolores presents a silver thimble, a gift from their mother to her, and says she'll be happy to share it with her nieces so they can all remember their mother together. As the sisters slowly stitch, Clara--who is best at colcha embroidery--offers tips and advice, and eventually does some stitching herself. Francisca decides that whoever uses the thimble should share a memory of their mother, and the five pass the day fixing the cloth and telling stories. Some are happy and some are sad. All are good to hear. By the time the cloth is repaired, Josefina decides she's excited to celebrate Christmas joyfully, regardless of whether she gets to have Niña yet.

The family enjoys the Las Posadas processions over the next few nights. On Christmas Eve, the cloth is finally ready to decorate the altar at church. Tia Dolores praises their work, singling out Clara's exquisite embroidery, telling her that the talent is a gift from her mother that she'll have with her the rest of her life. At the urging of Tia Dolores, Clara gives the silver thimble to Josefina, telling her to put in her memory box where they can always get to if they need it--for embroidery or remembrance. The sisters go together to their room, and Josefina sees Niña on her bed, in a new dress! Clara has decided that she's ready to let Josefina have the doll and sewn her a new dress, knowing that she has many places to find comfort. Josefina graciously tells Clara that they will share the doll, and they head out for the last night of Las Posadas.

But the girl who's been playing Mary is ill! Bravely, Josefina asks if she can take her place and pray for everyone to have a happy Christmas--those in the village and her mother in Heaven. The man in charge agrees, and Josefina's father is proud to play Joseph for his daughter (traditionally Joseph was played by the father of the girl playing Mary). With the strength of her family backing her up, Josefina overcomes her nerves and makes it through the play, ending at the church where the cloth is beautifully draped over the altar. Seeing her work mixed in with that of her mother, her sisters, and her aunt, and with her father beside her, Josefina is sure her prayer was answered.

Looking Back

Josefina and her neighbors would have looked forward to Christmas with excitement, anticipating the celebration that would last for more than a month. It was full of religious observances, familiar customs, and fun, just as it is for Christians today. The celebration began with Advent (four Sundays before Easter) and continued through Epiphany (January 6). Las Posadas was especially important in Josefina's culture, and is still performed in present-day Hispanic communities. It's a dramatic reenactment of the first Christmas, with people playing Mary and Joseph going from house to house looking for a place to stay and being turned away, as the couple was turned away from inn after inn in the Gospel. At the last house, everyone is welcomed in for a party. One the last day of Las Posadas, everyone comes into the church for the Christmas Eve midnight mass. Traditionally, the actors portraying Mary and Joseph pray for a special intention as they perform Las Posadas, which is itself considered a form of prayer.


This book is dedicated to "Granger William Tripp and Paige Elizabeth Tripp, with love."

I wonder if Ana's son Antonio was born shortly before or shortly after Ana's mother died.

A woman in the village, Tia Magdalena, is Josefina's godmother.

I have two uncle Josephs and three aunt Marys, and two are married to each other--Mary and Joseph! But their son isn't named Jesus.

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