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Interview with Salesian Brother Paul Li before Christmas 2020

By Br Paul Li, SDB

Salesian Missionary House Hong Kong, 23 December 2020 -- Salesian Brother Paul Li is 85 years old and made his first religious profession 64 years ago, spent some 30 years of his enthusiastic apostolic life as teacher in different Salesian schools. At present he is the local Economer of the Salesian Missionary House in Hong Kong. Br Paul is well known also for his very artistic and creative portico festive decorations admired by many Salesian Family members and Salesian house visitors. Given the new Christmas Crib 2020 we asked him to share this experience.

How did you start this festive decoration passion?

When there was a Solemnity or Feast Day, Don Bosco was very concerned about decorating the church and classrooms. And we all know Christmas is also a big celebration for the universal Church. Among all the variety of decorations I am especially very interested in making the Christmas Crib.

When I was a student, my school had the Christmas Crib competition and sometimes I even won first prize. After I joined the Congregation as a Salesian Brother, I invited my students to assist me in the Crib preparation. In my view, making a Christmas Crib is a way to educate and accompany young people. After we finished an entire Christmas Crib with the students we all felt joyful and satisfied.

When did you start making Christmas Cribs?

I officially started making Christmas Cribs in 1981 and I have continued until now. The first Crib was made in Tang King-Po School (Hong Kong). Until now I have made some 20 to 30 sets of Christmas Cribs in my whole life. For me, a Christmas Crib is a manger, decorated with dry grass, cattle and sheep. It is the same in everyone's mind. Therefore, I decided to develop a main theme for the Christmas Crib each year. Two years ago, when Typhoon Mangkhut hit Hong Kong, the wind blew down many trees, so I collected some branches and pieces of wood for designing a manger. Many people appreciated it and thought that it was very timely and fitted the situation in Hong Kong. This year, when I was considering the main theme, the choice was easy - ‘Pandemic’!

And how did the team work on the Crib 2020 unfold?

I didn't know how to draw up the design. Then I shared my idea with my former students. I wanted to make a frame in the ceiling and hang something from it. So my students helped me to calculate. We finally used 70 wooden frames. There is a group of the Past pupils, my former students, who have been working with me already for many years on the Christmas Crib. From their school time, graduation until now, I'm still in touch with them.

And what about the Christmas Crib material?

The past pupils prepared all the materials for the Crib, most of them recycled. The wooden blocks are old, as for the light bulb, it was a gift from a Past pupil who donated us some 10,000 small light bulbs, and we use 2,000 per year, which is enough for five years.

Then, for the face masks, some people might think it's a waste. But these face masks were obtained at the beginning of the epidemic, and these masks are extremely thin and low quality, and cannot be used now for virus protection. Now it is just a matter of making the best use of them by hanging them from the ceiling as a decoration.

How did you finalize the theme and concept for this year's Crib?

Usually the Christmas Crib project and concept starts every year around September or October with a question: What should be the theme for this year's Christmas Crib? Since the Covid19 pandemic was raging, I thought of using the new coronavirus outbreak as our theme. But how should we demonstrate it? There are several symbols related to the pandemic: face masks, wheelchairs, beds in the hospital or nurses.

And what is the spiritual motivation behind your Crib 2020?

I beg the Lord to come quickly to take away the pandemic, to heal us quickly. I pray that Jesus will have mercy on us sinners, that Covid19 may be quickly removed. We are also aware that this pandemic is the first in history that has lasted so long. The impact is so widespread, so we need Jesus to save us.

For the Crib's main idea I was inspired by the Gospel reading: “…some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.” (Lk 5:18-19)

Can you describe the whole Crib composition?

We now began using this idea of lowering the sick person's bed from above, in the hope that Jesus would heal this sick person. That is, heal those who are sick from the Covid19 pandemic.

There are 70 light slots, each one has six masks on it. That's over 400 low quality masks in total used on the ceiling. As for the small light bulbs, there are 40 small bulbs on each wooden frame, that's some 3,000 small bulbs. Over 2,000 small bulbs are welded one by one. It's a lot of work.

In fact, when I thought of the initial design, I didn't think of the small garden next to the Crib, because green is the most beautiful color. Inside the small garden, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle, it's the ‘Pietà’, Our Lady of Sorrows.

In the front, you can see a stone plaque with three letters “R.I.P.” at the middle. Almost two million people have died already worldwide from this pandemic. At present, the United States has the highest number of Covid19 deaths, therefore, the American flag is placed there. It is a symbol of the fact that the largest number of people have died of the disease in the USA.

And what is your prayer in front of this 2020 Crib?

Finally, we hope that the Lord will really hear our prayers: “Lord, do not hesitate, please come and save us!” - This is the central idea of the Christmas Crib 2020 in our community, Salesian House of Studies, Hong Kong.

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