Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The True Spirit of Christmas

One of the reasons for the success of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, seems to be that as it spread it didn't insist on wiping out every aspect of local religions, but creatively absorbed some of their stories, ceremonies and symbols. It's well known that Easter and Christmas are derived from pagan festivals that pre-exisited Christianity.

A whole lot of extra layers were added as Catholicism spread though Latin America. To this day the old traditions such as voodoo in the Caribbean and earth-worship in the Andes happily co-exist within and alongside Christian contexts. I recall in Guatemala there was a local 'saint' called San Simon who was also the capricious Mayan god Moshimon. People brought offerings of cigars and alcohol to the 'saint' in his church niche in return for spiritual favours.

In western culture we prefer an acknowledged duality -- we gorge on chocolate at Easter and expect presents at Christmas, while occasionally piously reminding ourselves of the 'true spirit' of these occasions. Ironically, the historical process is being repeated, as our new universal religion (capitalism) absorbs the trappings of our older ways.

In Colombia the traditions are still blended more seamlessly. Here, we teach children that the legendary Norse figure of Santa Claus will deliver them gifts at Christmas. In Colombia, the tradition is that it's the Baby Jesus who brings presents. Children are expected to write letters to the Baby Jesus, informing Him what they'd like for Christmas.

You'll excuse my flippancy in noting that as one part of an omniscient Holy Trinity, He will definitely know whether you've been naughty or nice.

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