Another Christmas Story

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Tracing the origins of Christmas is a funny thing. The modern theological backbone is Christian, but most of the trimmings and trappings we associate with it are from various pagan holidays. Giving gifts comes from the Roman holiday Saturnalia, as well as the Germanic holiday Yule. Decorating trees and bringing them into the home comes from various pagan rituals, with prominent examples in Germanic and Celtic countries. Most cultures have a celebration for the winter solstice and the “rebirth of the sun” as days begin to grow longer.

A combination of various beliefs and practices such as these is called syncretism. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, syncretism is “the combination of different forms of belief or practice.” That sounds like a pretty spot-on description of Christmas traditions both here and abroad.

In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the character Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas to punish naughty children by kidnapping them to his lair. Krampus is a large, hairy creature whose origins lie in the Greek satyr. In the past few hundred years, people realized telling children a goat-man would kidnap them if they were naughty was probably a bad idea.

Similar but more recent is the Dutch character Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Sinderklaas – Saint Nicholas, if you prefer – is accompanied by this freed slave, first described in writing in 1850, just 32 years after slavery was abolished in the Netherlands. Piet either kidnaps naughty children and brings them back to Spain, where he and Sinderklaas reside most of the year, or leaves a bunch of branches, which he should have but chose not to use to beat them.

Closer to home, luminarias are a common festive sight here and farther south, and they can be traced back to pre-Christian Spanish traditions and festival bonfires.

But New Mexican culture is steeped in syncretism year-round. The Zia symbol on our state flag, as the Board of County Commissioners says every meeting, represents “perfect friendship between cultures.” New Mexico is part of the area originally colonized by the Spanish, which, culturally, is called “New Spain.” The particular flavor of Catholicism popular throughout the region is heavily influenced by Mayan and Aztec religion, and by the beliefs of black slaves brought over in the 17th and 18th centuries.

One prominent example cited by New Mexico Tech professor Dr. Rafael Lara-Martinez is the Christ of Chimayo. It is the same figure as El Cristo Negro de Esquipulas in Guatemala, near the El Salvadorian border. This figure ties northern New Mexico to parts farther south in New Spain. But the name Esquipulas is derived from a local native concept/being, Ek-Ik-Pul-Ha, which translates roughly to “black wind that brings rain.” Both are bringers of life, both are of dark countenance.

It is hard to tell when one culture ends and another begins. Rather than worry about where to draw the line, enjoy the gradient. Perhaps that’s the much-touted “true meaning of Christmas.” Put aside dividing lines and come together to feast, exchange gifts and spend time with loved ones. Wherever it came from, be it Christian, Mayan, Puebloan, Navajo, Aztec, Germanic, Roman, Spanish, Pennsylvanian, Transylvanian or transcontinental, it’s the same thing: Peace on earth and goodwill towards humankind.

And on that note, I would like to wish you all a happy holiday season, a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year.