By Heriberto Escamilla
It’s that time of year; when Christians all over the world remember and celebrate the birth of our savior, the human manifestation of God, our creator. To many, especially to children, this season brings happiness. Over the past 2,000 years, the celebration has evolved, incorporating practices from many nations and traditions so that it currently takes many forms. For the young people in the United States, December 25th mostly means Play Stations, CD players, or one of the countless other miracles of our modern times. In less fortunate homes, Christmas means a new shirt, some pants, perhaps more practical gifts. For many adults, the season brings seldom seen relatives together for a day of eating and conversation, watching football games on television, more eating and conversation, perhaps an obligatory visit to the local church, more eating and as the day progresses, perhaps less conversation. And according to my daughter, Christmas is the stress of stretching that last paycheck. To the believers, la noche buena, the silent night has come to mean midnight mass, feeding family, enjoying the company of friends and most of all appreciating the gift of life.
Mental health professionals tell us that for an increasing number of us, the times are not so joyous. Separation, divorce, death, and this year, the war in Iraq means there will be empty chairs at the table, or more space on the couch, and unwelcome memories that steal away our happiness. Perhaps a celebration of Christmas past once resulted in a mangled heap of metal along the roadway, desperate hours at a hospital emergency unit, or a foggy morning at the Campo Santo. Maybe this is the first time that you are eating by yourself. To many, our savior’s birth has become forever associated with separation; the untimely departure of loved ones, of unforgivable pain, suffering and loss.
Teachers, both secular and religious tell us that true happiness comes from living in the present; that we should not dwell on the past or invest too much energy anticipating events that will never come to pass. Many of us, however, are unconsciously chained to the past. As soon as we are born, our parents reach down into the cradle handing us the traditions that their parents, our grandparents handed to them. And during our lifetimes, we explore, we learn, we rebel for a while, we change the traditions, adding our own personal touch that we in turn pass along to the next generation. It’s been that way forever. Reflect for a while, what are you giving your children? Is it happiness or suffering? As Ebenezer Scrooge discovered, happiness may indeed be in the present, but experiencing it often means driving away the ghosts from our past.
To appreciate current Christmas practices and their intended meaning, we should go back to the beginning for a while. Christianity is based on the life and teachings of one man, a very wise man who discovered the Truth. There is much controversy about this, but most biblical scholars agree that we really do not know when this man was really born. Nonetheless, as he grew, he conquered pain, suffering and eventually death itself. At first, words of how he accomplished this inspired only a few followers. But his disciples gradually increased the circle of believers, until they organized themselves into a church. As people began to interpret his teachings, each editing according to his or her understanding, each passing along unresolved pain, suffering and loss, the church eventually became many, each asserting its authenticity and exclusive ownership of the Truth.
In those early years of our collective history, one particular church, the one associated with the Roman Empire became a predominate force of the western world. As the empire expanded to foreign lands, it struggled to impose its practices and beliefs, its formula for salvation on the people that lived on those lands. After all, each group of people they encountered had their own history; their own prophets and they too had at one time, known the Truth. But like us, they were human and they too had experienced the unforgivable pain, suffering and loss that obscured the Truth.
One group of people, some call them Druids, others refer to them as Pagans, or Heathens occupied the lands around what we now know as the United Kingdom. They are the ancestors of the people that eventually came to establish their presence and impose their beliefs on the people that lived in America. These Pagans, the ancestors, historians tell us lived their lives according to the movements of the Sun, the Moon and other heavenly bodies. Their biggest celebration of the year was during the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls on December 21st of our calendar. According to the evidence they left behind, these people noticed the sun grew weaker up until the 21st, and then starting on the 22nd gradually regained its strength. So for nine days before the solstice, they ate, danced and rejoiced with family and friends, they burned the Yule log and decorated trees, in anticipation of the Sun’s “rebirth”. They loved the light and appreciated its warmth.
The church clerics, unable to properly educate these people, after all they were heathens, integrated this practice into the ever-growing body of beliefs. In fact, historians tell us the day conveniently coincided with December 25th, the day the ancient Italians had celebrated the rebirth of Saturn, oddly enough the name given to their own sun god. The American traditions of gift giving, Christmas trees, mistletoe and others come to us through this incorporation of pre-Christian practice.
Does the story sound familiar? Thousand of miles away in the valley of what is now Mexico City, the ancestors of the Aztecs were making similar observations about the Sun and the Moon. When the Spanish clerics arrived in the 16th century, Mejica priests were also leading the people in nine-day celebrations, honoring the birth of Huizilopchtli, the major deity in the Mexican pantheon. Do I need to tell you when these celebrations were held? December 16th through the 24th. These people also loved the sun and appreciated its warmth. According to people that study history, Ignacio de Loyola cleverly converted this celebration into what we modern Mexicans call the Posadas, and along with the conversion, a different formula for redemption.
“So, enough, what’s the point,” you might ask? How does this information help me today? And most importantly what is this “Truth” of which you speak. Well, I wonder and when I find it, I will surely tell you. But, let us come back to today. I believe that long ago, we knew that Truth, you and I. And along the way, we’ve held on to pain, embraced our own suffering and gotten confused. In our confusion, we’ve listened to men, who themselves were astray. Along the way, we lost the truth. Today, many of us follow empty practices with no purpose, no warmth and little life. Are you one of these people like me? What are you giving your family and friends for Christmas this year? Would you feel guilty if you couldn’t buy them anything? How would you feel, if on Christmas morning, you found nothing under your tree?