Thursday, December 11, 2008

naughty or nice

On Tuesday, Juan Calypso of Viva Veracruz and Bliss of 1st Mate posted their impressions of how the American commercialization of Christmas has invaded Mexico like some form of holiday kudzu.

The blight appears to be far worse in the north where Bliss reports that for several years school teachers have been teaching their students to write letters to Santa for Christmas gifts. The schools appear to be the route for social indoctrination throughout Mexico; Calypso's small village of Ursulo Galvan is beginning to suffer the same Santa fate.

So what's the problem? Santa is the very essence of spreading joy to all, isn't he? Even Japan and China have Santa these days.

I refuse to use terms like cultural imperialism -- merely because they have become as meaningless as other political epithets: "fascist" being a prime example. But there is something insidious going on here.

Mexico, like all other Iberian-based cultures, does not include Santa in the pantheon of holiday saints. In his current incarnation, Santa is an Anglo-Saxon invention. His only Spanish connection is the Dutch Saint Nicholas, who lives in Spain -- probably in a condominium project where the market has collapsed -- and has a servant helper named Zwarte Piet. (Political correctness prohibits me from further describing Zwarte Piet, who has become an embarrassment to the race-sensitive Dutch).

What the Iberians have is the three kings (another Biblical extrapolation, with next to no scriptural support). On 6 January (Dia de Los Reyes) the three kings bring gifts (often no more than foil-wrapped chocolate coins) to children. The gifts are meant to symbolize the material gifts given to Christ at his birth -- gifts of sacrifice. (A little cultural footnote. Castro has now forbidden the Spanish embassy from distributing chocolate coins from a horse-drawn carriage on Dia de Los Reyes. With unintended irony, the ban described the practice as being a feudal practice. Pots and kettles, I guess.)

Of course, that is the very antithesis of a Santa Christmas where the whole family expects to receive absolutely anything that pops into their collective material mind.

I am not certain that I support either version of this cultural war. For all of its romantic notion of sacrifice and small gifts, my Mexican friends tell me that Dia de Los Reyes long ago became the same type of gift orgy that Christmas has become for Americans. The only difference is the day.

I have long disliked Christmas. But I could not tell you why. I enjoy getting together with my family. I love group feeding time. And the theology gave me hope.

But all of the symbols seemed to be a bit askew. The central message of hope and love seemed to be pushed to the rear by Santa and his horde of expensive toys -- along with all of the accompanying financial angst far more fear-enducing than the most horrid stories of Zwarte Piet.

Earlier this year, I read an interesting article by the philosopher, Roger Scruton. He also had the same uneasiness about Christmas, and summed it up in one word: kitschification. He was not merely talking about the material kitsch of plastic Santas. His concern was the very theological basis of the holiday (the incarnation) had been reduced to papier-mâché platitudes.

The dispute is not really about Santa displacing the three kings. It should be about not letting symbols take on a reality that makes a mockery out of the reason why we celebrate Christmas. If we focus on loving others more than we love ourselves, and that we often need to sacrifice to show that love, the symbols will simply fade into irrelevance.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish each of you the joy that loving one another can bring.


1st Mate said...

Amen. And not just the last two weeks of December. Let it thrive long after the tinsel tarnishes.

Steve Cotton said...

Bliss -- Well said.

Theresa in Mèrida said...

One thing that we really liked about Merida was that Christmas Eve is celebrated more like a birthday party. At midnight the Christ child mysteriously appears in the manger and there is a feast at midnight. In our neighborhood, Santa has made inroads, but the kids don't get tons of stuff. People drop off presents at "Santa's" house and on the 24th, there is knock at the door and presents are there when the kids go and answer.
I don't know how Santa gets nominated.
Also Coca Cola puts on a "spectacular" in the large parking lot north of town. They set up a Santa's village more like a carnival with a Christmas theme and put on a free show complete with a lip syncing chorus of dancers. The year I went it was about the family and sharing time together is more important than getting presents.
It's not a big spend fest, but rather laid back and fun.

Calypso said...

I like the season and will take ANYTHING that inspires people to get along a little better (goodwill to men).

Either version of the Holiday giving process is cheapened by the absurd debt and massive attention to the gift giving.

Fully 25% of the annual retail business is booked during December. I owned 5 stereo stores at one time including one in Salem, OR btw.

Going into debt, coveting gifts and losing the true meaning of the season is sad.

The advantage to the Three Kings Day was it being principally a day to give a small gift to the children - that lessened the ridiculous buying frenzy where grown people trample and kill each other during a sale or have gun fights in a toy store.

It seems to me people in the U.S. should be ashamed for what they have allowed Christmas to become.

Go watch a good version of The Christmas Carol!


Steve Cotton said...

Theresa -- I am glad to hear that your city is focused on the joy.

John -- I often wonder how the Magi would feel if they knew that if they were alive now, they would have put their nations into hock to pass around gifts that would simply make the recipients want more. We lock up people for indulging in drug habits, but elevate those with goods addictions. But, there I go on my soap box again.

mcm said...

In the part of Mexico where I live (and other parts, I expect), the holiday spending frenzy is powered by the aguinaldo -- year end lump-sum payment to workers (from the President to the street sweeper), that, by law, must be at least 15 days of pay.
People count on this, and plan major expenditures, as well as yearly clothing purchases around it.

Not sure exactly what my point is -- except to say that there's more to the December spending binge than 1) religion or 2) marketing.

Like everything else in Mexico (and the world?) -- the more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn.

Steve Cotton said...

MCM -- Good observation. Christmas bonuses were once extremely popular in the States, as well. Now, most people are happy to merely have a job.