Christmas in the Chiapan Highlands,
The state of Chiapas occupies the south west corner of contemporary Mexico, with Guatemala to its east, the Pacific Ocean and Oaxaca state to the west, Veracruz and Tabasco states to the north. It is a country of beautiful mountains and lakes. Its high proportion of fully indigenous inhabitants speak several Mayan languages.
The Chiapans are a proud and rebellious people. Under the first wave of Spanish domination, many chose suicide by jumping to their deaths in a canyon, rather than submit. They have never regarded themselves as truly Mexican, preferring more local loyalties, claiming and occasionally fighting for an independence that is as much cultural as political. Chiapas is still one of the least hispanizado of the states of the Mexican federation, as these people have fought to maintain their own identity and customs. There have been many armed rebellions, for example in 1848, 1868, 1914, 1925 and from 1974 a smoldering unrest that broke out in violence in 1994 (the Zapatista movement, demanding better conditions from the federal government and an end to empty promises).
Samuel Ruiz, for thirty nine years (1960-1999) bishop of the mountainous and largely indigenous diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, understood the people and fully supported their claims for respect and better conditions. On first becoming bishop he toured his entire diocese on a mule, and learned several Mayan languages. He espoused the "liberation theology" sweeping through Latin America in the fifties and sixties and encouraged or allowed the syncretic incorporation of indigenous religious elements into church rituals.
This incorporation of native elements into Roman Catholic ceremonies was particularly strong in smaller towns like San Juan Chamula, some 10 miles from the wonderful small cathedral city of San Cristobal. My friend was able, on one occasion, to take part in the Christmas celebration in San Juan Chamula through the intervention of a colleague, a biologist turned folklorist, who had gained the trust of the local people. It was a memorable experience.
At the end of the previous Christmas festivities, the church's "nativity scene" had been carefully dismantled, and the image of the baby Jesus put into the care of a respected member of the congregation for safe keeping till the following Christmas. So, Christmas proper began each year on Christmas Eve with the dressing of the stored baby in new clothes at the house of the favored custodian, and its transport in solemn procession to the church, where the image of Mary was waiting.
The simple church had no pews or seats and pine branches covered the floor. Round the walls were images of saints, but several had been turned around so that they showed only their backs. It was understood that saints who neglected or bungled their duties could fall into disfavor, tellingly displayed in this way. As could the priest, for the last one sent to the town in 1942 had been killed, and the people were left for the time being to make their own intercessions.
Most of the townsfolk were expectantly waiting at the church, for the arrival of "baby Jesus" at midnight. They squatted among the pine branches on the ground around an enormous image of the crucified Christ lying on the floor of the church, wrapped in cloth as though ready for burial. The swathed image perhaps represented the "fallen god" while the infant doubtless represented the promised and hoped for "renewal". It makes as much sense to me as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols we hear each year from Kings College, Cambridge.
When the procession arrived, the communal emotion was expressed in the "joyful keening" of the women, who were carrying flowers, candles, and incense burning in clay containers. And of course (it being Mexico), by fireworks. These were simple affairs; essentially gunpowder poured into troughs and set alight. Suitably humble "outsiders" were tolerated, if not positively welcomed. Photography, however, was not allowed. One bold French tourist, who ignored the ban, was attacked and the film ripped out of his camera.
It was an unforgettable experience, and a great privilege to witness a Christmas ceremony held in such awe by a whole community.