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  • I am sad and filled with love. I want to be still. She took her life and needed to and she is free now and I need to celebrate life. I will not go to Chamula this year, I cannot be around many people, but I need to remember what happens on Christmas Eve in the Tzotzil Mayan community of Chamula:

    The Christmas Eve celebrations in Chamula are mind-blowing. Although there are tourists in Chamula year round, strangely, not many consider visiting December 24th. For those of us who do join in the fiesta, being one of few outsiders makes the experience even more special. Chamulans have a reputation for being not overly friendly toward non-natives. Maybe that is the reason only a handful of visitors risk going to the village late at night. But every single Christmas Eve I have been in their church, I have experienced nothing but warmth. Indeed, one year I attended the festivities with a friend who had been the director of San Cristobal’s prison for a while. As soon as we entered the church several locals who had served time in that prison recognized my friend and approached us, laughing and joking. I was utterly surprised that they seemed so happy to meet the man who had supervised their incarceration. After greeting him and tossing around more jokes, they each asked him for a cigarette. He complied with equal friendliness.

    The church is always a feast for the senses. Pine needles carpet the floor, filling every corner with their delicious aroma. Flowering bromeliads hang from the carved wood cabinets housing the saints and there are calla lilies and candles everywhere. Over the preceding days, congregants from the many parájes have brought baskets full of fresh basil and more flowers and candles. On Christmas Eve, bolonchon bands play from various parts of the nave. Each plays its own music at its own tempo, but the various sounds mix harmoniously to create a heavenly melody. The mingled scents of pine, flowers and copal, underscored by the music, are overpowering.

    A statue of the Virgin Mary has been placed in the center of the church for the proceedings. A large flock of women surround her. Each is covered from head to toe with a white sheet. These are the Chamulan midwives! Their swaying is not a full dance, but for hours they shift their hips from side to side, always with the rhythm of the bolonchon. I was once told their movements are offered to the Virgin to help ease her birthing.

    Non–Chamulans are asked to leave the church before the main event. Outside in the crisp December air we visitors can clearly hear a loud whistling. It comes from a group of young men approaching the church. They each carry lit candles and one cradles a wood doll, the baby Jesus.

    There always have been too many people standing between me and the procession to see the doll with my own eyes. And I have never been permitted inside the church to see the men hand the baby Jesus to the midwives. But I have been told that with the handover, Jesus, the savior, is considered born. With his birth, a huge orgasm of welcome and rejoicing explodes. Firecrackers shatter the air and shake the earth so powerfully that on my first visit, I feared for my life. Just as one starts to relax from the initial barrage, there booms another firecracker and then another, and on and on rocking the cold winter night.

    The best way to calm oneself against the continuous thunder is to relax with some pox which many Chamulans offer generously. It helps against the cold, too. It is late now, whether before or after midnight it is hard to be sure. The timings of the fiesta are flexible and spontaneous. The church bell rings as loud it can, fighting hard to be heard over a modern sound system amplifying a salsa tropical band performing right outside the church. Now come the trumpeters of the military band. They lead a procession around the plaza accompanied by the Virgin with the baby Jesus who is followed by all the church’s saints. All the revered are embellished by baskets of herbs, flowers and candles. Each saint is carried by four people. Often the honor of parading the statues has been given to men whose shoulders and backs are bent by age and a life of hard work. Some parishioners toss rose petals on the icons as they pass by.

    The salsa tropical, bolonchon and trumpets keep up with the booming firecrackers. The plaza is next enlivened by two or three torritos, (images of bulls made of grass and wood which are manipulated by a man beneath). Firecrackers have been attached to the torritos. Whenever one erupts, sparkling star drops leap into the night. The men underneath the costumes jump and dance in time with the crackers’ explosions. This is a job for daredevils. Avoiding being burnt demands quick-footed artistry. Circling the torritos, amidst the firecrackers’ falling sparkles, children dressed in Halloween costumes frolic. They move in a wide circle through the flickering light and thus really do seem to be Halloween ghosts!

    As ones head fills with their specter, the castillo is set afire. This is a huge construction of many different fireworks. While it is burning another enormous quantity of fireworks is sent aloft. These are more colorful than loud. The castillo is bedecked with wheels of spinning, phosphoric light. The wheels’ sparks race in sputtering circles before going up in flames. Now the night sky is completely alive and sizzling. Only the saints remain silent on their way back into the church.

    Magical balloons, carefully crafted from Chinese paper, float upward. These enormous, colorful, shiny spheres are a local folk art specialty. A basket beneath each balloon holds petrol-soaked cotton set afire. The hot air this creates sends each balloon upward. They drift toward the stars. There’s one! Oh, look. There’s another! Soon, there are too many to count.

    The procession, the torritos, the castillo and the balloons — everything is happening at once. My senses and my body twirl to take it all in.

    Over and over I am driven to tears by this awesome spectacle. And I am driven, also, to look into the faces of those who produce this extraordinary celebration. Their faces show the harsh, hard lives they lead. And yet, they are able to surmount their circumstances to create such incredible beauty. Their spirit tears my heart open. A deep love flows through me. It begins as love towards the Chamulans and then flows to all mankind and, finally, to myself.

    In that moment I have been given the meaning of Christmas anew every single time that I have been able to witness this.

    With this I wish all of you, wherever you are, a Christmas filled with wonder and love



    Photography: Gayl an I with our Chamula friend and martoma and probably shaman ( she knows the worse spells to cast on unfaithful lovers and husbands) Maria Pathishtan Likanchiton
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