There is a saying, that if you want to learn of love then find yourself in love and if you want to learn of the lonely then find yourself in the forest. By this standard, if someone wants to learn of Christmas I would suggest they go to San Cristobal de las Casas. San Cristobal is the cultural, if not literal, capital of Chiapas set in the beautiful eastern highlands of Mexico. The communities in and around San Cristobal are some of the strongest and most fiercely independent indigenous people in the world whose cultural and religious beliefs have survived and evolved into the rich form that it is today. Ancient Mayan traditions have fused with Catholic beliefs, which makes Christmas in San Cristobal a truly unique experience.
The name of the game in San Cristobal is churches, where you are likely to see and hear much more than you may expect from the Catholicism you are used to. I’m surely not alone when I say that visiting Catholic churches can be a somewhat drab affair. The high vaulted roofs, the immovable idles lurking on the perimeter, the melodic chanting of the priests or monks, and the generalized photophobia does not contribute to an especially lively atmosphere inside most churches. The first thing you will notice about the churches in San Cristobal is the light and the color. Whites, blues, and other bright colors illuminate an interior with windows large and transparent enough to serve their function. The second thing you will notice are the sounds. Certainly there are the deep and sonorous tones of the Catholic priestdom, but then a mariachi band tunes in or cheerful singing breaks out and your perception of Catholic churches is suddenly thrown into disarray. While visiting churches on Christmas Eve we saw such episodes of lively music and community in dozens of beautiful churches as well as in the streets.
San Cristobal and Chiapas are in the habit of throwing more than just Catholic perceptions into disarray. Religious traditions have given rise to a type of Catholicism that is rebellious, independent, devout, and at times revolutionary. It was liberation theology espoused by the more rebellious catholic diocese of Chiapas that contributed to the popular Zapatista revolt of the 1990’s. One may recall the images that characterized the movement: black masked and rifle toting men and women often times on horseback. Their revolt still has resonance today and at the time of writing this article tens of thousands of masked activists were marching in protest in many parts of Mexico.
The type of religion practiced by the Chiapas devout could be very loosely described as a mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs. Yet it would be more accurate to say it is it’s own completely unique religion. The Santo Domingo Church and convent on the north side of town is likely San Cristobal’s most beautiful church. With it’s baroque and richly filigreed facade and expansive gilding on the interior, it appears very much to be in the Catholic tradition. However, while visiting this church on Christmas Eve there were again examples of the unorthodox. While admiring the church I heard sounds of chanting and was drawn towards one of the transepts, where I discovered a Chamane, a medicine man or woman, in the middle of a blessing. He wore the traditional black woolen tunic and spoke a blessing in the Tzotzil language while tapping a woman with a small bundle of herbs. These sorts of scenes are very common throughout Chiapas, but to see the true heart of this Mayan Catholic faith you will need to travel to the neighboring village Chamula and the Templo San Juan.
The largely indigenous and fiercely independent town of Chamula, ten kilometers from San Cristobal, is one of the most unique churches in the world and one of only two that exclusively practice this very devout mix of Mayan and Catholic faith. It is a startlingly beautiful sight when you first enter. Pine needles cover the floor, a smoky haze from candles and incense hangs overhead, trumpet and drum music spontaneously erupts from different corners, and lines of candles burn themselves down to the floor which are then scraped up and replaced by another set. Many aspects of the church are not only unorthodox, but seem fundamentally a-Catholic. There are no pews, no formal mass or lead priests, and everyone is involved in their very own and very direct communication with God. Live chickens are used by the Chamanes as a blessing by rubbing them upon the head and the shoulders of the blessed, and then the chicken’s neck is broken and is laid down upon the ground as a sacrifice. There are no seats and everyone kneels or sits upon the ground either alone or in small groups before the candles. Items of importance that you see inside San Juan Chamula are candles of different colors, eggs laid out in rows, soda, and posh which is the pre-Columbian alcoholic drink of Chiapas. These are the tools of the Chamanes, who are selected from young ages to cure the sick in this sacred place.
Throughout the town of Chamula, green crosses decorated with pine branches sit upon hilltops and along creeks and roadsides. This is an example of a pervasive religiosity where faith is a vital part of every day life throughout Chamula. It feels comforting rather than oppressive, and it is scenes like this which make the areas in and around San Cristobal a great place to be at Christmas. Christmas, at least in spirit, is supposed to be a religious holiday. Yet for so many of us there is hardly a religious quality around the holidays. Santa Claus, presents, and family can entirely eclipse the holidays for the not so religious. Yet I still believe that there is much to be learned from the devout, no matter what your spiritual persuasion. San Juan Chamula and the religious practices of Chiapas are an example of deep faith, of holding onto sacred traditions, of adaptation, and a more soulful expression of Christmas than any I have yet experienced.