Las Posadas, rábanoes, y la nochebuena – it’s Christmas in Oaxaca

MINNESOTA September, 1995.

“Do you have a passport?” my wife asks me one evening.

“Yeah, but I think it has expired.  Why?

“Because Mom is taking all of us to Oaxaca for Christmas!”

Four months later, nine of us: my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family, my wife, our two grade school daughters, and I settle into our rooms at the Posada de Chencho.  Ollas, ceramics, and masks made by local artisans decorate the halls.  We lived within a long, narrow courtyard among poinsettia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and bird of paradise plants.  This is the first of six Christmases we spend in Oaxaca, and they forever change our idea of this day.

‘Chencho,’ the posada’s Zapotec owner, a friend of my mother-in-law, knows everything about Oaxaca’s museums, shops, and festivals.  After a day in the city, we are overwhelmed by the its colonial center, the Zocalo, its vibrant colors, and rich scents.

It is December 21st but we feel a difference immediately.  Gone is the urgency over buying and baking for ‘The Day.’  The shops and markets are free of saccharine carols about tiny drums and partridges in pear trees.  It isn’t that Oaxacans don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s that they haven’t lost sight of its religious meaning.  The season begins December 16th with las posadas and lasts through January 6th, with gift-giving following the tradition of the Three Kings who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.

La Posada en Teotitlan

Freed from the ‘commercial’ burden of Christmas, we are at liberty to explore other options.  Chencho tells us there will be a posada that evening in the nearby Zapotec town of Teotitlan.  We go.

La posadas are an ancient Spanish tradition brought to Mexico.  Neighbors take the part of pilgrims – the Holy Family – and process through the streets to a particular house. They chant songs back and forth with the householder who acts as the innkeeper. Eventually the peregrinos are admitted and there is a party with food and drink.  Like Day of the Dead, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the missionaries used las posadas to supplant an indigenous celebration of the winter solstice and (possibly) the birth of Huitzilopochitli, the Aztec god of war.

The posada in Teotitlan is already underway when we join it, moving slowly along the dark streets, led by children with candles.  Teotitlan is built on a hillside, its cobbled streets wind and dip, so we walk carefully to avoid loose stones and potholes.  The brass band ahead of us plays marching songs, and two men carry a platform with statues of Mary and Joseph in 16th century Spanish garb.  Bottle rockets flare upward and explode overhead with a flash.  Boys on bicycles pause for the procession, make signs of the cross and pedal away.  Somewhere ahead, but out of sight, the children with candles seek the house where la posada will end.

We leave before they reach the house but I’m aware of another part of the Christmas story: the poverty of Mary and Joseph, their perilous search for shelter, rejection by the comfortable, giving birth in a barn instead of an inn.  Its a mixture of wonder and misery could be a Mexican story.

La Noche de los Rábanoes

“Tonight we will see la noche de los rábanoes,” my mother-in-law tells us.  The Zocalo is set aside each December 23rd for the ‘La noche de los rábanoes’, a tradition since 1897, a huge cultural event.

With some skepticism, I wonder what is special about radishes; they’re small and I rarely eat them.  On this night there is a competitive display of figures and scenes carved from huge, specially-grown radishes.  That morning in the Zocalo, I watch men, women, and children carving and assembling the figures in their scenes.  Their paring knives flick and slice.  Pieces of radish become arms and legs, heads and torsos.  The red skin is scored and cut to create mouths, eyes, or designs on clothing.  Later that day, we’re among the thousands that patiently wait our turn to see the tableaux of the birth of Jesus, Santiago defeating the Moors, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, and the Death of Zapata among others.  The winner is announced, but the prizes aren’t as great as the skill and dedication.

La nochebuena or Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve day is a Sunday, and we spend at the weekly tianguis in Tlacolula, one of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica.  Here rural Mexicans in traditional dress buy and sell vegetables, kitchenware, jeans, shoes, tools, and necessities.  There are few tiendas or stalls selling items for tourists, and nothing indicates it is Christmas.  No special prices, no sales, no promotions, no pressure. (Heaven on earth!)

In Minnesota, we usually celebrate this evening (and my wife’s Norwegian heritage) with a meal of remembrance: meatballs in cream gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas, lefsa with butter and sugar, cranberries, and rice pudding.  Then we open gifts and go to church.  But tonight we eat a simple supper, or cena; Oaxacans have a civilization of three thousand years and a meal of remembrance isn’t needed.

We return to the Zocalo after dark.  Zapotec women in huipiles (indigenous dresses) offer to sell woven cloth and rebozos.  We buy some sparklers from a street vendor and join the throng of waiting spectators, but uncertain what we’re waiting for.  There is a murmur of expectant voices punctuated by the bottle rockets exploding overhead.

While we wait, we buy buñuelos at a stand.  They’re a flat, deep-fried pastry drenched in syrup and served in a simple clay bowl; a sweet, sticky Christmas tradition in Mexico.  Afterward, we join others in throwing the bowls over our shoulders – for luck.  It’s a tradition!

And then we hear a brass band playing off-key, and watch a long procession march toward the Zocalo.  Two women with a church banner, flanked by candle bearers, lead the way, followed by the band and marchers.  Behind them is a flat-bed truck with a girl dressed as Mary kneeling over a manger, and a boy as Joseph standing behind her.  More bands, processions, and floats approach from every corner of the city.  A man wears a bamboo frame with a wheel atop his head.  He lights the fireworks attached to the wheel, they set the wheel spinning as he runs around the square.

La nochebuena in Oaxaca is everything Christmas Eve is not in Minnesota: It’s a public celebration, a Mardi Gras, a college homecoming, and the July 4th all rolled into one, exuberant expression of joy.

“I like this better than a ‘Silent Night’ at home,” my wife says, thereby saying all that needs to be said.  How can one truly celebrate anything as great as the Messiah’s birth with only a pious hush?

Meanwhile, our eleven year-old daughter is talking to a Mexican girl in grade-school Spanish.  I can’t hear what they say, or understand it if I could.  They talk, putting their heads close together, and with shy smiles, exchange pieces of candy.  It’s Christmas.

La Navidad

Chencho throws a Christmas party for his guests but we are out-numbered by the members of his extended family.  First we have a cocktail party in the courtyard.  I ask for mescal, the fiery, local hooch made from maguey.  He serves it and points to a plate of salt containing the powdered remains of the maguey worm.  It’s an invitation and a dare.  I try it; the salty taste complements the liquor.

After cocktails, the children whack away at the piñata while blindfolded.  As the kids begin swinging, everyone yells directions and encouragement.  One by one, the clay piñatas are broken, candy spills onto the plaza, and squealing children scramble to get some.

After dinner, the courtyard falls quiet for naps and conversations about what we’ve seen and experienced.  Given the costs and hassles of holiday travel, we didn’t buy and bring Christmas gifts.  Traveling together is a gift in itself.  Since then, Christmases in Minnesota have never been the same.  We broke the habit of gift buying.  There’s no more suffering through frantic Black Fridays in search of ‘bargains.’  The day has largely reverted to a religious holiday of family and friends; a day of remembering Oaxaca.

Christmas is a theological idea expressed culturally.   Mexico, with its indigenous and Catholic traditions, keeps Christmas principally as a religious celebration.  But in the culturally diverse United States, the day is secularized into a common denominator.  It’s a pastiche of images from the Bible and folk tales, Mary and Joseph with Santa Claus and his elves; Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ with the Gospel of Luke.  Christmas is wrapped in a peculiarly American sentimentality that overlooks the tribulations of Mary and Joseph; tribulations not dissimilar to the daily experience of many Mexicans.

Up next: Living on Mexican time.

Dia de los Muertos – to be, or to be, on the Day of the Dead

OAXACA, Mexico

Just before the Day of the Dead, while sitting in an outdoor cafe, two men with guitar and pan pipes play “Dust in the Wind,” a haunting song of the mid-70s. It’s chorus line is: “all we are is dust in the wind.” I love that song, but in Oaxaca, on el Dia de los Muertos, the living and the dead are not dust in the wind;they are mmuch more than that.

El Dia de los Muertos is a uniquely Mexican celebration of indigenous origins that, to an American eye, appears as a colorful, magical celebration mixing elements of Halloween and Mardi Gras. But it’s neither of those. It began as an indigenous celebration of Mictecacihuatl, the guardian-goddess of the dead. Spanish missionaries co-opted this festival and merged it with the celebration of All Saints and All Souls days (November 1 and 2) creating the syncretistic Dia de los Muertos.

Yesterday Estella’s extended family gathered at her mother’s house for “la comida” or dinner. There, a large “ofrenda” or altar flanked by huge bouquets of marigolds and tall candles filled a nook in the room. The ofrenda is the focus of the celebration. A dark wooden crucifix, a family heirloom of some 200 years, sat in the center. On either side, photos of the “difuntos,” or deceased of the family. Before them were tamarindos, bananas, pecans, bottles of cerveza and mezcal, aand other things the difuntos liked. This is an offering to invite their spirits to join the rest of the family for a visit.

We sipped mezcal and beer, feasted on mole negro, a traditional and piquant dish Estella cooked in a large, clay casarola over a charcoal fire in the courtyard. The mole and rice and tortillas, the beer and conversation made for a festive day. Later, back in our neighborhood, a brass band played in a cobblestone alley, children and adults in faces painted to resemble skulls, danced to the music. Bands played in every barrio of Oaxaca, people danced until morning’s first light, tired but happy.

Festive but not trivial, serious but not morbid, the skeleton figures, the flowers, the pan de muerto, and other decorations are festive, colorful, and symbolic; each one carries a meaning beyond words. Each icon speaks to the nature of “being,” of mortality. It’s a celebration of life and “being” and transcendance; it’s a celebration that we are more than dust in the wind.

Day of the Dead begs the question of: “What is being?” Being. Being alive. What are your ideas about your “being?” Or the meaning of “to be?”

Spanish has two forms of “to be,” two forms of “being” One form of to be (ser) refers to what is permanent, inherent; the other form of to be (estar) expresses impermanence and change if not action. Maybe we haven’t considered these questions before. But if we do, we can consider them clinically, standing outside the culture, or, like language immersion, we can enter into the moment and understand the question through participation. In either case, the meaning of the Dia de los Muertos confronts us with the question of “being” and, by extension, the verbs for “to be.”

For me, el Dia de los Muertos speaks to the miracle of being human and mortal as well as human and spiritual. The skeleton figures and masks remind me that, beneath our present status, position, and wealth, we are all skeletons; we are all equal in death. This is a reminder we are transitory beings in this world; We are and then we are, but not as we were before. Or so we believe and hope.

And then there is the practical conundrum of using the two Spanish forms of the verb “to be.” “Estar” refers to a transitional or temporary state of being or location as in: “He is ill,” or “She is late,” or “They are here.” “Ser” refers to inherent and unchanging aspects of one’s existence as in: “My eyes are brown,” or “I am a man.”

Which one to use? English has only one form of the phrase “to be” and it encompasses both temporary and inherent states of being. The conjugation of the English verb form doesn’t change to distinguish permanent from temporary being. We distinguish by modifying the phrase with an adverb, as in: “He was ill temporarily.”

But it’s one thing to learn the rules of grammar and quite another to use them correctly in a conversation, especially when we’re accustomed to using one form. Which state of being applies? How can I tell? Well, I said to myself, if the being can move, it’s probably changeable so my choice is “estar.” And if it doesn’t move or change, then it’s probably “ser.”

But it isn’t always clear cut and there could be a cultural twist as well. I faced this when writing an essay of impressions about my first encounter with el Dia de los Muertos. In passing, I mentioned my mother’s death and wrote: “Mi madres es muerto,” stating she was in a permanent state of non-being. Death to an American seems permanent and inherent.

My teacher read my essay, arched her brows, and then said: “No, tu madre esta muerto.” Why, I wanted to know. She’s not dead temporarily, and she’s not going to return to life. Isn’t death inherent andn permanent? No, that’ wasn’t the case. When she was living, it was “esta vivo,” and that changed with her death to “esta muerto.” Alive and dead, being and non-being are changeable states of being.

“To be, or not to be” came to mind. Until that moment, it never occured to me I could have different states of being at the same time. I am a man with brown eyes, and I am tall (inherent qualities), but at the same time I am happy, chilly, and dressed (changeable states). Our being is fluid, in a metaphysical sense. And I never would have thought of it but for Spanish.

If you are still with me – Bravo! You may be wondering what is the point. It’s this: the structure of language has a metaphysical aspect that both reflects and affects how we live our daily lives. If we poke at this enough, we may see in the verb phrase “to be” nuances about the meaning of life and death we hadn’t encountered before.

Yes, a person’s physical state does change with death and the spirit leaves them. The mystery of life is that we come out from a state of non-being, we live, we die, and enter a different state of being. We are never alive forever as mortals. Yet, when we speak of the deceased of the dead as “esta muerto,” we go on to describe their physical features using the “ser” form of to be because they were inherit to the deceased. Thinking this way can be a little mind-bending. Distinctions such as these do influence the culture and shape its approach to death and life. It has influenced my view.

In my room I receted a small “ofrenda” on a credenza with a photo of my parents in the enter, with papel picado (pierced paper), a vase of cempazuchitl (marigolds), and flor de muerto, a painted crania, and a candle. In the photo, my parents are forever in their late 40s, still full of “being,” and about to set off for an evening event. For awhile, I sat vigil in my room, remembering them, and through remembrance, something of them returns to me.

Are memories transitory or permanent? Should I use “ser” or “estar” when writing of them? I don’t know. But I do know this: Our “difuntos” live on in memory, and for as long as we, and our children, and maybe their childre remember us, we live and they live and we are not “dust in the wind.”