Jeff Green | Dec 15, 2005
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ChristmasEditionDecember 15, 2005
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Christmas in Oaxacaby Tricia Workman
The sharp reek of gunpowder stung my nostrils, and sparks showered perilously close to the gaudy tissue paper decorations above. Every few seconds, firecrackers and Roman candles fizzed and exploded outside. The din was deafening. I was in church, holding a fully functioning sparkler three feet long that showered tiny star in all directions. It felt more like New Year's Eve or a blow-out birthday party (which. of course, it was.) But it was just a normal Christmas Eve in Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HA-ka). Nowhere on earth is Christmas celebrated more exuberantly than in here in the capital of the southern Mexican state of the same name. Indeed, the church service was the finale of 11 days of advent fiesta that had included reenactments of the Holy Family's search for lodging (complete with caroling, and tamales both savory and sweet afterward), parades, a grand display in the main square of artistically carved giant radishes, and lots of crockery-smashing, Christmas Eve is the night ALL the stops are pulled out. Starting around 8:30 p.m., each church in Oaxaca--and there seems to be one on every other corner--organizes a procession. Gaily decorated floats carry musicians and towering papier machfigures, followed by crowds bearing tall candles. These parades wend their way through town, meeting at the zalo, or main square. After circling the zalo, they return to their respective churches. The other guests and I watched in amazement as a parade stopped in front of the church directly across the street from Casa Arnel, where we were staying. At the foot of the church steps, girls in ruffled skirts and traditional head dresses danced, their long black braids and bright ribbons flying behind them as the musicians played. Boys set off firecrackers and Roman candles, the explosions of colors lighting the dark sky, much like the Star of long ago. Not one to watch when I could be participating, I crossed the street. The great carved doors to the church opened. A smiling, wrinkled old woman handed me the largest sparkler I had ever seen--at least three feet tall--and insisted on lighting it before I entered the church. Inside, I nervously looked around at the profusion of gaudy tissue paper streamers and snowflakes festooning the walls and ceiling, and at the sparks flying everywhere. The boom and pop of fireworks came through the open side door. It was the first and only time I have ever smelled gunpowder in church. The Oaxaquenos just smiled and made room for me in a pew. Those unlucky enough to arrive later crowded the aisles and stood in the doorways. A large nativity scene filled the altar, but the manger was empty. The service began with a procession of singing children in snow white surplices, looking simultaneously solemn and joyful. They were followed by an adult choir. The priest, resplendent in white and gold vestments, recited something in Spanish. Somehow it didn't seem to matter that I understood not a thing that was going on. The feeling was universal, and absolutely clear. Then the Big Moment arrived. From the rear of the church, a life-size Baby Jesus was carried in, held high above the heads of those entrusted with this most important task, and reverently placed in the straw-filled manger at the front of the church, to the joyous singing of the entire congregation. HE had arrived at last! This moment was the culmination of the previous two weeks' festivities, a joyous melding of baroque Spanish Catholicism, ancient solstice rites, and native exuberance. It seemed to me the truest expression I've ever witnessed of deeply religious faith and unmitigated joy at the birth of the Savior.
The fireworks continued off and on until 2 a.m. On Christmas morning the streets were silent and deserted, scraps of colored tissue and the burnt remains of fireworks the only remaining signs of last night's spectacle. Exhausted at last, everyone slept.(Tricia Workman is a freelance writer, editor and researcher who lives north of Verona.)