Andrew Claassen is the Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC Nicaragua.
As I was pulling on my socks before going to church last Sunday I heard a familiar sound: a small van with large speakers strapped to the roof was driving by making a lot of noise. Usually they’re selling eggs, looking to buy scrap metal, or letting people know that someone has passed away and informing them of the date and time of the funeral, but this time they were advertising Christmas gifts for children. After the loud and distorted used-car-salesman-like spiel, my ears were blessed with Dean Martin’s Christmas classic ¨Let it Snow¨. At a balmy 80°F letting it snow sounded like a great idea.
This is my fourth Christmas season here in Managua, Nicaragua and each December I’m struck by the images that spring up around the city—the white paint used to paint snow banks and flakes on supermarket windows, Christmas trees, and invasive Santa Clauses all mixed with the tropical heat and fruit. It makes me wonder what Nicaraguan Christmas was like forty or fifty years ago, back before dubbed Christmas movie marathons played on the local channels, before people put reindeer antlers on their cars, and before polar bears sold Coke to St. Nick.
Recently, at the MCC Central America regional retreat, we discussed neo-colonization and the colonial mentalities left after conquering armies withdrew. One of the ways that colonial mentality is understood is through the ¨colonialism of the soul.¨ Colonizers impose an external spirituality while native ways of understanding God are denied or dismissed. One worldview is replaced by another. I am struck by the parallel between this facet of colonial mentality and that of these imposed, external images of Christmas that replace and put to one side local images and symbols. This is a colonization of culture. A foreign, temperature-illogical culture has been imported or imposed depending on how you want to view it. And this is my culture.
I struggle with this. Given the long, bitter, and violent history that the U.S. has with Nicaragua, it is difficult to see this softer side of colonialism permeating the culture, changing peoples’ ideas of what Christmas is, how it should be, what it should look like. It forces me to reckon with my own relationship to these depictions of Christmas which have removed the Christ and left the más (more). The culture of consumption has replaced a culture of Emmanuel—God with us. How have I been permeated by this culture? How does my understanding of Emmanuel show in my life when these symbols have resonance with me, when the songs make me remember, when the colors and imagery make me miss home?
On the evening of the 7th of December, Nicaragua celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, or La Purísima. People make shrines to the Virgin Mary in their homes and neighbors, friends, relatives, and strangers, come together and sing songs. The hosting family gives out a litany of treats and household goods—brooms, oil, dry rice, matches, and the like to adults and candies, sugared fruits, and juices or sodas to the children. It’s a very alegre (happy) time in general with plenty of loud music and very, very powerful fireworks—I’ve been awoken more than once to what I assumed were artillery barrages. And though I struggle at times with the religious beliefs behind this celebration, there is no denying that the celebration is a uniquely Nicaraguan one and this is becoming more and more meaningful to me for that very reason. While La Purísima has evolved through the years—gifts have gone beyond homemade candies and sugar cane and shrines have become more and more elaborate—it remains a local expression of joy, community, and hope. The songs are traditional to Nicaragua, the foods given out are traditional, the fireworks are local.
Writing this, I’m challenged by the actual colonization of Nicaragua that left this colonial mentality, among others. This was a Spanish colony for centuries and of course La Purísima is a foreign imposition. Then again, my family puts up a Christmas tree because German tribes celebrated Yule centuries ago. At what point does imposition become culture? How does longevity affect belief?
Culture and belief go so hand in hand, weaving together the fibers of our societies so tightly that separating them seems to threaten the very fabric of reality. How do can we create a new tapestry with the fibers we have? How can we allow others to weave their own tapestries?
I don’t have answers to these questions but I’ll be humming ¨Let it Snow¨ while I stumble through the Christmas heat in shorts and flip-flops.