Mexico: A Tale of Two Cities

Colonialism is the immovable stain on the fabric of humanity. A nation free from its grasp may strive to erase its dark past, yet its indelible marks remain on the land and its people. Survival of the fittest, they brand it, the strong devouring the weak has become the blueprint for mass murder, providing ample justification for military occupation, the raping and pillaging of lands, the dehumanization of a people ultimately stripping an entire nation of its identity. Those that opt to defend and protect their homeland face imprisonment and death. The skewed and twisted ideologies borne out of greed, racism and a flawed theology inspire men to lay waste to whole communities.  Only when submission is seen as the only viable option is hegemony allowed to run its course, convincing a nation that their actions are morally justified, its people now contained inside the walls of their invisible prison, enjoying faux freedoms. Despite the efforts to take control of an occupied land and its indigenous people, resistance remains and victory is measured in terms of independence. And yet, as much as any oppressed nation feels a sense of liberation, the shackles of influence left behind are harder to remove.

This is the reality I saw all too clearly while travelling through Mexico City. Five hundred years sit between present day Mexico and the Mexico which the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés would have encountered in 1519, but its history is in plain view, only for those paying attention to it. There is a strange dualism that exists within the walls of this historic city, two separate cities weaved into one, each relaying their own narrative. It is no coincidence that both the Metropolitan Cathedral housed within the Zocalo that flanks the Templo Mayor or the Catholic church of Santiago in Tlatelolco within the Square of the Three Cultures, are both erected on top of Aztec ruins. Their positioning feels all the more intentional, another statement signifying dominance; Roman Catholicism, the import of Spain superseding the archaic, primitive religion of old. It is worth noting that though Cortés succeeded in desecrating the Aztec temples, known for the worship of multiple deities, most notable being Tlaloc, the god of water and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, yet the endless canonisation of saints and the worship of Mary, to the point where Jesus appears a mere afterthought seems to have replaced the old religion only to end up with more of the same. Though Roman Catholicism now accounts for roughly 80% of people residing in Mexico, there have been huge strides within archaeology to excavate the majority of the Aztec sites. It feels much like the resilient spirit of a people, proud of their heritage and ancestry displaying their history for the world to see.

Whilst the Mexican people relish in their rich history, I often wonder whether time has been somewhat kind to the memory of Cortés. After five hundred years, he still cuts a splendid figure, his legend unmarred by the atrocities he committed in the name of the Spanish crown. Should the slaughter of thousands of innocent people and the theft of their homeland based on an ideology rooted in ethnocentrism be seen as piracy or even better still terrorism? Then again, the Spanish colonial period could also be seen as a balancing of the books with history coming full circle. After all, the Aztecs, after initially migrating to what is known as the Valley of Mexico and founding Mexico-Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) immediately implemented a system of expanding their sphere of authority and influence by carving for themselves an empire consisting of neighbouring tribes they conquered. Ultimately history is decided by its winners.

Much of ancient Aztec worship was rooted in their sacrificial system. Human sacrifice was a constant feature based on the belief that blood was the an essential component needed to enable the sun to rise every day, and became the theological framework by which they fought wars against neighbouring tribes, taking prisoners for human sacrifice. New discoveries in archaeology are beginning to shed more light on the culture surrounding Aztec human sacrifice.

It is a notion which continues to be one that we gaze upon with utter disbelief and one that seems to offend all our moral sensibilities. Our common response to these seemingly inhumane, archaic, primitive forms of worship is to look upon them with disgust and to vilify this ancient civilization that has much to teach us. As i visited these sites, I began to wonder just how the Aztecs would view our willingness to sacrifice our children on self made altars of ‘financial burden’ or the ‘altar of inconvenience’ all in the name of reproductive rights. When placed in juxtaposition with the Aztec sacrificial system, is abortion any less inhumane because our tools are sterilized or it takes place under the safe haven of a clinic?







The Night the Secular Stole Christmas

The sacred space that Christmas once occupied in celebrating the birth of Christ seems to be disappearing at a rapid pace, leaving in its place a festival void of all religious value. For the millions that partake in this festive event each year, Christmas has been reduced to its warm sentimentalities such as the decorated trees, the pandemonium of last minute shopping, the exchanging of gifts and the family gathered round the dinner table. It has been suggested that relatively few people ‘have any idea of the process by which the heathen elements have become mingled with that which is obviously Christian, and equal obscurity prevails as to the nature and meaning of the non-Christian customs.’

Addressing the culture’s readiness to remove anything remotely Christian from this religious observance may begin to shed light on why so many varying faith groups feel at ease partaking in the celebrations. There was a time when a robust Christian theological framework was a prerequisite for celebrating a Christian festival. Indeed, there are many contributing factors to consider when trying to map out a clear trajectory of how we reached this juncture.

This melting pot of worldviews came to a head in 17th century when religious leaders known as the Puritans banned Christmas on account of its unbiblical origin and put forward a motion to view Christmas as a day of repentance as opposed to a day for idle feasting. Even in Britain, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas was removed from the list of holy days with the threat of imprisonment hanging over ministers who preached on Christmas Day. The contention around Christmas continued well into the 19th century when Christmas Day became an official bank holiday.

These frequent attacks on Christmas often seem to be guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is plausible that the church set 25 December as the date in which to celebrate Christmas as a rebuttal of the winter solstice and the festival Saturnalia held in honour of the Roman deity Saturn. This festival began on 17 December under the reign of the Emperor Augustus but by the end of the empire had progressively extended to seven days, ending on 24 December. Saturnalia existed as a gathering and a communion of sorts where participants enjoyed gambling, feasting, the exchanging of gifts and an affinity for spending money. The Greek philosopher Libanius remarks that it eventually gave rise to a heightened sense of materialism among the Roman elite.

Saturnalia brought with it a reversal in societal norms with distinctions between social class and status being set aside. Slaves were permitted to dine with their masters in a banquet usually reserved for the privileged.  It is important to note that these elements that are entrenched in our understanding of a modern Christmas were hallmarks of a pagan worldview long before Christianity was established. Against this backdrop, Kelly (2004) rightly points out that “Christmas provides a sense of prayerful or at least moral behaviour in sharp contrast to pagan license”.

Brumalia, which began on 25 December was essentially a feast to commemorate the shortest day. As the cold winter season became an obstacle to the livelihood of Roman citizens within agriculture and hunting, Brumalia was a time where people would offer sacrifices to the deity Saturn through intermediary priests. This was then followed by Sigillaria, where parents gave dolls to their children. Though there are similarities between the two religions, Golby and Purdue (2000) state: “the pagan winter festivals were closely linked with the affirmation of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and his ability to placate and encourage them’ whereas Christianity presented nature as being subordinate to its creator and emphasising the importance of Jesus’ birth.”

From the year 280 until 342 A.D, a bishop was vested to govern the region of Myra located in what was formerly Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). During his lifetime, he lived to see three emperors ascend to the throne – Diocletian, Maximilian, and Constantine. This bishop was born to wealthy parents who tragically died while he was still young leaving him a small fortune. During the Emperor Diocletian and Maximilian’s persecution of Christianity, he was exiled and imprisoned. In 325, he was invited by the request of Constantine to attend the council of Nicea to help wave off the Arian heresy sweeping through the church. Throughout his life he became renowned for his humanitarian work and acts of generosity. His name was Nikolaos of Myra. Today, depending on where you are in the world, you may know him by one of his many monikers – In France he is Pere Noel, in Germany and Austria he is Christkind, but to the majority of people he is Santa Claus.

Many erroneous falsehoods have fed the legend of Santa Claus, who far removed from the real historical figure of Nikolaos, has re-emerged as a mythic being who for the most part, ‘seems to be descended from a hodge podge of figures, none of whom have any connection to Christmas or Jesus of Nazareth’ (Lowe 2010:2) The term Santa Claus first became embedded in our conscience, when ‘Old Sancteclaus’ became the central theme of a 1821 book entitled ‘The Children’s Friend, in which he appears on Christmas Eve. As if back by popular demand, he makes a second appearance in Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 prose ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas, this time furnished with a reindeer and sleigh and an ability to climb down chimneys.

Santa Claus brings with him a deluge of issues and concerns. In a culture that are all too happy to disseminate lies to young children, Santa is now presented as an alternative to Jesus, a redeemer figure. In the eyes of the impressionable, his red robes exude importance and a certain majestic quality while his long white beard denotes age, maturity, wisdom and experience. As well as being omniscient as relayed in the festive jingle, ‘he knows when you’re naughty or nice’ as if attaining a sort of Christ like judicial office whereby he can judge the hearts and motives of children, Santa Claus harnesses the ability to perform miracles. Restad (1995) suggests that “Santa combined characteristics of God, Jesus, and human parents into a presence embodying love, generosity, good humour, and transcendence”.

In some ways this image of Santa helps to perpetuate society’s bent for materialistic greed where he is able to provide every child’s desire with a resounding ‘yes’. Restad demonstrates a poor framework for the message of Christmas when he said: “the Santa myth made available a person that could further the child’s understanding of religion and fortify symbolically the parents own sense of the same”. It still remains that if parents together with educational and religious institutions fail to make clear distinctions in highlighting the person and work of Jesus, the sanctity of Christmas will forever be lost to us.