By Renata W.
I grew up in the Southern Hemisphere, very close to the Tropic of Capricorn: São Paulo, in Brasil (this is how Brasilians spell the name of their country). My early recollections of public Christmas displays are of Nativity Scenes: in the center, Mary and Joseph and the Child, surrounded by the animals that helped keep them from the cold outside, and by assorted more contemporary figures, maybe of donors, maybe of politicians, maybe of popular singers… Above, angels floated suspended from wires, and outside the stable, the three kings approached with their gifts. In some, more rural, parts of the country folk artists fashioned—and still do so—lovely, brightly colored Nativity figures you could set up in your own home.
Now, of course, there are plenty of public Santas, and reindeer, and a sled, in addition to trees decorated with cotton-wool “snow.” And public decorations go up in time to give the public plenty of opportunities to buy many, many presents, with mall Santas suffering from the heat, in the obligatory winter clothes, persuading children to ask for many, many presents. Part of that is due to a combination of Disney and commercialism.
But São Paulo is also a city of immigrants from all over, and those who came from Europe—mostly Northern, Eastern, and Central brought with them their own imagery and ceremonies, and adapted them to their new home. So in our house we had a tree (no cotton-wool, just silver threads), and the lights were real candles, very carefully placed so their flame would not reach the branch above them. The tree would be decorated a couple of days ahead of time, but it was only on the evening of the 24th that, after the children had been shut up in their rooms, the Christmasman (a literal translation from the German…) would turn up, and light the lights, and set out the gifts, after which the children would be called, and it would feel like a miracle of lights. (I think my little sister peeked once, and saw our mother carrying the gifts from their hiding places to the tree, and that was the end of that part of the ceremony…)
So no St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus and no sled and no reindeer. My Italian friend only got her presents on January 6, on the Epiphany, and she referred to it as “La Befana.” I understand that Greeks follow the same custom. Makes sense, considering that was the day when the Kings arrived with their presents.
So why the sweating Santa in the tropics? At some point, in school, we were assigned an essay on the history of the Christmas celebration. With a little digging, I found that the tree and snow and reindeer were something like a “translation” into Christianity of a Northern European solstice festival: as the days got shorter and the nights longer, people feared that the sun would leave altogether, so bonfires were lit to call it back, and the remedy worked; the sun always came back. Somehow the presents were then brought in by sled, and since someone had to make them, it was logical to imagine that there was a workshop somewhere and an optimistic entity counted on the tree-burning working and had commemorative gifts at the ready and a means of transporting them to the recipients. Even if the Nicholas part had to be adapted from the story of a kind Greek (or Turkish; I guess Myra changed hands from time to time) bishop who would give gifts to the deserving poor. And even if his name had to be adapted into something more Nordic-sounding, like Claus.
Maybe at this point I should note that in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed. I do that only because when I first arrived in the US, if I mentioned this fact about the seasons, and added that therefore winter here corresponded to summer there, I almost always got the puzzled question: “So, when do you celebrate Christmas?” When I said we celebrated on the 24th or 25th, the puzzlement did not go away. What about the snow, and the sled (or sleigh), or chimney (not a lot of chimneys in hot parts of the world, at least not fireplace chimneys, with mantles to hang stockings from…)? Can it possibly be Christmas without any of these? As I thought about it, it occurred to me that we were right back at the origin of all those celebrations: it was the solstice… And not only Christians celebrate the occasion. Maybe nobody wants the sun to go away.
Maybe. How do you celebrate Christmas? And if not Christmas, maybe a different way of marking the beginning of the end of darkness. Or, in the Southern Hemisphere, the scary beginning of the beginning of darkness. After all, we don’t need snow to celebrate love, grace, generosity, and the return of the sun, every year, at its appointed time.
As it turns out, we can’t all live on the Equator…