Christmas In Colombia, Reflections On A Commercial Ritual

The celebration of Christ's birth was always a little bit pagan for its associations with the Roman imperial religion. But the modern West has turned into a pure carnival of pleasures.

Neon grace in Monserrate, Colombia
Neon grace in Monserrate, Colombia
Alberto López de Mesa


BOGOTÁ —My friend Sonia Guzmán earned her neighbors' disapproval in Bogotá for refusing to pay her share for the block's Christmas decorations. She argued she had the Grinch mentality. I had not heard of the term but pretended I understood, to hide my ignorance. Sonia being an anthropologist and lecturer, I assumed Grinch was a new philosophical concept regarding worship or social life.

I then discovered it was a character invented by the U.S. writer and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, for his 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which was made into a Hollywood blockbuster in 2000, and is considered by many as an allegory of our compulsive Christmas consumerism.

The Romanian philospher Mircea Eliade explained that the Church fixed the date of the Nativity to coincide with Roman festivities on December 25 (for the Birth of the Unconquered Sun), which means that from the start, Christmas celebrations were tainted with paganism.

I come from a typical Catholic family whose Christmas celebrations have adapted, year after year, to fads imposed by the market. My childhood memories include an enormous nativity scene that occupied half a room in my grandmother's house, with its rubber figurines of Mary, Joseph, the child and the Three Kings. There were also shepherds, sheep and cardboard huts. The Novena, or nine days of prayer, were done by the nativity. The best informed of my aunts later included with the Christmas decorations a dried tree with cotton buds adorning its branches, colored lights and baubles in the form of little present boxes and copper bells. It was a tropical version of the Anglo-American Christmas tree, which was very soon to replace the nativity scene.

Cities adapt their infrastructures to serve this economic event.

Indeed, as later generations moved into apartments, Christmas came to adopt the Anglo-American iconography: artificial pines adorned with glass baubles, lighting accessories made in Japan and the snow man, candy cane, a pine wreath over the front door and of course the iconic "Father Christmas," better known as Santa Claus.

An apocryphal legend identifies him as the fourth wise man, of Nordic origin, who —guided by the "Star of Wonder"—also undertook the journey to visit the Messiah, but arrived when the holy family had already fled Herod's assassins. Unable to see the Divine child, he now distributes gifts to other kids instead. For Christmas marketing, he is the perfect character to boost sales.

In truth, Christmas as the anniversary of Christ's birth is now only for the most traditional of Catholics. Our consumer society has greater use for symbols and figures that are not specifically religious — that way supply can reach people of any faith. If you want a deal, let go of the sacred. Santa is unrelated to the Christian message, and his business is bonuses and presents —meaning sales. He needs no altar and certainly not a nativity scene either. His temple is the shopping center, and his numen, the spirit of Christmas promotions. On the other hand, the Divine child is of little use to retailers, for you cannot sell what He stands for. You might just about sell images of him, but it would be heresy to use them to sell more toys!

For the Western world, December is the month of pleasures. Employees receive their bonuses, there are summer holidays in the southern hemisphere and winter holidays in the north. The market society encourages consumption, businesses rev up for the spending frenzy. Buying and selling become the only rituals. Cities adapt their infrastructures to serve this economic event, streets are adorned and events organized to liven the game of supply and demand.

For trade, what Christianity commemorates on December 25 can be exclusive, and even trigger spiritual misgivings over so much pagan feasting and eating. But commerce itself was already born atheist.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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