Advent in Colombia: Beyond the Secular/Spiritual Divide

Advent in Colombia: Beyond the Secular/Spiritual Divide December 9, 2018

M L Clark, 2018

Let’s begin with a story. In the early years of humankind, when our ancestors struggled mightily with their earthly lot, a god came down from the heavens to gift them vital knowledge, and suffered brutally for his efforts.

The god, of course, was Prometheus. The gift was fire. The punishment, set by the rest of the pantheon of gods, was an eternity of torture chained to a rock.

I was four when I first learned this story, and so excited by it that I took my book, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends,  to kindergarten, whereupon I put my classmates to sleep at reading time. (I still had much to learn about how best to tell a tale.)

When I first read parts of the Christian Bible, a few years later, I did not yet know that the Old Testament god was also a pantheon–an amalgam of characters from earlier Canaanite polytheism. (However, the “let us go down” of Genesis 11:7, in the story of the Tower of Babel, puzzled me from the outset in its plurality.) But even without that history, I recognized the same capricious, petty, tyrannical spirit in this character’s actions that I had seen in the Greek gods who toyed and punished human beings, then punished Prometheus for aiding them. On a narrative level, then, I kept waiting for the biblical counterpart to Prometheus: the figure in the Christian story who would offset with valiant personal action so monstrous a (body of) god(s).

Jesus Christ was a disappointment, though, to the small child who finally reached the New Testament. I didn’t believe in an afterlife, so what Christ offered followers didn’t hold any merit for me. And what was Christ’s story without that promise of resurrection? A hodgepodge of miracle-tales with varying levels of moral worth. He did what to a herd of pigs now? And helped a woman only after she compared herself to a dog while pleading for her child’s life? He fantasized about pregnant and nursing women running about in terror when the world ended within the lifetime of his immediate audience?

…And people venerated this?

But if Christ’s exaltation underwhelmed, Mary’s was nigh on baffling to a pre-pubescent. Because why shouldn’t she merit Joseph’s loyalty, irrespective of whether her unborn child was a god? Why, my small-child-self struggled with during every year of Christmas specials, was the value of this new human life so emphatically tethered to the supposed purity, piety, and patience of its mother?

There have been times, in my adult life, when I’ve been deeply saddened by the realization that this story is the story of our civilization. A god-man born of a virgin and later crucified to bridge an exile that the same godhead first set upon man for failure to perform perfect obedience. How tragically small-minded of us, I often thought, that this was the cultural currency we needed to communicate effectively with each other in the Western world. We could have had Prometheus! Oh, if only we’d had Prometheus! Oh, how different our culture would have been if centred around a myth that celebrated the pursuit of learning–widely, demandingly!–in lieu of grateful submission!

Image from Amazon.com

…But a funny thing happened to this atheist–this humanist–in subsequent years. I accepted that this story is our cultural baseline. I realized that, like it or not, VHS won out over Beta. Blu-Ray won out over HD DVD. And… Christ won out over Prometheus. In Canada, I grew up speaking English not because it’s the best language, but because it’s dominant. And even as we tweak parts of this language to match shifting cultural priorities, English it remains. Likewise, we in the West live strongly within the Judeo-Christian storytelling tradition: its narrative arcs, characters, rhetoric, and themes. But we do so not because it’s the best tradition–simply, because it’s ours.

Our history, whether we like it or not.

As such, I realized that if I mean to be a good humanist–to do the work, that is, of bettering the lot of human beings through the application of real-world knowledge (rationalistic, sceptical) and empathy–I shouldn’t be trying to impose a new vocabulary entirely. Rather, I need to work with the narratives in active use by others, and assess where it can be nudged down a better path. Just as certain words fall out of favour in English all the time, so too can the worst parts of Christian narrative be coaxed out of active Western practice. But eradicated? No, no more than the English tongue itself.

And yet…

Speaking of language, though, I might have been born into English, but I chose Spanish… just as I chose Colombia. And those changes reflect a strong, twinned hope that more drastic narrative reforms are still feasible.

In the midst of my first Advent in Colombia, for instance, I have had the opportunity to study how the same narrative blocks of Christianity are differently assembled. There are overlaps, certainly, between Catholic communities here and some in North America, but on a more fundamental level, the people performing Colombian Catholicism are still that–people: the same at their core as others the world over.

This means that Advent in Colombia offers this humanist two important lessons: first, that variation in secular conditions changes the impact of Christianity on its practitioners; and second, that some of these changes are advantageous to humanism, too. Christmas is a story–and as with my experience with Prometheus to my classmates, witnessing Christmas here reminds me that there are better and worse ways to tell the tale.

From the Beginning, Then!

Christmas in September, M L Clark, 2018

Thus far, Christmas in Medellín seems to be more three seasons than one.

The first season begins the moment Feria de las flores ends, at the close of August. At this point, major stores like Panamericana and Éxito produce huge displays of Christmas goods, like the one in this photo above, from early September. A “War on Christmas” here, there most certainly is not!

The second season seems to begin in early November, when lights and nativity scenes start to appear in the barrios, and street vendors start selling Christmas wares, and neighbours gather to construct collaborative displays. There’s an anticipatory hum in the air, and everyone’s thinking of December holidays.

But the third season of Christmas, the Advent season, only really takes off at midnight between November 30 and December 1, when the whole city lights up with fireworks for 20 minutes or so–after hours of preparatory fireworks, and before hours more of celebratory displays. It’s a nightmare for many pets, but a triumph for the paisas, who in past years remember fireworks as the provenance of drug cartels. In particular, for a time here fireworks marked the success of massive drug shipments–and what an oppression that must have been for average citizens to see and hear! But fireworks now go off routinely, if not entirely legally, in part as a reclamation of their use in times of peace.

After this event, the city then prepares for Días de las velitas, a day of anticipation for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In other cities, the event takes place differently: in Cartagena, for instance, candles are lit in the pre-dawn of the feast day itself. But in Medellín, families gather in the evening to light candles out of doors at around 7pm on December 7, and to sit and celebrate with their loved ones, contemplating Mary on her path to Bethlehem long into the night.

So Let’s Talk About Humanism and Velitas

Buñuelos line-up, Dia de las velitas, M L Clark, 2018

In the above photo, people wait in line for buñuelos on Día de las velitas. A buñuelo is a curious cultural icon, because you can buy them any day at dozens of bakeries in any barrio. Indeed, this delicious little fried ball of finely kneaded flour and cheese often serves as breakfast on the go. But despite its mundane role in Colombian life, the buñuelo also proves a star throughout the Christmas season.

For a WASP-y Canadian, that twinned value for the same item–everyday, and sometimes hotly coveted!–proved hard to grasp at first. I belong, after all, to a generation that remembers specific treats only being available at certain holidays. And yes, I groused when these treats “lost” their specialness because they became more widely available.

(Looking at you, Cadbury Mini Eggs.)

So how, this Canadian wondered at first.

How could a culture go wild at the taking of an everyday object on special occasions?

But this mad frenzy for one’s December-7 buñuelo begins to make sense when you consider two other items treated the same way in Latin-American and Catholic cultures:

  1. family; and
  2. the Eucharist.

And this is where the Colombian Advent education, for a humanist, truly begins.

Secular Policy’s Impact on Advent Practice

Dia de las Velitas, M L Clark, 2018

See, it’s no surprise that fireworks launch the Advent season in Medellín. The end of November, after all, also marks the end of the school year. Children of all ages, university students included, are now free for one to two months to celebrate with their families. For North Americans, long mid-summer breaks made sense in another era, tethered to helping at harvest-time… but now? What cultural tie-in do they provide, except as a point of anxiety regarding childcare? Meanwhile, a December-January break prioritizes being out of school to gather nearer one’s loved ones. This secular policy neatly centres family in Colombian life, in a way that the North American calendar does not.

But a more profound difference also exists on a weekly basis, because in Colombia the weekend is for family. Full stop. And this little everyday difference has a huge impact on the holidays. WASP-y North Americans, after all, experience colossal pressures when preparing for our maybe-three-times-yearly visits with in-laws and parents and extended family. All our emotional strain (when not close to family)! All our desperate attempts to pack in everything (when we are close to loved ones)! Is it any wonder that holidays are such a breeding ground, then, for explosive disputes and wounded hearts?

Meanwhile, like the Días de las velitas buñuelo, time with family for Colombians gains value at Christmas not from its rarity otherwise, but because all time with one’s loved ones matters.

Catholicism in Colombia thus receives a thematic boost from the secular world. After all, Catholicism also has its “buñuelo”: the blood and the body of Christ. And that Eucharist is not intended to be taken only at special occasions, but to be celebrated throughout the year and especially venerated at Easter and Christmastime.

In this way, Colombian-Catholic culture reinforces a core value–the elevation of the mundane on special occasions–on multiple levels. Meanwhile, many North-American cultures prime us to expect something above and beyond, something truly distinct and spectacular every year, to give our special occasions meaning.

And boy, what a difference in thankfulness this variation creates.

Ritual Is Life, So Let’s Not Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater

M L Clark, 2018

Many people who leave faith abruptly try to repudiate everything associated with their “past” lives. Never having been a theist, I’ve never had that experience directly. However, I experienced similar in my first months outside Canada. I wanted so much to distance myself from North American culture that I only used Spanish whenever possible. I currently have zero friends in Colombia born in North America. I’ve been trying to purge myself of North-American behaviours–ways of valuing work, socioeconomic positioning, community, and family–that had broken my heart in Ontario.

But oddly enough, Advent in Colombia has been healing in this regard. Yes, even for a humanist! Because for the first time, I’m witnessing a values-based holiday not celebrated at a remove from everyday life. Reminders of Christianity, after all, are on the streets and in the busses. Likewise, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the automatic answer to ¿Cómo estás? is ¡Bien, gracias a Dios! (Well, thanks to God.) Believing Colombians thus hold Christmas in their hearts all the year ’round.

If I were struggling as a young atheist in a Catholic family, this might seem an oppression–and I am mindful, certainly, of the atheists I know here who struggle with the relentless religiosity of their families. But even the atheists I know here are strongly family oriented, and that means they benefit from at least the secular side of Colombia’s focus on everyday ritual.

Just how family oriented is this country? Well, on November 30, nearing midnight, I sat near a group of drinking and pot-smoking teens atop a hill overlooking the city. There, awaiting fireworks, I asked them what they were most looking forward to this Christmas. And, oh, I shouldn’t have been surprised when they spoke of their excitement to be with family. In a culture where family holds hands in the streets? In a culture where family spends most every weekend together? Well, of course even the most cynical demographic would answer in this fashion!

…But it did surprise me.

It did, the anticipation of these youth–older teens!–for more time with family. Why? Because in Canada and the U.S. there is far too much pressure to perform togetherness at festive occasions, after years in which work and school and ever so many other excuses come first. Students here even ask me why North-American films have characters exhausted at the thought of being with their parents, because it puzzles the majority of them. And truly, until I moved to Colombia, I didn’t realize myself how odd those sequences might appear through another cultural lens. Now, though, I marvel at how much North-American culture frays relationships that could otherwise be our greatest assets.

Similarly, we prioritize too highly our material possessions and the accumulation of new experiences. And to what end? The push for newer, better, more extraordinary lives removes us from a different store of human experience entirely.

We miss out, that is, on something that can be attained even on the back of a bad story. Even a story with wobbly morals and underwhelming main characters.

Because it’s not Christ, or Mary, that determines the specific shape of Advent proceedings. If it were either of them, there would be one exact routine for the season, and all the world over everyone would adhere to precisely that and no other.

And even if the story of Prometheus had won out instead, he wouldn’t be dictating celebrations either. (Liver festivals and fire-making competitions, anyone?)

Rather, the specific form of our species’ festivities–what foods we eat, what rituals we enact, what songs we sing–would still be determined by communal priorities. And these are simply traditions that any culture accrues over time. Out of habit. Out of relative proximity and ease of access… But also, out of different secular pressures.

Healing the Secular World with Insights from Advent

And so this humanist delights in their first Colombian Advent, because the Christ-narrative as just that: a storytelling vocabulary. An entrenched vocabulary, granted–with all the problems that entrenchment brings. But in it, too, many Christians find hope: for this life, as well as their belief in the next. And for the globally minded humanist, there’s also much to be gained… if we learn from its cultural variations.

Set a secular policy, for instance, that better aligns human beings’ release from institutional obligations with family-oriented celebrations. If you do, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts (or pesos to buñuelos) that a culture more like Colombia’s will result.

Likewise, encourage your communities to celebrate the everyday even on special occasions. If you do, I’d wager you’ll find a diminishment of individual disatisfaction, and an increase in personal gratitude.

So what does cultural comparison teach us? Nothing less than to look at the real narrative pressures–the secular pressures–shaping individual life outcomes around the globe.

Let us follow this shining star, then–we humanists across the spectrum of belief and disbelief all the world over. This Christmas, and every other, let us gift ourselves the knowledge needed to birth a better world.

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  • So what does cultural comparison teach us? Nothing less than to look at the real narrative pressures–the secular pressures–shaping individual life outcomes around the globe.

    Right. Most of the Nonreligious bloggers are more concerned with the literal truth of these narrative constructs, so they’re looking at the finger rather than what it’s pointing to. I’m glad you’re here to examine how these stories resonate in a culture where family and roots are much more important than in ours. It’s important to understand that ritual and tradition are what shape the lives of certain communities. If the only replacements we have for them are the work week and the sports season, we get the community we deserve.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Shem, I am deeply thankful for your taking the time to read these essays. I am clearly still in process with regards both to synthesizing my experiences here, and conveying what I want to say about globally minded humanism with them… so it is a tremendous privilege when I get to hear those words reframed and clarified in your comments. Thanks for your presence here, and your insights both here and in your own writings on this theme. It’s also simply reaffirming to know that I’m by no means alone in trying to tip the scales of secular discourse. May we live to see those efforts bear fruit.

  • Such a hopeful post! I had so many thoughts reading through it. When it comes to celebrating the ordinary, I’m reminded of the church I was brought up in (Church of Christ) and how nearly every Easter and on the Sunday before or after Christmas the preacher would speak about why we don’t celebrate religious holidays. For Easter, the point was always made that we were to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection every Sunday, not just once a year. It was suggested that making one Sunday more special than the other 51 would somehow make the 51 unimportant. So Columbia is proof that this is not so!

  • Wow! Quite the perfect example of what I’m trying to articulate here. Another comes from market saturation: here in Colombia, industries are present in massive districts–a whole mall of jewellery or tech stores, or a whole street of pet supply or music shops, or a giant grouping of flower vendors in the street–in a way that in North America would be considered bad for business. We prefer the store that stands out as visibly dominant, having cleared away all local competition. But… doesn’t that preference simply reflect an anxiety /about/ competition, and our fear of performing poorly if people have other options pressingly close at hand?

    And so again you get the North American narrative of singularity-as-specialness vs. a narrative of abundance-not-impeding-upon-specialness. I’m still unpacking how much my lifelong exposure to the former has informed my value system, so I appreciate hearing that this essay resonates with others’ understanding of the same. Thanks for sharing, Lerk!

  • Even in North America I think this is a more recent phenomenon. Manhattan, for instance, is one of the oldest urban settlements on the continent and it still has vestiges of districts dedicated to specific industries, although they are not consumer retail establishments. Food courts may be the lone exception there.