Monday, January 24, 2011


For two years we have gone to Purepecha villages to witness celebration and dancing. One might think this is just a celebration of the New Year but for the Purepecha the new year begins on February 1, their calendar being set by the motions of Orion. Also, there are often images of Santo Niño on this day. This is perhaps understandable since the day is close to Christmas but it doesn’t really make sense.
A little research uncovered two things that might makemore sense of the celebrations on this day. First, according to Jewish tradition baby boys are circumcised 8 days after birth. If you count December 25, this means Jesus was circumcised on Jan. 1. So what is the deal? Catholics were encouraged to see this circumcision in a non-Jewish framework so saw this drawing of blood as the first indication of the crucifixion and the blood shed to save each of us. In addition, this day was when Jesus would have received his name - the first day he was called Jesus. Until 1960 this day was part of the Catholic calendar but has been removed and replaced with another celebration. The indigenous peoples of Mexico, however, may have hung on to this earlier tradition as it had become linked to fiestas and dances.

Or, here is another take: I have been reading further writings of Max Harris on the “feast of Fools”, a much misunderstood festival present in the medieval Catholic church and silenced by later religious authorities. The event was part of a sequence of nativity festivals and occurred on December 28 (the festival of innocents, what we are now told is similar to April fools day). This festival involved an element of revelry and practices which can easily be misinterpreted as pagan or inappropriate. For example, the ass was welcomed into the church, there was cross-dressing even among the clergy, the lower clergy played the parts of the higher clergy, and so on. Harris reinterprets these events within a religious (rather than pagan) framework and begins with the observation that all religious drama should be seen as having the intent of making the invisible incarnate. Complex theological narratives were made clear through theater, drama, and performance and the feast of fools was just another of these dramas. He then reminds us of one of the most peculiar aspects of the Christian narrative - Jesus was born in a manger among the animals and his mother was carried to her delivery by an ass. Further, the first to be told of the birth were the shepherds and the animal world. In short, Christianity is presented as beginning with the lowly and the humble and not the kings or religious authorities. The feast of fools appears to celebrate this aspect of the Christian narrative. Finally, the bible tells us that the world will be turned upside down - the lowly shall inherit the earth, etc. This is what we see in the cross-dressing and the lower clergy acting above their station and so on - things are turned upside down.

Now, although this festival was discontinued 500 years ago and it is not clear from Harris if the festival also occurred in Spain, one does wonder if the festival in Michoacan on January 1 are remnants of this festival of fools. The cross dressing on January 1, for example, would make sense in this context.

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