Christmas in Peru

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(HOST) Home is where most of us spend our holidays, but commentator Allen Gilbert remembers a Christmas he spent far from home, in South America.

(GILBERT) The most unusual Christmas that I ever spent was in Cusco, Peru.

It was the year after I finished college. A friend and I hit the road. We each had $1,000 in our pockets. Another friend, who had worked in Venezuela, suggested that our money would go furthest in South America. So we boarded a flight to Colombia, landed in Barranquilla on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and headed south. Our goal was to make a counter-clockwise loop of the continent, down the Andes to Tierra del Fuego and back up through Argentina and Brazil.

Christmas found us deep in the Andes, in Cusco, the capital of the Incan empire. There were some holiday lights around the city, but the most constant reminder of the season was the blaring of Jose Feliciano’s hit song, “Feliz Navidad.” We felt that we needed a shot of traditional Christmas and headed to the cathedral for Christmas Eve mass.

As in nearly all Spanish-American cities, the cathedral in Cusco sits at a corner of the city’s main plaza. Construction of the cathedral began in 1559. Inside the main door is a portrait of the first Cusco bishop, who accompanied Pizarro on his conquest of the Incas. A painting of the Last Supper shows Christ and the disciples supping on the Incan delicacy, roast guinea pig. A painting of the crucifixion is attributed to the Flemish painter Van Dyck. The altar is silver. The feeling is a hodgepodge of cultures.

The mass began at midnight. It was a traditional service, attended by a mitre-clad bishop who swung incense into the nave. The mood was solemn: more funereal than festive. But then, from high in the balcony above the west end of the nave, came the sound of Andean flutes and drums. Native tunes played on native instruments bounced off the walls and vaults. Worshippers tapped their feet. A few clapped. The musicians, wearing traditional ponchos and campesino trousers and shirts, nodded their appreciation.

I had never seen a church erupt in such unqualified joy. The music came from the soul of this proud people, an assertion that although European Christianity had been imposed half a millennium before, Peruvians retain their own traditions. They may observe the birth of Christ, rather than keep the festival of the sun, but a piece of their hearts remains with their Incan forebears.

Around Latin America, there is a dichotomy between native traditions and western culture. Many Christian churches are, like Cusco’s, constructed of stones from pagan temples. Observances such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead may appear to spawn from the Christian All Saints’ Day, but in reality the tradition was developed by pre-Columbian peoples.

No culture is truly unique. Our beliefs and traditions have roots that spread through history and cross vast distances. The richest cultures are those that recognize and celebrate this diversity. At this holiday time, may we accept a tolerance that values the life of every inhabitant of this small planet, as distant and different as any of us may seem.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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