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The Ten Differences Of Christmas (Bolivia vs USA)

The Democracy Center On-Line
Volume 52 - December 23, 2003
(Between Bolivia and the United States)

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York, walking up a snowbound Fifth Avenue and watching the holiday season in the USA in full bloom - the neck-twistingly tall tree in Rockefeller Center adorned with enough lights to replace the stars; the Toys R Us in Times Square so huge that it contains a three-story tall Ferris wheel inside; presents at Bloomingdale's and Saks that can fit in your pocket and still cost more than the price of all four cars that I have owned in my life - combined. It was all truly a grand sight.

Now I am home in Bolivia where the holiday season is a good deal more humble. I thought that you might enjoy this little summary of how the holidays are different here in the Cochabamba - the ten differences of Christmas.

Happy holidays to all, whichever ones you celebrate this end of year.

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

(Between Bolivia and the United States)


If Santa is smart, then the moment he finishes up his gift deliveries in the north he pauses for a change of wardrobe (perhaps some nice red shorts and a matching tank top), because here in our part of the world it is high summer and Christmas can be brutal hot. As a transplant from the north (even Northern California which is still not Antarctica this time of year) it is one weird experience to bring home a Christmas tree in weather that seems more like July than December.


In the north, there are so many images of Santa, and actual Santas about, that as parents we start telling our kids that his elves disguise themselves as Santa because there are just too many shopping malls for him to be in at one time. In Cochabamba, Santa's face is visible here and there and I have even spotted a live one or two, but Christmas in Bolivia is really about Baby Jesus. Nativity scenes have sprouted everywhere, in nearly every home you enter, on street corners and store windows. I just noticed yesterday that a large outside version of the manger scene was being assembled in our neighborhood, with the hay about to come under attack from a half dozen wandering cows.


Some ancient readers of this newsletter may recall a Christmas article that I wrote years ago, about the surreptitious arrival of a nativity scene into my home, brought to us by my Catholic wife Lynn. This led to a family battle over my suggestion that we should at least paint Baby Jesus so that he glowed in the dark (I lost). Turns out that here in Bolivia they sell lots of small angel figures that actually DO glow in the dark. We have one watching iridescently over a non-glowing Baby Jesus in the manger (a family compromise).


The big event here in Bolivia is Christmas Eve, not Christmas day. Extended families (which, with cousins, ants and uncles can almost be large enough for statehood here) gather together at midnight on the 24th for a large, traditional dinner of roasted pig (it is about as lucky a thing to be a pig here at Christmas as it is a turkey in the US in mid-November).


One of the spectacular things here about Christmas in Cochabamba is that at exactly midnight on Christmas Eve our entire valley explodes into a popping blare of home-launched fireworks. Thousands of families simultaneously set off every imaginable kind of pyrotechnic -giant 4th of July style explosions of sparks, roman candles, and miniature sticks of dynamite known affectionately here as "Mata Suegras" (Kill Your Mother In-Law). I am famous myself for using the latter to blow up large overripe fruit. Truly there are few sights as glorious as a giant papaya turning instantly into a space-bound cloud of juice. As the sparkles and flashes light up the midnight sky, it is truly clear that something special is happening and that all the people of Cochabamba are marking it together.


It is a matter of Bolivian labor law that, just before Christmas, formal employees receive a thirteenth monthly paycheck called an "Aginaldo". Families depend on this to buy whatever gifts they will for their families and whatever food they will put on their Christmas Eve table. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Bolivians actually have this kind of formal employment. More and more try to scratch out survival hocking cheaply made imports, or piles of fruits and vegetables, in the sprawling marketplace here. For them, there will be no special Christmas meal and most will work on Christmas.


The other traditional Christmas offering, from employers to their employees (this one not required by law but expected by custom) is the Christmas basket. This is composed of a straw basket filled with bags of flour, rice and sugar, a bottle of cooking oil, one chicken and a bottle of cheap alcoholic cider. We give one every year to Elarion, the man who cuts our lawn, but since he doesn't drink we substitute Coke.


One of the things that my wife and I do here, as volunteers, is help run an 80-child orphanage. We've been involved there since 1991. Every year the children of the orphanage put on a Christmas pageant and tell the story of Jesus and Mary looking for room at the inn. The first year we did this we thought it would be cool to use a live baby lamb in the manger. Everything went very well until midway through, when one of the little boys lifted up the lamb's tail and little black pellets started to fire out. The little girl who would become our adopted daughter a few weeks later screamed with glee, "It is making poop!" and the Christmas pageant ended in toddler pandemonium even before Joseph and Mary got turned down for a room.


Last Sunday, December 21st, was the solstice, the longest day of the year in the south and longest night in the north. It is fitting that at Christmastime, when material wealth and poverty splits these two worlds so clearly in two, that the two halves of the earth should also have their most exaggerated differences with respect to the sun. On these occasions our friend Carlos Prado, an indigenous "curandero" (medicine man) hosts elaborate rituals, which mark them in the traditional Andean manner. Last June, in deep winter, I froze as a large crowd of us gathered before dawn to bear witness to the sunrise which ended the year's longest night. On Sunday Carlos set up the traditional altar of coca leaves, symbolic trinkets, and a wrapped llama fetus, and then set the altar afire. It was, as always, a spectacular ritual but not my favorite smell.


It is a truism. What there seems like pocket change is here a treasure, but at no time it this clearer than at the holidays. The humble toys that in the north would be mere stocking stuffers or an afterthought, here would be a toy so grand that many children could not imagine it. The five-dollar bill that many in the north will spend on parking or for a Starbucks coffee drink, for many here would be a fortune. The streets of Cochabamba's center are lined with indigenous families from small villages that come to the city at Christmas in hopes of some small handout from people whose hearts might soften, if just a bit, this time of year. Five dollars is what many workers here earn for a hard day of labor. Some of the families on the street could easily feed themselves with it for days. I don't profess to be a Christian but, nevertheless, it does seem to me odd that the birth of a man who was poor all his life and who preached affinity for the poor, would have his birthday celebrated with a frenzy of material exchange and acquisition, while so many in the world have nothing. A thank you to everyone who is remembering the less fortunate as well in your holiday plans.

Happy Holidays to All!


THE DEMOCRACY CENTER ON-LINE is an electronic publication of The Democracy Center, distributed on an occasional basis to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations, policy makers, journalists and others, throughout the US and worldwide. Please consider forwarding it along to those who might be interested. People can request to be added to the distribution list by sending an e-mail note to mailto: Newspapers and periodicals interested in reprinting or excerpting material in the newsletter should contact The Democracy Center at "". Suggestions and comments are welcome. Past issues are available on The Democracy Center Web site.


SAN FRANCISCO: P.O. Box 22157 San Francisco, CA 94122
BOLIVIA: Casilla 5283, Cochabamba, Bolivia
TEL: (415) 564-4767
FAX: (978) 383-1269

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