Charlie Brown in Santiago Atitlán

Or, How the Peanuts gang finds relief from the big northern syndicate this Christmas

When I was a child, the holiday season’s shortest half-hour passed during the broadcast of Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. That, and the other seasonal Peanuts specials, were always over too quickly. These cartoons enraptured everyone—even grownups who otherwise despised cartoons, like those vapid Flintstones.

I might have been 6 when my mother explained to me Linus VanPelt’s remark (to Charlie Brown) that “Christmas was controlled by a big eastern syndicate” (which might today be identified with Wal-Mart). The theme of Merry Christmas was the search for meaning among the crass consumerism that bred Linus’ complaint. The Peanuts gang goes on to discover meaning in the rescue of an anemic Christmas tree found, allegorically, among a lot of garish tinsel trees flocked with fake snow.

If Linus grew up to become an expat in Guatemala, he would find the consumerism more tolerable here, especially if he limited his TV and radio time. Certain broadcasters begin the countdown in September by announcing, several times hourly, that Sólo faltan 106 días para la navidad! If you listen to the radio with some regularity, then you hear this reminder thousands of times between Labor Day and Christmas. Like they don’t want you to forget, or something. I could wish this “reminding” system were operative for lost keys.

Although Charlie Brown does find meaning, he remains resigned to the pervasion of Linus’ big eastern syndicate. But Linus may have been right in ways he could not have known, since another big eastern syndicate began spreading Christmas in Guatemala for centuries prior to its “introduction” in the early 1500s. For while the big eastern syndicate of medieval Catholicism deserves partial credit for promoting the holiday in the New World, there is evidence that a still older big eastern syndicate, first-century Christianity, was the original herald.

Fortunately, it is rare these days to hear Columbus called the discoverer of the New World. I have to wonder how my Apache ancestors felt when, newly confined to the reservation, their white schoolteachers described him thus. Columbus was only the latest in a series of rediscoverers, and even then only eurocentrically speaking. His landfall was Western Civilization emerging from a fugue and “discovering” a hemisphere it had long influenced, but had not known, since the exchanges and diasporas had been one-way propositions. Migrants had crossed the Bering Strait, sailed the Atlantic or ridden the Pacific trade winds. They traveled light, so their cargo could include creation stories such as the accounts of universal flooding (found in cultures worldwide) and the First Noel.

Ancient astronomers, regardless of their venues, had to account for the appearance of a phenomenon, two millennia ago, that is still commemorated on Christmas cards. It is typically abstracted as a four-pointed star acting, among other things, as a beacon for wise men bearing gifts to the Messiah. Modern thinkers who corroborate the reports think it may have been a supernova. The ancient Maya saw it, and also pondered it.

But whatever the phenomenon was, within a century millions of people in the Roman Empire believed the Christmas story, with its virgin birth of a deity called Immanuel (Manuel in Spanish). Since we know that this belief soon became a persecutable offense, many believers fled the Roman world and carried the story, along with even earlier canonical stories, to the “ends of the Earth” (as was also prophesied in the Testaments).

The pre-Columbian Mayan version of Christmas, described by American anthropologist Vincent Stanzione in Rituals of Sacrifice, features a virtuous maiden named Marya who discovers a wounded hummingbird, which she tucks into her bosom. The bird disappears but is replaced by a deep warmth and the realization that conception has occurred. Eventually, MaNawal is born. The first Catholic missionaries quickly identified the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit and Immanuel (Manuel) among the cast of this story. Even today the account lives on in the Custom religion of the Tzutujil Maya, centered on Santiago Atitlán.

Santiago is famous, of course, for its open-throttle celebrations, but of Easter. Christmas is a comparatively minor holiday, but all three local professions—Custom, Catholic and Protestant (evangélico) —mark it. The costumbreros have never allowed themselves to be co-opted by the consumerist pandemonium of the big cities, where the influence of what expat Linus might today call the big northern syndicate (again, being Wal-Mart or whatever) is most felt. The católicos in Santiago still hold a Christmas procession, but it is solemn and dignified. The burgeoning evangélico sector, out of either deference or simple inertia, has also, to its credit, shunned the tinseled commercialism. The faithful of all three stripes acknowledge MaNawal (albeit with varying Christology) but they are less enthusiastic about Santa Claus, and less so still about the god of seasonal commerce.

“Hi, Chuck,” Linus VanPelt says when Charlie Brown answers the phone one day early in December. “Sally and I want to have you down to the lake this Christmas.” The lake in question, naturally, would be Atitlán. The Sally in question would by now be Mrs. VanPelt, Chuck’s sister. Linus and Sally are grant writers living in Panajachel. (Linus also does musical gigs and Sally midwifes).

Chuck, now in his 50s, must think about this. His job as bookkeeper at a lumber yard will wait for him, but Guatemala may be a bit exotic for a guy who has never been more than 50 miles from Cleveland. Can he even carry a suitcase through customs? After decades, his back still ails from innumerable crash landings, owing to the devilry of his football-snatching future sister-in-law, Lucy (by now an under-medicated, five-time divorcée who manages a boiler room for a telemarketing agency).

After some talk, Chuck relents.

“Good grief,” he says to Snoopy IV after hanging up. “What have I agreed to?” But then he sighs and smiles tentatively. Linus promised to take him to a place called Santiago, where some true meaning awaits rediscovery. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!

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