An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of December 17, 2007
Written at Yerba Buena and issued from a ciber in
Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, Chiapas, MÉXICO

TOMANTZIN

Last Wednesday, the 12th, was a big day here. It was Mexico's day for celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. I can't imagine how many exploding rockets people in town set off during a 24-hour period, the booms awakening me at 3AM from two miles away. Iván in charge of Yerba Buena's blackberry operation, returned from town that day shaking his head and saying, "Man, you should have seen all the drunks!" There were also long lines of pilgrims on the highway walking great distances, led by decorated pickup trucks carrying the Virgin's image.

I didn't realize how important the celebration was until I saw that the three tree-cutting men working for Yerba Buena's owners weren't working that day, even though they work on rainy days and are supposed to be Adventists who don't recognize the Virgin's overweening importance. In the afternoon two of them went off drinking, leaving the third behind because he's trying to overcome a history of alcoholism. He looked so sad and abandoned that I went down to talk with him.

I asked him why people shot off rockets and he simply said "for devotion." The pilgrims were walking, he further explained, in the hope that if the Virgin sees how they're suffering in her name maybe she'll do them some favors, or, maybe they're thanking her for past favors. He also said that the 12th, the Virgin's day, was even more important than Christmas. The festive dish he said he was missing by being away from his family on the Virgin's day was Mole de Pollo, or Chicken Mole, "mole" pronounced MOH-leh.

Iván has a book explaining how Mexico's indigenous people made the transition from believing in their own religions to accepting the Catholicism forced on them by the conquering Spanish. The natives already worshipped the Goddess Tomantzin, who was the mother of all gods, the mother of Nature, etc., so it was easy for them to accept the Virgin. The first generations after the conquest looked at Virgin statues but in their minds prayed to Tomantzin. Later generations forgot all about Tomantzin. Still, a man in town here once told me how his parents, devout Catholics, still prayed to the Sun God.

I don't think it's incidental that the Virgin's day, Christmas, the New Year and many other important celebrations occur at this time of year. We're approaching the Winter Solstice, which is when the Sun begins its return trip back northward, days in the Northern Hemisphere start getting longer, and the annual cycle begins all over. To people close to the Earth the Solstice is the most meaningful day of all, the most appropriate of all days to celebrate, for it marks the rebirth of the annual cycle.

Many religions have hijacked the Solstice's significance and time of year to make their own beliefs more plausible. All kinds of things are celebrated on dates around the Solstice, yet the Solstice itself is allowed to slide by unnoticed.

Not here. In a few days on the Solstice I'll celebrate a day of reflection and thanks. And if a Mexican asks me why I'm abandoning my usual routines I'll gladly tell them about the Solstice, and their own Tomantzin.