I found the secret to Christmas just a few miles from rebel territory. Zapatistas controlled the mountains around me in San Cristobal, the last government outpost in Southern Mexico. It was Christmas week of 1999, and I got to observe the Festival of the Virgin of Guadelupe, where the locals have their own version of the Virgin Mary. At night, teams of runners arrived at the central church, holding torches and chanting M, A, R-I-A in her honor.

There were deep connections to history here, but not deep enough. So a tour guide took me further out, to Zincantan, one of the least spoiled Native American villages in the country. It was almost all huts and traditional costumes, a place where they did not like outsiders, and the locals might stone you for taking photos. I snuck some, feeling a little guilty. There in the center of the town was the ancient church that brought three religions together.

It was a stone building with straw on the floor and crude standing saints around the sides, some of which must have been of Mayan origin. First were the Catholic symbols that I was used to. Then was the ancient Mayan cross. The Mayans used a green cross as a religious symbol long before Christians arrived, and many churches in this area of the country were not officially recognized by the Catholics. Finally, a tinny mechanical box played modern Christmas tunes including Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.

To find the modern Christmas from my childhood way out here, back in time and at the edge of the world, floored me. I realized that there was no official Christmas. We were all making it up as we go.

Christmas, it turned out, contained little Christianity -- so little that you could even call Christmas not a Christian holiday at all:

  • Christmas was placed on the Winter Solstice to make it more palatable to pagans, who were already celebrating a solstice holiday.
  • The Christmas tree comes from Yuletide, a word we sing about meaning Christmas but was actually a German pagan holiday.
  • We kiss underneath Mistletoe in what is a throwback to Norse mythology, to remember Baldur, grandson of Thor.
  • Poinsettias are a red plant from Mexico that the Aztecs favored, and only became a Christmas icon because it blooms at the end of the year, not due to Christian symbolism.
  • The tradition of Saint Nicholas is Dutch, coming from Sinterklaas, who along with Black Peter would ride grey horses over the rooftops.

Christmas is so pagan that the Puritans banned it in England and America in the 17th century. The first US state to make Christmas legal again was Alabama, in 1836 and it wasn't a nationwide holiday until President Grant declared it so in 1870. Most of our modern iconography, including Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, was driven by Coca Cola and other companies.

As people we tend to remember the history only from our own lives, and sometimes our parents' lives. Christmas as a worldwide phenomenon does not go back much further, and it is not just based on a made up religion, the holiday itself was assembled from pieces.

So even those who believe in Christ have no claim that Christmas is real. We are free to celebrate the holiday however we please. For me, I just think back to the Mayan ruins, and how obsessed those natives were with calendars. To them knowing the date of the solstice helped them plan farming, weather, and livestock. Lives were lost based on cold and food. It mattered to them in real ways that were more important to them than worshipping an invisible god. I'd like to think that Christmas today is the same. What matters is how it affects us, our families, and our travels. We make it up as we go.

I hope to return to southern Mexico again some day. Next time, I'd like to see the Day of the Dead.