Christmas’ long strange trip to oil towns in the Amazon

A Christmas nativity scene in Coca, Ecuador. Coca is a rough, booming oil town on the edge of the Amazon, one of the hubs of the rapidly expanding oil and mineral extraction industry in the region.

Coca sits almost exactly on the equator, yet the nativity scene carries marks of the temperate zone: the meandering, anastomosing cultural rivers of Christmas. One stream was born in the deserts of the Levant, another in the forests of Northern Europe, yet another in the imaginations of department store marketing executives in the US. They all wash against the shores of Coca’s Napo river, merging into wells of local culture and the flow of five hundred years of Christian colonialism in the region.

The main tableau features Middle Eastern figures with Old World farm animals, set against a backdrop of the Andes. Some tundra animals also make an appearance: reindeer arranged along the Andes’ foothills.

cocaMore reindeer, dressed in European holly and pine, hang from plastic boughs of boreal spruce:

reindeerSnowy European gingerbread houses intermingle with post-colonial Andean villages:

snowhousesvillageIn a town just down the road, the total lack of snow in this ever-hot climate has not prevented creative constructions of snowmen at many street corners:

snowmanLike Christmas celebrations everywhere, people have created a cultural syncretism, a mash-up of our inheritances. Christianity has some opinions about its own power and the status of other systems of belief. Therefore Christmas nativity scenes in Coca, as is true around the world, exclude many dimensions of local human and non-human diversity of life. So syncretism has its limits, and these limits deracinate Christmas from local soil.

In the Western Amazon, this unrooting has profound political and ecological consequences (more on these later). It also results in a great loss of aesthetic opportunity for community celebrations. The tropical forest could add some spectacular local color to a manger scene. Might a tapir or shaman be allowed into the picture? Might we, in North America, let bison and medicine women into the circle? Locavore religion? We shall see.

sunrisesunsrise2And a clearwing butterfly, surely a suitable symbol for a tree angel?


8 thoughts on “Christmas’ long strange trip to oil towns in the Amazon

  1. Fountainpen

    Thank you
    And peaceful moments into and through the new time coming!
    Grace is as close as the next cricket
    You hear!!!!! Certainly closer!
    But crickets can remind us!!!!!!!

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, I wish you peace in this wintry time of renewal. The crickets’ songs reach extraordinary heights in the Amazon: loud, diverse, unending. So, if they are singing grace, then grace must abound in that forest.

  2. martine

    Thank you for taking the time to write all these articles, it is always a great pleasure to read them and to discover the photographies. I would like sometimes to drop a comment but my english has grown very poor in the last decade !
    From the over side of the ocean, I wish you and your family all the best for the New Year.
    Bonne Année.


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