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.
Like 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.