30 December 2009

A Clean Sweep!

There is a very useful phrase in Spanish when you want to make a new beginning. The phrase is "borrar y cuenta nueva" or "erase and start over" as in:

Ahora es tiempo de borrar y cuenta nueva.
Now it is time to erase and start over.

I always think of this phrase at the end of the year. There is another phrase that also serves me well at this time of New Year celebrations. The phrase is "a barrer parejo" or "a clean sweep". Make a note that "borrar", "to erase", and barrer", "to sweep" are two very similar sounding but different verbs so be careful that you don't get them mixed up. An example of a sentence using "a barrer parejo" would be:

Para este año nuevo vamos a barrer parejo, quitando todo lo negativo para que llege la prosperidad.
For this year let's make a clean sweep, getting rid of everything negative so that prosperity can flourish.

In other words, what we need for prosperity to flourish is another type of flourish called the "Podsnap flourish". In fact, I suggest that we Gringos adopt the Podsnap flourish as a national gesture. Many of you may remember that the name Podsnap comes from a character called Mr. Podsnap in a book by Charles Dickens called "Our Mutual Friend". Mr Podsnap had a habit of making a particular flourish of his right arm by reaching out and sweeping all of his troubles behind him and thus clearing the the way ahead. He simply banished from existence whatever disagreeable worry that he was confronted with and put it out of sight and out of mind. The Mexican people have learned to do this a long time ago. Whenever they are confronted by a disagreeable problem they simply say:

No te procupes. Mañana vamos a solucionar.
Don't you worry. Tomorrow we will find a solution.

I have not yet reached the state nirvana of Mr. Podsnap or my Mexican brethren but I do believe that I am making progress in banishing disagreeable worry from my life. To continue to do so will be the only resolution that I carry forward into the new year. I have found that most of the things that I have worried about either never came to pass or when they did were found to be manageable. This is not to say that I will avoid caution...but caution and worry are two different things.

This New Year's Eve I am going to watch the ball descend in Times Square in New York City at eleven p.m. here local time and then head for the Feather Ball. I remember that when I was a kid we were allowed to stay up past midnight on New Year's Eve and it was quite exciting. Every year just before midnight my Dad would turn on the radio and the dulcet tones of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadian Orchestra would come floating over the air in the form of Auld Lang Syne and as the clock struck midnight all of the relatives would start kissing and hugging and yes...even crying. I got my share of smothering hugs and bit wet kisses (blah!). Now I would give anything just to be able to go back and savor a New Year's Eve like that one more time, big wet kisses and all. May God bless Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven" is no doubt now actually playing in Heaven and I hope and pray that all my folks who have gone before me are there to enjoy it. Guy Lombardo died in 1977 but they still play a recording of his "Auld Lang Syne" every year at the New Year's extravaganza in Times Square.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

29 December 2009

Bomp ba ba bomp, ba ba bomppa bomp bomp...

Have you ever used the phrase "Once in a blue moon"? Sure you have! Everybody has. It means once in a very great while. The thing is though, that what we call a blue moon isn't all that rare. On average there is a blue moon about every 2.7 years. A blue moon is when there is a full moon twice in one month. When that happens the second full moon is called a "blue moon". Most years have twelve full moons but because of a mismatch between the length of a 29.5 day lunar phase period and the average solar month of about 30.5 days, at the end of each year it appears that we are about eleven lunar "days" short of a full solar year. The result is that every two and three quarters years we have an extra full moon. Now don't try to figure this out in your head or you'll go nuts. Actually the Moon goes around the Earth every 27.3 days but because of the way the Earth and the Moon are moving relative to each other we see the phases of the Moon repeat at 29.5 day intervals. Just take my word for it. Even Isaac Newton had problems trying to understand the movements of the Moon.

There is one blue moon that is quite a bit rarer than others, however. When there is a blue moon on New Year's Eve you can bet on the fact that it isn't a common occurrence. This New Year's Eve there is going to be a blue moon and there hasn't been a blue moon on New Year's Eve since 1990. So you better start planning to do something that you only do "once in a blue moon" like compliment your spouse or clean out your car's glove compartment, or vacuum under the couch or "whatever". A lot of us geezers may not be around the next time there is a New Year's blue moon so I suggest that if you are an old geezer you make the most of it. After all, it being New Year's Eve just think how romantic it will be holding hands with your significant other and whispering sweet nothings to each other about the special blue moon.

Now we are going to hop in the "Way-Back Machine" and take a trip back to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in 1959 and let the singing group "The Marcels" with Cornelius Harp, Fred Johnson, Gene Bricker, Ron Mundy, and Richard Knauss serenade us with the doo-wop version of the ballad "Blue Moon" that was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1934.

Bomp ba ba bomp, ba ba bomppa bomp bomp, ba ba bompa a dang adang dang du du ding a dong ding Blue Mooooooon...

Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart

Without a love of my own

Bomp ba ba bomp, ba ba bomppa bomp bomp, ba ba bompa a dang adang dang du du ding a dong ding Blue Mooooooon...

Blue Moon, you knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for

Someone I really could care for

And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold

I heard somebody whisper, "Please adore me"

And when I looked, the moon had turned to gold

Blue Moon, now I'm no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart

Without a love of my own

Bomp ba ba bomp, ba ba bomppa bomp bomp, ba ba bompa a dang adang dang du du ding a dong ding Blue Mooooooon...

27 December 2009

Don't be fooled!

December 28th is the the Mexican equivalent of "April Fools Day" as well as the Feast of the Holy Innocents which is the day that memorializes the death of the little boy babies who were slain by King Herod in an attempt to assassinate the Christ Child. This event is described in the Gospel of Matthew in Mathew 2:13-16. It talks about King Herod ordering the execution of all young male children under the age of two in the village of Bethlehem, after the Magi or “Three Kings” announced to Herod the impending birth of the "King of the Jews." The Magi were supposed to return to Herod and tell him where they found this newborn king so that supposedly Herod could also go and worship Him. However , God warned the Magi in a dream and they tricked Herod and did not return home by way of Jerusalem. That is when an Angel warned Saint Joseph that King Herod was looking for the them and he took Mary and the little baby Jesus and fled into Egypt to avoid Herod's clutches.

On this day in Mexico and many other Spanish speaking countries people pull practical jokes on each other. It is equivalent to the U.S. version of April Fools Day. You must not believe anything that other people say, nor let them borrow any amount of money. The tradition is that money borrowed on this day doesn't have to be repaid. If you fall victim of the joke, the person pulling the joke will say, “Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar” or “Innocent little dove how you've let yourself be fooled”. This is just the short version. The full verse goes:

“Inocente Palomita
Que te dejaste engañar
Sabiendo que en este día
Nada se debe prestar.”

Innocent little dove
How you've let yourself be fooled
Knowing that on this day
You should lend nothing.


23 December 2009

Christmas treat!

In one of my recent posts, "Navidad de Nuevo", I listed some phrases that are sung back and forth among the participants of a traditional posada after the "peregrinos" (Mary and Joseph) are admitted and the rosary is said and the litany is sung. Four of the lines mention a "canasta" (basket) of some sort and I would like to explain a bit more about these canastas. Back in the year 1587 there was a priest named Fray Diego de Soria, who was the rector of a monastery called San Augustín de Alcoman (just to the northeast Mexico City). He asked permission to celebrate a mass called the "Misa de Aguinaldos" (Mass of Gifts) each day from December 16th to December 24th. In this mass there would be passages related to the story of the nativity and in order to draw the people to the mass the priests would include entertainment in the form of fireworks and songs and little gifts in the form of sweets which were sweetened seed-cakes of amaranth or in Spanish "amaranto". These sweets are still around today and are called "Dulce de Alegria" or "Candy of Joy". Little baskets or bags of sweets in the form of candy are still given to children at Posadas de Navidad and they are called canastas or bolsas de "aguinaldo" and the same word "aguinaldo" is also used for the end of the year bonus pay that is traditionally given to workers just before Christmas. (Note: I should also add that there is a flower in Mexico called "Aguinaldo Blanco" , Convolvulus nodiflorus, that looks like a white morning glory.)

The first of the four posada chant lines that I referred to above mentions both "canasta" and "colación":

Ándale Lalo, sal del rincón con la canasta de colación.
Hurry up Lalo, come out of the corner with the basket of sweets.

The word "colación" (koh-lah-SEEOHN) can mean several things. It can mean a convocation of religious monks or it can refer to an ancient legal term pertaining to the rights of inheritance. It can mean an "aperitif" (appetizer) or it can also mean "sweetmeats" given to servants on Christmas Eve. In Mexico it usually means "treats" that are generally little pieces of hard sugar candy. They come in a variety of shapes and colors and sizes. When sugar syrup is heated it passes through various stages or taste and texture and can be made into different types of candies depending upon the highest temperature that is reached. The temperature range is from about 235 degrees Fahrenheit up to about 350 degrees. In the old days people didn't have thermometers so they judged the candy by heating the syrup and then dropping a spoonful into cold water and judging by the form it took as to whether or not it had reached the right temperature. Then they added flavors like "hinojo" (fennel), "hierbabuena" (peppermint), and "anis" (anise). They also colored the candy by adding vegetable dyes and they might put nuts like peanuts or almonds at the center. There are about three hundred different examples of Mexican hard candies in the historical records. Many of them were invented and produced by nuns in the convent kitchens.

Here are three additional lines in the posada chant that mention baskets:

Quiero mi canasta de papel de china, si no me la das me voy a la esquina.
I want my tissue paper basket; if you don't give it to me I will go out to the street corner.

Quiero mi canasta de papel estraza, si me no la das me voy a mi casa.
I want my (white) butcher paper basket; if you don't give it to me I am going home.

Quiero mi canasta de papel crepe, si no me la das me voy con José.
I want my crepe paper basket; if you don't give it to me I am going over to José's house.

In the photos below you can see some examples of "colación" and also an example of an aguinaldo basket in the form of crepe paper.

¡ Feliz Navidad !

21 December 2009

A pig that does it all!

I am fascinated by languages. My native language is English, of course, and because I am of Polish heritage I know a "smattering" of Polish. The word "smatter", by the way, is very interesting. To "smatter" is to speak a language with superficial knowledge or understanding and thus to smatter is to dabble or even to babble. Now it just so happens that my family name, “Mrotek”, comes from the Polish root meaning “babbler” or “one who babbles”. Perhaps my ancestors were present at the construction or destruction of the biblical Tower of Babel. Wouldn't that be something, eh? Over the years I have studied other languages in general and Mandarin Chinese in particular, but Spanish is the only one in which I feel I have achieved any significant degree of fluency. Nevertheless I continue to dabble (or babble) in a number of other languages, not to really be able to communicate in them but to be able to make comparisons between languages and cultures.

For example, the other day I learned that there is a term in German, "Eierlegende Wollmilchsau", that translates literally as "egg-laying, wool, and milk producing pig". In other words, it it a pig that does everything. The term is used to mean an all-in-one device that is suitable for every purpose. Other than "universal device" I can't think of another example in English, and in Spanish "todo en uno solo " means "all-in-one". If we are talking about a person who can do anything then in English we might call them a "jack-of-all trades" and in Mexico someone who is skilled in a number of trades such as carpentry, brick laying, and mechanical repairs would be called a "milusos". In a specific trade such as carpentry for example, a person who could build everything from a bird house to a rowboat to a warehouse would be called a "todólogo" (toh-DOU-loh-goh). Robinson Crusoe's "Man-Friday" would be another example of a "todólogo".

In English if we are talking about a whole bunch of relatively anonymous people in general terms we use the word "everybody". In Spanish we say "todo el mundo". In French is "tout le monde" and in Portuguese it is "todo o mundo"which are both similar to Spanish. However, in Italian "everybody" is "ognuno" and in German, "jedermann" or in other words, "jeder" meaning "each" and "mann" meaning "man". In Mandain Chinese it is "da jia" meaning "big family". The language that really wins the prize for difficulty, however, is my own ancestral language. In Polish, the word for "everybody" is "wszyscy". Try saying THAT with a mouth full of peanut butter! I'll give you a hint. It is pronounced a bit like "fSHIStsy". Good luck!

Hey! What's that green stuff?

Most gringos who have been in Mexico over the Christmas holidays and have been privy to viewing a private manger scene or "nacimiento" have noticed that Mexican people utilize a lot of greenery in their nacimientos and use it in a way that is not familiar to many of us. They are also very particular about this material and when you go to the market you will find them picking over the various offerings with a critical eye. They feel it and smell it to see how fresh it is and they question the vendor interminably and haggle over little bits and pieces. They have special traditional names for the different types of plants and they seem to know exactly how much and what type that they want. Grandmothers are the most astute and they pass their expertise in the matter to their daughters who pass it on down to the granddaughters. This seems to be a very important transaction and while my mother-in-law Carmelita and my wife Gina poke and feel and smell and haggle I stand to one side and try to get an inkling about what is going on. I thought I would pass on what I have learned to those of my readers who may be interested but with the warning that this is serious business and not something to be made light of.

There are several types of "musgo" (MOOS-goh) or moss that you can see in the pictures below. There is another plant called "Dorardilla" (doh-rahr-DEE-yu) which in English is called "Rose of Jericho" or "Resurrection plant" . There is also a Spanish Moss called "Heno" (EIGH-noh) or "Paiste" (PIE-stay). There are little trees made of a piece of wood topped with moss that are called "Arbol de Musgo". There is something that they call a "rio" or "river" that is nothing more than a piece of cholla cactus skeleton (as in my photo) or a piece of bark formed like a channel and covered with bits of moss. This is to simulate a river or stream. Sometimes they use a piece of aluminum foil with bits of moss along the edges and the shiny aluminum represents the water. This is reminiscent of the Spanish "Villancico" (Christmas carol) called "Los Peces en El Río. Usually the "rio" has someone fishing in it or "patos" (ducks) or "gansos" (geese) swimming in it. In fact all around the nacimiento you will generally find little figures of shepherds tending their flock and other figures representing village life. Some of these nacimientos get really involved with the acting out of Bible stories, etcetera, and they can actually take over a whole house. I have been to a house where every Navidad the people move out and set up a huge and very detailed nacimiento display in their home for their friends and neighbors to visit and enjoy.

The "musgo" (moss) and other materials are collected in the mountains by people who bring it to the markets. Our local musgo comes from the nearby Sierra de Santa Rosa. Some of the collecting is done legally, with permits, but a lot is done illegally without regard to the damage that it may cause the environment. Therefore, there is a movement afoot to limit or eliminate entirely the use of musgo in the nacimientos. I think that this may be accomplished with the next generation but for the present generation the custom is just too deep rooted to pass away quickly. If I was a psychologist I think I would like to study how some of these nacimiento customs came to be and why they are so ingrained in "la gente" (the people).

The final picture below is of a very common figurine called a "pastor". It is a man standing over a pig that he just killed and is getting ready to cook it in a big pot to make "carnitas" for the "posada" gathering. Some of these figures show the "pastor" standing over the pig with a bloody knife and the pig cut wide open. Hmm, that does not bode very well for pigs does it? I guess it's just part of being a pig that you are probably going to die at Christmas. That's too bad but then I really do like carnitas so all I can say to the pig is "Adios Mr. Pig"...and thank you!"

¡ Feliz Navidad !

(Click on photos to enlarge)

19 December 2009

Navidad de Nuevo

Every year that I live in Mexico I learn more and more about the traditions of the Mexican Christmas or “Navidad”. There are three main themes including the Posada, the Piñata, and the Pastorela that climax on December 24th which is called “Nochebuena” or the “Good Night”. First I will address the “Posada” which means “lodging”. It relates the story of Saint Joseph leading a donkey bearing the very pregnant Virgin Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem where Joseph frantically searched for a place where Mary could give birth to the Baby Jesus. Beginning on December 16th and continuing up to and including December 24th the posadas are held each night in turn by different people of the same neighborhood or family. This is a nine day period called a “novena” and some say that it commemorates the nine months that Mary was pregnant and others say that it commemorates the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which supposedly took nine days. In the time of Jesus many societies followed the custom of gathering together for nine days following a burial and in the new testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” (Acts 1:14), we find the apostles, along with some of the close disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus gathered in the upper room and praying for nine consecutive days which culminated in the Pentecost or decent of the Holy Spirit upon them. In any case, nine seems to be a significant number in ancient histories.

How the posadas got started in Mexico is an interesting story. In the year 1587 a priest named Fray Diego de Soria, who was the rector of a monastery called San Augustín de Alcoman (just to the northeast Mexico City), asked permission to celebrate a mass called the “Misa de Aguinaldos” (Mass of Gifts) each day from December 16th to December 24th. In this mass there would be passages related to the story of the nativity and in order to draw the people to the mass the priests would include entertainment in the form of fireworks and songs and little gifts in the form of sweets. Now it just so happens that the people were already accustomed to celebrating during this period of winter solstice which they called “Panquetzaliztli” in their native tongue. It was a time when they celebrated their native war god whom they called “Huitzilopochtli”. The feast of Huitzilpochtli lasted twenty days from the 6th of December until the 26th and it also had an element of pilgrimage in that people would travel long distances to come join the celebration. They would also receive gifts of sweetened seedcakes of amaranth or in Spanish “amaranto” and these sweets are still around today and are called “dulce de alegria” or “candy of joy”. Also note that even to the present day, the little bags of sweets given to children at Navidad are called “aguinaldo” and the same word is used for the end of the year bonus pay that is traditionally given to workers just before Navidad.

The earliest posadas were held in the open courtyards of the monasteries and began with a recitation of the rosary accompanied by songs and stories based upon the biblical account of the birth of Christ. Later on, the posadas were carried over by the people to their own houses and neighborhoods and evolved into what they are today. The posada entails two groups, one representing the innkeepers and the other representing the “peregrinos” or “pilgrims” meaning Joseph and Mary. All of the people in the pilgrim group carry candles and usually four of them carry a litter instead, upon which rest statues of Joseph and Mary and a donkey. Sometimes this is actually substituted by people dressed as Joseph and Mary and Mary is seated on a real donkey! There is generally someone walking in front of the group with a paper lantern lit by a candle. As is the custom they go to three houses and at each they knock on the door and sing their request for lodging. At the first two houses the group who answers the door listens to their request and sings a refusal. At the third house they sing their request to enter and the participants in the house give their acceptance in song and all of the people including the people from the other two houses are let in. Then they recite a rosary and sing a litany to the Virgin Mary and after this the fun begins. One of the things that they do which really surprised me is that everyone lights “sparklers” which in the United States people traditionally light on the 4th of July. The ones that they use in Mexico for the posadas, however, are much smaller. They are called either “Luces de Belén” (Lights of Bethlehem) or “Luces de Bengala” (Lights of India). Even the small children get into the act and I am always worried that one of them will get burned but thank God I haven’t ever seen that happen and I hope I never will.

Now it is time to talk about the Piñata. The origin of the piñata can be traced back to China and it was part of the Chinese Spring Festival or what people in the west call “Chinese New Year”. The custom came to Italy by means of Marco Polo or perhaps some other adventurous soul and in Italy it took on a religious aspect and was called a “pignatta. It was used during the Lenten period and when the custom of breaking piñatas during Lent eventually arrived in Spain the Spanish introduced a feast every first Sunday of Lent called "The Dance of the Piñata." Breaking the piñata at the beginning of Lent symbolized the desire to end the evil in one's life, to convert the heart to return to God and receive an eternal reward. In the early sixteenth century, the piñata tradition was unknown in the New World but in Mexico, the Mayan Indians had a tradition of trying to break a clay pot that was filled with sweets and balanced on a pole. This practice was part of the traditional December “Panquetzaliztli” celebrations in honor of their war god “Huitzilopochtli”. The Spanish missionary priests were always looking for ways to convert the native traditions to Christian traditions and so they gave a religious sense to the game of breaking the pot and so they converted the “pot” into the form of the Spanish/Italian “piñata” and moved it from Lent to Advent. It quickly became a popular compliment to the festivities of the Posadas.

The traditional piñata of Navidad is made from a clay pot called an “olla piñatera” or “cantero” that is covered with bright colored paper and represents the Devil who tempts us with the bright colors. The classic piñata of Navidad is round with seven peaks or spikes, representing the seven cardinal sins: Sloth, Lust, Greed, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Pride. Hitting the piñata while blindfolded represents faith that allows us to believe without seeing. The stick with which to beat the piñata represents the force of the grace of God with which we combat evil. With God's help, we destroy the evil, and then we receive the fruits of God’s reward which are the sweets that are contained in the piñata. The shouts of the people who guide the blindfolded person with the stick represent the faithful of the church who collectively help us combat the Devil and who also share in God’s reward when the Devil is overcome.

The breaking of the piñata is always the highlight of any celebration. There are some very traditional songs that are sung in the process of breaking the piñata and during Navidad there are some extra phrases that are sung back and forth by the participants prior to the actual attempts to break the piñata:

Ándale Roberto, no te dilates con la canasta de los cacahuates”. (Hurry up Robert, don’t dilly dally with the basket of peanuts.)

Ándale Gina, sal del rincón con la canasta de colación. (Hurry up Gina, come out of the corner with the basket of sweets.) Note: The word "colación" means "treats" and they are generally little pieces of hard sugar candy. Kids don't care for them much anymore and end up throwing them at each other but the old folks always like to have some around at Christmas just for old time sake.

No quiero oro ni quiero plata, yo lo que quiero romper la piñata”. (I don’t want gold nor do I want silver, I just want to break the piñata.)

En esta posada salimos de apuro porque Luis nos dio solo ponte duro.” (We are leaving this posada early because Luis only gave us ponte duro.) Note: “ponte duro” are hardened little balls of corn flour mixed with unrefined sugar…a poor substitute for candy.

Ándale José, mueve los pies con los copitas de vino jerez.” (Hurry up Joseph, move your feet, and bring us cups of sherry wine.)

Esta piñata es de muchas mañas, solo contiene naranjas y cañas.” (This piñata is a trick; it only contains oranges and sugar cane.)

Quiero mi canasta de papel de china, si no me la das me voy a la esquina.” (I want my tissue paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I will go out to the street corner.) Note: the basket referred to is the “aguinaldo” or gift basket of goodies which is given to everyone who attends the posada to make sure that no one is left out. The baskets are commonly made from or lined with either tissue paper, crepe paper, or white butcher paper.

Quiero mi canasta de papel crepe, si no me la das me voy con José.” (I want my crepe paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I am going over to José’s house.

Quiero mi canasta de papel estraza, si me no la das me voy a mi casa.” (I want my butcher paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I am going home.)

En esta posada nos hemos chasqueado porque Teresita nada nos ha dado.” (We are very upset with this posada because little Teresa didn’t give us anything.)

Echen confites y canelones a los muchachos que son muy tragones”. (Throw hard candies at the boys who grab for too much.) Note: “Confites and Canelones” are two types of hard candy.

Todos los muchachos rezaron con devoción, de chochos y confites les dan ya su ración.” (All of the boys prayed with devotion so let’s give them their share of lupin beans and hard candies.”) Note: “Chochos” or “Lupin Beans” are like salted nuts and in Spain they are called “altramuz”.

Castaña asada, piña cubierta; ¡Echen a palos a los de la puerta!” (Roasted chestnuts and candied pineapple; poke the people who are blocking our way!)

Ándale Juan, sal de la hornilla, con la botella de la manzanilla.” (Hurry up Juan from the corner by the oven with the bottle of manzanilla wine.)

De los cerritos y los cerrotes, saltan y brincan los tejocotes.” ( From the little hills and big hills the tejocotes jump and skip.) Note: “Tejocotes” are a yellow fruit about the size of a plum that grow wild and are used for fruit punch especially at Navidad.

Ándale niña, sal otra vez, con la botella de vino jerez.” (Hurry up little girl, bring the bottle of sherry wine once again.)

Esta posada le toca a Carmela, si no da nada le saca una muela.” (This posada is Carmen’s turn, if she doesn’t give anything she forfeits a tooth.)

Ándale Mari no peles los dientes, yo lo que quiero son ponches calientes.” (Hurry up Mary, don’t give a silly grin, what I want is hot fruit punch.)

Todaditos muy contentos a rezar la posadita, no es tanta devoción si no por la canasta.” (Everyone is content to participate in the posada, not so much for devotion as for the basket of goodies.)

Ahora si muchachos ya se puede ir, para que mañana los dejen venir.” ( Okay boys, you can go home now because tomorrow you can come again.)

After the above calls back and forth the children line up stating with the smallest on to the biggest and the first person is given the stick (usually a sawed off broom stick or mop handle). Many times the first person is actually a baby who is held in the arms of his mother and this is the baby’s first ritual introduction to the piñata. The first person who is old enough to act on their own is blind folded and then spun in a circle while the people sing:

Ya se va el curo Ponciano con su bastón en su mano a ver si vuelta u vuelta se quita lo panzón”. (There goes the priest Ponciano with his stick in his hand to see if by turning and turning around he can lose his belly.)

Then the blindfolded person is left under the piñata to try and find it and hit it with the stick. Some people pull on the rope that supports the piñata to make it jump about and harder to hit. Other people shout directions and encouragement while some of the people sing the following ditty to set a time limit:

Dale, dale, dale,

No pierdas el tino

Porque si lo pierdes

Pierdes el camino.

Dale, dale, dale

Dale y no le dio

Quítenle la venda

¡Porque sigo yo!

¡Se Acabó!

¡Sigo yo!”

(Hit it, hit it, hit it!

Don't lose your aim

Because if you lose your aim

You will lose the path.

Hit it, hit it, hit it!

He hit it, and it didn't give

Take away his blindfold

Because it's now my turn!

It’s over!

I'm next!)

The people take turns until the piñata is broken and the treats come showering down and everyone scrambles to retrieve what the can. Often as not the piñata is finally broken by some twelve or thirteen year old girl who by now is a veteran of many attempts and knows exactly what strategies are needed to outsmart the jumping target. It is always interesting how exited the people get at the sight of the piñata. You can actually see grown people, especially young women, trembling with excitement as if wishing that they could take a turn. The piñata, however, is mostly reserved for children. After the scramble for goodies is over everyone receives a little bag of treats (aguinaldo) to make sure that no one is left out.

Now we come to the Pastorela or “Shepherd’s Play”. A pastorela is a simple morality play that usually involves shepherds who in some way or another are being tempted or tormented by the Devil. They began in twelfth century Europe and appeared in Mexico in the middle of the sixteenth century. They were used initially for the purpose of the evangelization of the native people but they eventually became part of the tradition of Navidad especially among school children. Many pastorelas are performed in schools or in community cultural centers. Almost every town of any size in Mexico has a “Casa de la Cultura” and putting on a pastorela performance is one of their traditions at Navidad. Pastorelas are homey, involve many children, and are at the same time quite predictable and very often amusing. The cast of characters has parts for everyone including simple shepherds, various Devils, Angels, Archangels, oriental Kings, and the Holy Family. Navidad just wouldn’t be the same without a pastorela. It is part of the fabric of Mexican culture.

One final note: The translations from Spanish to English above are my own. I have done the best that I can to convey the meaning but the translations are by no means literal. Some of the Spanish words are archaic and are not normally used in common speech and many of the phrases are linked to cultural practices which are no longer in use. When I asked some of my Mexican friends to help me with the translations they gave only a vague meaning for some of the words. I had to do bit of research to ferret out the details and even then when translated literally and out of cultural context the words didn’t make much sense in English without much additional explanation. What I provided above is what I consider to be a good compromise. Please forgive me if you don't agree and let me hear from you.

¡ Feliz Navidad !

16 December 2009

Dash away, dash away, dash away all!

In uncertain times such as these I am reminded how helpless we really are as individuals and how vulnerable we are as human beings in the face of adversity, whether it be a big earthquake, a calamitous flood, a raging brush fire, an economic collapse, or even something as tiny as a flu bug. This Christmas season I am reminded by the line in Clement Moore's "Twas the Night Before Christmas" that goes:

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.

Of course he was describing Santa's reindeer flying up to land on the roof but I am thinking of the dry leaves blowing before the wind and about how I feel as helpless at times. By the way, it is time to get something straight. Nowhere in the poem does it actually say that the reindeer fly up in the sky from house to house. On the contrary, it seems to imply that they travel on the ground and when they get to a house they give a mighty leap up onto the roof and pull the sled and old fat boy up there too with the momentum. But lest I digress, let's get back to the subject at hand. So, what could a handful of leaves do against a hurricane? Nothing! But if there were a billion leaves in a sack and it formed a big enough mound perhaps it would block the wind. So then how does one turn a handful into a billion? Perhaps through the power of the Internet.

I learned the other day some alarming statistics and I can't quite get my head around them nor get them out of my head. It is estimated by a credible sources that at least 1.2 billion people in the world are literally starving and that every six seconds a child dies from causes related to malnutrition. On top of that there are around two billion people who don't have access to a proper sanitary toilet and of those people there are 500 million who defecate and urinate out in the open right where they are without even a hole in the ground and without a shelter of any kind for privacy. Then, the same flies that gather on their excrement also gather on what little food they have and so it is a real miracle that any child survives that environment. One point two billion people is a lot of people to feed so how can there ever be any hope for them? Well it just so happens that for every problem there is a solution. There are about the same number of people affluent enough to be using the Internet. It costs twenty-five cents per day to give one of the starving people a large nutritious portion of porridge with enough calories and essential nutrients for survival. The World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations is already feeding 100 million people that way. They are the most efficient group that I know of because 93 cents of every dollar that they receive actually reaches the poor people in the form of a hot meal. If every one of the one billion or so people on the Internet could donate 25 cents per day then we could make a big leap forward in wiping out malnutrition and give some more kids a chance to have their fair share of sun and sky and air and light along with the pursuit of happiness. That is only $7.60 per month to save a kid.

So why should we save a kid? What's in it for us? Well, somebody nourished us when we were kids didn't they? What was in it for them? One kid dying every six seconds adds up to over five million kids a year waiting for us up in Heaven to charge us with their doom. Hillary Clinton said that it takes a village to raise a child and the WFP says it takes a billion people to save a billion people. Well, does this have anything to do with Mexico? The answer is no and yes. No, the WFP isn't currently feeding any people in Mexico but they are feeding thousands of people in Guatemala, our poor neighbor to the south where 49.3% of the children under 5 years of age are chronically undernourished. Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. So, come on, those of you who can afford it need to take some lumps of dough out from under your mattress and share it with a hungry child. You can find out how by checking out the World Food program website at: http://www.wfp.org/

Oh, and one more thing. It really isn't fair to say that everyone with an Internet connection is affluent. There are many people who use the Internet but are currently unemployed or underemployed and have families with small children of their own who lack resources. They are certainly excused and I beg their pardon if I have caused them any grief. That also means, of course, that about a half a billion of us who can afford it need to double our efforts to make a difference. But even those who can't afford to donate money can donate their prayers that this program will be a success. In any case, whether you donate or not, I will pray for you that you have a very Merry Christmas and if you mention me in your prayers as well we can be a team...a team of Comfort & Joy.

11 December 2009

Answer me cheerily...

I remember a stanza from a poem by one of my favorite poet authors, Douglas Malloch and...

Si mal no me acuerdo,
If I remember correctly,

or alternatively,

Si mal no recuerdo,
If I don't remember wrong,

or even,

Si mi memoria no me falla,
If my memory doesn't fail me,

the first few lines of the poem go something like this:

I said to a worker way down in a ditch,
"You labor exceedingly hard,
And in fact in a manner alarming,
Which I with apprehension regard.
Oh, why do you do it,
Oh, why never pause?"
I asked with a bit of a frown.
He answered me cheerily,
"Merely because,
I have to keep pumping or drown".

Sometimes we complain to our friends and neighbors about things like the rising cost of living and the declining value of our money or perhaps we moan about power failures or water failures or the garbage men don't pick up the trash. There doesn't seem much that we can do about it (short term) except to look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and say, "Yeah, well, whataya gonna do?" and the only answer to that, of course, is "Ya gotta do whatcha gotta do".

There is a way to say the same thing in Spanish. When someone complains about something that they have no control over, they or another person will say:

Pues, ni modo, aquí nos tocó vivir.
Well, there's nothing we can do about it, here is where we were destined to live.

The translation above is more of a transliteration than a literal translation. The verb "tocar" can mean "to touch", or "to play", as in "to play the guitar", or "to take" as in "take a turn", or "to feel", etcetera. The phrase "Aquí nos tocó vivir" (ah-KEY nohs toh-COH vee-VEER), can be used in many ways but it is always spoken or written the same way. It doesn't matter if one or two people are talking or if one is talking about where he or she lives or where they work, or where they go to school and so forth. It is always "Aquí nos tocóco vivir" as in "this where we were put" or "this is my destiny" or whatever. The phrase "Pues, ni modo" or just plain "Ni modo" is optional but it can also be used by itself to mean "Well, whataya gonna do?" or in the case without the word "pues", just plain "Whataya gonna do?" and is usually accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders (un encogimiento de hombros). You can also tack on "No hay otra opción" (There is no other option).

So, the next time you are standing in the street and chatting with your Mexican friends or neighbors and someone starts to complain about something that will never change, just shrug your shoulders and answer them cheerily, "Pues, ni modo, aquí nos tocó vivir". I guarantee that they will all smile and nod their heads in agreement and marvel at how well your Spanish is coming along. Someone will no doubt also say, "Tienes mucha razón. Haz lo que pueda, no hay otra opción" (You are so right, just do what you can and that's all you can do).


03 December 2009

Fighting contagion

I read an article the other day about some psychologists who had been studying the phenomena of loneliness, fear, worry, and negativity in general and had postulated a theory that these states of mind might be contagious. In fact they claim that these things might be far more contagious than the H1N1 influenza. Perhaps this isn't as far out as it may seem. Didn't President Roosevelt warn us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself? Right now there is a lot of fear, loneliness, and worry among people all over the world and especially in America. We Americans are a worrying people. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic recession, the national debt, the falling dollar, the flu virus, the corruption scandals, the collapse of General Motors, rising unemployment, the mortgage crisis, the piracy on the high seas, the senseless murders of innocent people, and to top it all off, the constant name calling and backbiting in Congress, have cast a pall of gloom and doom over Americans everywhere, even some of the lucky ones who live here in Mexico. It's as if we were all singing that song "Gloom, despair, and agony on me" by Buck Owens and Roy Clark from the old TV Show "Hee-Haw" (1969 -1992). Remember?

Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all, Gloom, despair, and agony on me.

The situation is no doubt magnified by the fact that it is the month of December already and the Christmas Holiday Season is almost upon us when one's thoughts naturally turn to home...and the "home" that I am talking about is the one that you lived in when you were a little kid. I still miss it. I remember one December when I was about eight years, old I began to question the tradition of Santa Claus and so being the curious kid that I was (and still am) I decided to put him to the test. We had learned in school about Saint Nicholas, the ancient Bishop of Myra, and how the children of the Netherlands put out their shoes on the night before the feast day of St. Nicholas which is on December 6th. If they were good little girls and boys they could expect Black Peter, St. Nicholas's helper, to leave some goodies in their shoes. I thought, "Hmm, if this is really true and Santa Claus (or Sinterklaas as he is known in Dutch) is the genuine article, then according to my youthful calculations, it being December 5th, if we put out our shoes out on the back porch we ought to get some goodies". I then gathered my younger brother and sisters together and explained the proposition and I had them gather up their spare shoes and we all headed for the back porch. My mother had heard us talking and as we marched past her in single file and with great solemnity I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye and wondered from the way that she looked if she might be ill. Well, the way things turned out when we checked our shoes in the morning we found that the goodies were there sure enough and it was a long time after that before I doubted Santa Claus again.

Years later my mother reminded me of this and told me that on that night her first urge was to send me packing but she couldn't think of anyone who would take in such a little stinker like me. After we had gone to bed she put on her coat and ran down to the corner "Mom and Pop" delicatessen or what we called a "candy store" in those days and bought some cheap little toys and some comic books, coloring books, crayons, and candy and hurried back very frustrated that she was spending her grocery money on a persona as unexpected as St. Nicholas was on that particular night. She really didn't have to do it, but after all my Ma was (is) a saint, and she had to protect the spirit of Santa Claus because as you may or may not know, saints always stick together and look out for each other.

On the eve of another St. Nicholas day I think it is time that we remind ourselves that America is a great country and as they say in Mexico, "La situación no es para tanto", or "The situation isn't as bad as it seems". My Mexican friends all tell me, "No te preocupes, amigo"..."Don't worry about it my friend". Perhaps that is good advice. They never seem to worry so why, oh why, should I? I think what we as Americans need is a new rallying cry. At Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the Apollo One commemorative plaque at launch complex 34, there is a Latin motto that says, "Ad astra per aspera"..."To the stars through difficulties". Apollo One, as you may remember, is the Apollo mission that never got off the ground. It was consumed by fire on the launch pad on January 27, 1967, and as a result astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee lost their lives. That's what Americans need to be thinking right now, no...not about dying and not about actually going to the Moon again but about rising above our difficulties and reaching once again for the stars. We eventually made it to the Moon and we will eventually go back and we will eventually be at peace and economically solvent again and the sooner we stop crying and get on with it, the faster we will get there.

There is another thing that we sometimes lose sight of and that is the spiritual aspect. Have you noticed that in Mexico even the Devil has a part in Christmas? In almost every traditional manger scene you will find the Devil hiding in the background and observing. In all of the traditional "Pastorelas" you will find the Devil, usually trying to lead the poor shepherds astray on their way to worship the Christ child. Yes, the Devil is alive and well and he loves Christmas more than anyone else but for different purposes. He knows that through his artful manipulations he can make people miserable and lonely, and fearful and worried. How do I know that there is a Devil? Just look around you. How could "natural selection" alone be the cause for so much evil in the world? Yes, animals kill each other for food, but only human beings, kill, and maim, and rape, and terrorize, just for the fun of it...and the Devil helps them do it!

I have a suggestion. This Christmas season why don't we keep it simple. Let's forget about all of the rushing around and glitz and glitter and let's concentrate on lifting each other's spirits. Let's "get a grip" as they say and brighten things up with a smile. Put those negative thoughts on hold. At least for a little while let's stop all the griping and look for a little good among the bad. Let's get behind our presidents both in Mexico and the United States and use the power of what Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, called the "collective unconscious" ( or collective subconscious) to help them fend off the Devil. Remember, Satan was around at the beginning of time on Earth. He was there in the desert with the Israelites and he was not only present at the birth of Jesus, but he was with Jesus every step of the way to the cross, trying to make Him feel loneliness, fear, and worry. Jesus didn't let it happen to Him and neither should we. Like my Ma who is now in Heaven always said..."Onward ever, backward NEVER!"

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.