Sophia Santiago, a Catholic immigrant from Mexico, Fariba Enteshari, a follower of the Iranian Sufi mystic Rumi, and John Elder, an El Segundo engineer and family therapist who calls himself a neo-pagan, follow distinctly different spiritual paths. But as Christmas dawns today, each will celebrate the holiday season with the same powerful mythic symbols: the birth of light illuminating the winter darkness.
Santiago, like thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have made Los Angeles their home, has observed the start of the Christmas season with a candlelit procession known as las posadas. It is a centuries-old Catholic tradition that reenacts the biblical story of Joseph and Mary's search for lodging before the birth of Jesus.
Enteshari has marked the holidays by attending a concert of traditional Iranian music and poetry to celebrate a ritual known as shabeyalda. The ritual, connected to the ancient Persian god Mithra, celebrates the winter solstice and, for Enteshari, stirs childhood memories of family togetherness, pomegranates, poetry and stories of hope and survival over the long, harsh winter seasons.
In a yule ritual in Northridge last Saturday, Elder's Southern California neo-pagan group, Reweaving, reenacted the ancient Sumerian myth of the death and rebirth of the goddess Inanna, which symbolizes the seasonal descent into darkness and the return of the light. For Elder, the ritual served as a powerful transformative tool to face his own darkness (controlling behavior he says has damaged his family life), repent and experience a spiritual rebirth.
For most Christians, of course, today is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The practice dates at least to 336, when, scholars say, the early church began to piggyback on the popular Roman festivals for the winter solstice, gradually turning a pagan festival of the "birth of the sun" into one celebrating the "birth of the son."
Now, at the close of the 20th century, growing ecumenism and interfaith activity have accelerated the sharing of rituals to mark holiday observances. That mixing is nowhere more prominent than in Southern California, where scholars of religion believe that more people of more faiths and ethnic backgrounds live side by side than at any other place on the planet.
What many of those observances--Christian and non-Christian alike--have in common is what Jonathan Young, a Santa Barbara psychologist and founder of the Center for Story and Symbol, calls the universal symbolism tied to the season: "hope against despair, light over darkness and life over death."
While Christmas dates back many centuries, the traditional American observances--the tree, Santa Claus, church services that seem hallowed by time--are not, in fact, so very old.
Young notes that New England Puritans outlawed Christmas as a pagan festival in the 18th century. What Young calls the "great stew, a wonderful collage" of Christmas traditions that seem so customary to many today largely took root in the mixing of European immigrant folkways in the 19th century.
Today, some of the "new" traditions of Southern California are long-standing Christian observances from other parts of the world.
In most Latin American countries, for example, las posadas festivities begin Dec. 16 and take place for nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve. Traditionally, celebrants dressed as Joseph and Mary are denied lodging three times before being admitted into a house. Then, a party begins with tamales and hot champurrado, a chocolate-flavored cornmeal drink. Children smash open a pinata, which is believed to represent Satan or the spirit of evil. Breaking it open symbolizes the purification of mankind.
A New Latino-Greek Event in Pico-Union
Today, immigrants are reshaping the posadas to fit their new lives. With many people working long hours in manual-labor jobs, several parishes have chosen one weekend night in place of the traditional nine for the procession so that as many people as possible can attend.
The celebration has also expanded beyond Latino communities. At St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Pico-Union, the largely Central American congregation joined last Saturday with neighboring St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral for the second annual Latino-Greek posada.
Riding a burro down Pico Boulevard, actors in the role of Mary and Joseph were serenaded by a mix of Spanish and Greek hymns. (Most Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas according to the Western calendar, though some celebrate the holiday in early January.)
"The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church share many similarities," said the Rev. John S. Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral. "This is about celebrating old traditions and creating new ones."