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When Quetzalcóatl took over Christmas
Was Quetzalcóatl the righteous representative of Christmas in Mexico? - Photo: Mario Guzmán/EFE

When Quetzalcóatl took over Christmas

07/12/2019
12:13
Mexico City
Karla Ibett Díaz Maya
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In 1930, Mexico's President Pascual Ortiz Rubio had the intention of creating a love for national symbols and traditions an answer to a new kind of invasion through culture by our northern neighbors

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On December 23, 1930, the stage to give toys to poor children from Mexico’s government that Christmas, was a pyramid in honor of Quetzalcóatl inside the National Stadium, located in the Roma borough and built in 1924 by José Villagrán.

That year, President Pascual Ortiz Rubio decreed the adoption of the figure of the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcóatl as the highest representative of Christmas holidays with the objective of leaving behind the figure of Santa Claus, that had recently arrived at Mexico in the 1920s and that was still not rooted in Mexican culture.

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President Pascual Ortiz Rubio giving a speech in the National Stadium - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Or at least that was how the deputy minister of Public Education, Carlos Trejo y Lerdo de Tejada communicated the decree in an article published by EL UNIVERSAL on November 27, 1930 called “Instead of the Three Wise Kings or Santa Claus, our Quetzalcótal,” which explained the substitution of Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men in favor of the pre-Colonial deity in order to promote a nationalist education in accordance to Ortiz Rubio’s ideals. It also wanted “to spawn evolutionarily in the heart of the child, the love for symbols, deities, and traditions of our culture and our race,” explained the text.

Back then, the National Stadium was where the greatest political, sports, and social events took place. It was over the now disappeared Cemetery of La Piedad. In 1949, it was demolished to become, later, into the Juárez family complex, which was also demolished after affectations due to the 1985 earthquake.

Today, that land is occupied by the Pabellón Cuauhtémoc mall and the Ramón López Velarde Garden that commemorates the victims of the earthquake.

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In honor of Quetzalcóatl, the toys were presented
God of the air, like a feathered snake, and of the evening stars, like a star with an ornamented circle that radiates with light, its gigantic quetzal headdress and its leather clothes, Quetzalcóatl, the beautiful snake, was not enough to enter into the Mexican homes to bring Christmas, presents, and sweets because it did not have the support of institution and companies.

On December 4, 1930, the National Lottery launched its great extraordinary draw of MXN $600,000 in honor of the pre-Colonial god. That same day, the Department of Manual Arts and Drawing of the Education Ministry sent a statement to all urban and rural elementary schools to inform the students of the legend of the feathered snake.
On December 23, 1930, in the central part of the National Stadium, a great Aztec temple was installed in honor of the main figure of the event: Quetzalcóatl. The combination was weird: on one side, Christmas trees with lights of different colors that decorated the land, and, on the other, military bands and battalions that signaled the beginning of the highly expected festival.

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In the event, there was a representation of a pyramid in honor of Quetzalcóatl - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

There were also representations of Aztecs, temples, and dances. Quetzalcóatl was at the center, surrounded by its court of honor: priestesses, tehuanas, Aztecs, and other indigenous people. According to the article published by EL UNIVERSAL, the National Anthem could be heard as musical background.

The objective was to bring Christmas and gifts to the poor children in the city with the attendance of almost 15,000 persons, between children and diplomats invited to the great event.

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The first lady and president of the Society for the Protection of Childhood, Josefina de Ortiz Rubio gave the presents to all the children who were amazed by the show and full of doubt recently caused by the order of the then-President Pascual Ortiz Rubio.

The article also narrates that the man who represented Quetzalcóatl, with a beard and a headdress, delivered presents and candies. Right after, there were regional dances and gymnastic tables performed by orphan children under the care of the State.

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The first lady Josefina de Ortiz Rubio was part of the event - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

The controversy
Without a doubt, the presidential decree caused controversy and dislike since for some it was a nationalist action, but for others, it was an offense to their beliefs. Before the grand event at the National Stadium, EL UNIVERSAL published letters from people who opposed the change ordered by the President.

“Are we going to lay down Quetzalcóatl in the Bethlehem manger and pray in Náhuatl?” said a woman out loud interviewed by journalist Pablo de Góngora in his article “Quetzalcóatl and the Serpent” of December 11, 1930. She was a clear example of the social discontent (at least in the Catholic sector) who felt a threat to her religious traditions and its symbols.

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Others defended the feathered serpent and another letter was published: “there are those who mark the proposal as anti-religious or demonic… that the universality of Santa Claus gives him the right to remain as an image for Mexicans and that it would be profane to erase him from the children’s imagination,” said the author.

Even some adds of the time made reference to the deity in Christmas traditions: “From the Kings, Santa Claus, or Quetzalcóatl, there is no present like this: the General Electric fridge,” it said.

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Some adds included mentions of Quetzalcóatl being part of Christmas - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Despite the government efforts to implement what would be a new national tradition, people refused to adopt it. The image of the feathered serpent did not help much and researchers were not surprised.

Ismael Vidales, a Mexican pedagogue, writer, and poet, explains in an essay in case the public was afraid of the image of a snake with feathers, the Education Ministry announced that it would represent Quetzalcóatl according to the ancient codex that describes a bearded and blond man similar to the old Santa Claus.

In addition, in an article published by EL UNIVERSAL on December 18, 2010, titled “The year in which Quetzalcóatl stole Christmas from Santa Claus,” historian Elena Díaz Miranda mentioned that “a traditional cannot be imposed by presidential decree, but also, society’s traditions are the ones that make laws. In 1930, we were already a collage of traditions from different parts of the world; celebrations could coexist without problem.”

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In an interview, historian and specialist in Mexican identity Arturo Morales Pantoja adds that there is much doubt about who issued this reform “because we were in times of the Maximato in which ex-President Plutarco Elías Calles was the strongest man in the country, even when another one was in the presidential chair,” What is true, he adds, is that this post-Revolution stage wanted to find national symbols no matter what.

The Mexican Revolution showed that the south and north of the country are very different and met culturally, he said, in a way that brought the idea of building a single Mexico “and to this we can add the creation of the Revolutionary National Party (PNR, today PRI) that had, precisely, this idea of unified culture.

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The Education Ministry decided to represent Quetzalcóatl as he was described in the codex so as not to scare people - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

“This attempt to modernize institutions is not a mistake, but a bad calculation by the government because it doesn’t understand that cultural processes are nor the same as the economic and politic ones; that is, during the Revolution, people won political rights, but in terms of poverty the things were completely the same,” explains the expert.

“There was a kind of revolutionary nationalism madness,” explained Jorge Traslosheros in an article published by EL UNIVERSAL in 2010; the idea of adopting Quetzalcóatl was that it would teach children about a Mexico with the tradition of its patriotic and civilized people to recover its greatness as a race, that is, to bring Indigenismo back and return to pre-Colonial traditions.

However, Arturo Morales mentions that “it was a matter of bringing back the identity of the ancient indigenous groups and not of the indigenous groups of that moment, and it still happens nowadays. It’s trying to create a Mexican identity based on pre-Colonial indigenous people to try to unify the different Mexicos.”

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But, what do children nowadays think of the event?
“Who do you prefer, Santa Claus or the Three Wise Kings?” asked EL UNIVERSAL to several children. “The Kings because they bring you more presents,” said eight-years-old Oscar from Mexico City.

“What would you think if Quetzalcóatl substituted Santa Claus or the Three Wise Kings?” 11-years-old Mariana Pérez Cordero said it would be better if he brought ancient things, “like the ones they used before.”

“What would you feel if a feathered serpent went into your house to give you presents? What do you think of its aspect?” Ana Bel, of 11 years of age, said she would be scared to see an animal like such but that she would accept it.

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EL UNIVERSAL published notes and letters addressing Quetzalcóatl and Christmas - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

In this brief survey made in Mexico City, 12 out of 15 children felt curious about this mythical character and its culture. 10 out of 15 children still prefer the Three Wise Men but would not close the door to Quetzalcóatl. There is, then, in comparison to 1930, interest and acceptance to this deity, but what is the reason for the change? What is different now?

“We had an extremely Catholic and traditionalist society,” said Arturo Morales, “attached to a protective State that defined the destiny of everything,” in addition, “there was little knowledge of our pre-Hispanic roots; archeological works began at mid 20th century,” hence there was not enough fondness of the society of Mesoamerican cultures.

Nowadays, there is “a society that has no historical awareness but that does know it past and that is much more critical despite its lack of action.”

Clearly, the presidential initiative, headed by Pascual Ortiz Rubio, of creating a love for national symbols and traditions was an answer to a new kind of invasion through culture by our northern neighbors.

The mistake here, according to Arturo Morales, was that “Mexican-ness has been misinterpreted; it has to do with all the symbols we acquire in cultural matters.

“Trying to eradicate something as deep as being ‘mestizo’ is like depriving people of a part of their identity and their culture,” he concludes.

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