On Gifts and Santa

Dear Bob,

Public university students are on strike here. No classes and no wages for most of us teachers due to the nature of our contract with the university. Tenure is rare in regional branches. There is a union, but you have to pay quite a lot to belong and then as your contract is just for a semester, the university could very well decide not to hire back a “problematic” teacher, so many teachers shy away from fighting to get paid. The union rep says all teachers should be paid because otherwise is unconstitutional. But Mr. Duque, our president says: no hours taught no wages earned. I support the students’ cause of course. Education has become a big business and it is necessary that the state guarantees a quality education for all, no only for those able to pay the private institutions.  Universidad Nacional, a recognized and magnificent university has buildings collapsing. It is a shame. The strike continues as the government, students and teachers have a round of talks to see if they come to an agreement. Summing up: no money for gifts this holiday season.  But that should not be an excuse for not offering gifts. Because a gift is such a nice thing when it is really a gift. I have some memories of unforgettable gifts. I remember that for Christmas 1972 I got this kid-size rocking-chair and a big doll which I adored. I would sit in my chair to hold and pamper my doll for hours. Then I remember a friend in Florida gave me a flute he has made and then sewed a cute pouch for it. It was completely unexpected and completely lacked any requirement for a counterpart. These two examples are examples of gifts because the givers (my parents, my friend) were not requiring anything in return of course. But the first case was special because it was something I really wanted and in the second case it was special because it made me happy that someone thought of me and decided to give me a cute thing just for the joy of it. I guess this is what I mean when I said “…it is really a gift”. Something is really a gift because it is something I covet and is given to me, or it is something more of a sentimental value, perhaps even made especially for me with absolutely no requirement of payment. Maybe I should not argue against the simple definition of gift. If somebody gives me a pair of brand-new shoes because she didn’t like them and says: “here, have them. I just don’t like them and I don’t know anybody else with this size buy you. It is a gift”, I should not deny that this is a gift.

But there is a difference, right?

One of my cousins always preaches that God has given us a gift: Jesus, his son, who sacrificed his life so our sins were forgiven and we gained salvation. But this is no gift. He absolutely expects something in return: our faith and devotion.  No, I don’t think so. The most important factor is not asking for anything in return.

When the holiday season comes we have to think about giving gifts to many people. This is because the spirit of the season is precisely the spirit of sharing and giving. But we know that when so many things are bought and discarded, the planet starts asking to slow down the spirit because it is killing her. Nowadays, not only we have to think about the person we are offering a gift and what she would like and how I could make her happy, but also, how my gift is going to impact this poor planet earth. More clothes? More shoes? More plastic? More creams and perfumes? More paper? More tech gear? Whatever it is, hopefully it does not mean that something else goes in the garbage or some other tree falls in the amazon. This season is beautiful but it puts a lot of stress on the earth (and on people too!)

It would be nice that the Santa Claus story was true: one factory location without taking up any planet earth’s resources, no contamination, delivered by zero-emission vehicles.  By the way, I wonder who came out with the idea that some saint was a gift giver for children. Why to build this fantasy?  Is it just because it is more mysterious and exciting for a child to get it from some fantastic man?  Or was it a way to get children to believe in saints?

Can you tell me a story about a gift you received? Have you ever hand-made a gift? Do you see any problems with gifts?

Love to all this holiday season and I hope everyone gets a nice meaningful gift and can also offer a meaningful gift to somebody else. This way the happiness circle is complete.


A harmless idea ?

I never saw a problem with my religious upbringing. I didn’t see any problem with religion being taught at school. I just couldn’t see what harm that would cause. I was a good person, pretty smart (I thought). Hey! Nothing wrong! What was all the fuss?

Surely I could see the harm caused by islamists in New York, but I couldn’t see how catholic teaching in my country could lead to something so extreme. From that teaching I had learned that one needs to be spiritual to be good. What the heck does that mean? I think that what I had in mind is that one needs to believe that there is something beyond the material world, leaving this material world in a position of something transitory, something prior to, something essential –  which I need to earn by being good in this life. And a complement of that idea is that if I didn’t have this belief then all I would do is try to have more things to be happier in this life and live for pleasures disregarding other people’s needs and being mean and selfish. Why did I have this idea? Why did I believe in this conditional? Well, before I explore that question, I want to tell you what I have noticed now that I have stopped defending religious faith and live across the street from a church in Latin America.

First observation. I had written a petition to the priests to stop burning firecrackers at 4 or 5 in the morning every time they celebrate some saint, virgin, Jesus etc. I gathered 75 signatures.  I learned that one priest dismissed it in public by saying that “some 20 people have earaches from the firecrackers so I will leave the letter in the board for everyone to opine”. My letter was a very good letter. I told them the explosions were not compatible with the idea of peace the church was supposed to be about and that although it is difficult to go against traditions, traditions have to change to become more humane and redeem everybody’s rights. I  think this is the first time somebody in this town dares to ask them to change their ways about something so traditional. One local activist told me to be careful with one of the priests. He could turn against me as he has done against other people before.

Second observation. This town is historically significant in Colombian history because the first attempts of independence occurred here. On July 10 , 1810, people in this town were so tired of the Spanish governor that they revolted, kicked out the Spaniards and signed a declaration whereby they installed a junta to govern but at the same time requested the king of Spain to come and reign in person over this land (nobody knew he was a terrible king himself who was held in jail at the time!). So it was not a real independence movement but at least it was a revolt against a Spanish dictator. The first item in this declaration was that catholic faith was the faith of the people and was to be preserved so. Last July 10, the town had the yearly celebration of this event. The celebration started the day before at 5 in the morning with the church across from my place burning firecrackers and having a public mass in the atrium at 8 in the morning. I thought Why? Why is the church doing this on this occasion? I saw it clearly when I heard the priest’s homily. He said that they were celebrating the “virgin of Chiquinquira” (the church’s name is “Our Lady of Chiquinquira”) and that the virgin had been a symbol of independence, a very important symbol for that movement. What? Where is this priest getting this from? No serious historical account says anything about the “virgin of Chiquinquira” being anything for the independence movement. In fact, I found an essay online from a Mexican historian explaining how unlike independence movements in Latin American countries, Mexico had used the religious symbol/image of the virgin of Guadalupe as an accelerant of the independence movement as the leaders told people that the virgin of Guadalupe was a Mexican virgin, Mexican from even before the Spaniards had showed up in Mexico. He states that in south American countries religious elements or symbols or  members of the clergy were not part of the independence movement at all.

So what is this priest in the church across the street talking about? Ah! Darn it. I can see it now. He is only doing what others did before –  linking religious holidays to political, civil, pagan events. The funny thing (maybe not so funny) is that they have to bring students from one of the schools to stand in front of the atrium so it looks like they have a lot of clients. And what about these students’ time? Or waste of time?

Third observation. I am teaching English to some 10, 11 year old kids. Some go to a religious school and some to public schools. I learn all of them have religion class and they have not been taught about evolution. They know about it from other sources and they also know about Adam and Eve but it is not clear whether the story of Adam and Eve is a real one or just a story.   The first constitution of this country had given the church the task of education but this was officially corrected in the 1994 constitution. So how is it that public schools teach “catholic religion”?

My conclusions from these observations:

1. They (some catholic priests) preach charity but they are arrogant. Traditions that serve their interest will stay.

2. They (some catholic priests) will twist history so it serves their interests.

3. The church lobby is strong. We are afraid of making the church leaders mad.

So let me go back to the question I started with: why did I have the idea that if I didn’t believe that there is world beyond this material world then I would be mean and selfish?  It was a naïve idea with no elaboration. A simple idea but very convenient for the church! But how can this idea be implanted in my mind without me exploring it, elaborating  or coming to believe in it based on my own experience? I think it is related to my three observations. If ideas are implanted in young minds, they will stay and they will help faith to survive. So the church has to keep this power. Its presence in schools is key. Lobby is key. That naïve idea did not make me kill anyone but it sure kept me being a client ( although I have to admit I never gave much money when they collected).