Category: Xmas

“Silent Night, Holy Night”

This post is part of my notionally annual, but in point of fact, irregular attempt at spreading Christmas cheer on my web log. This year, when I heard the old Christmas standard Silent Night, I began to think of current events in Mexico, for reasons that will be apparent if you read this yuletide message in its entirety.

In 1963 Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a rendition of Silent Night, showing why the 1818 composition by Austrians Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) and Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) remains eternal around the world. Mohr, a Catholic priest and writer at St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Salzburg, had written a six-stanza poem on the birth of Jesus titled Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night). Mohr asked Gruber, the organist and choirmaster at St Nicholas, to write a melody around the poetic message of peace. Mohr and Gruber first performed the song at St Nicholas Church on Christmas Eve, 1818. In 2011 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the song a part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage” of the human race. Over the years the song was translated into English and shortened to three-stanzas, but it still retains its original message;

“Silent night! Holy night! Which brought salvation to the world, from Heaven’s golden heights, mercy’s abundance was made visible to us: Jesus in human form, Jesus in human form.”

Here I should mention that moment during World War I, the night before Christmas in December of 1914 to be exact, when German and British soldiers stopped fighting, climbed out of their muddy trenches, and defied their orders to kill one another by fraternizing in the no-man’s land. It started with the sound of German soldiers singing Stille Nacht, the melody wafting over the bomb scarred wasteland. British troops responded by singing Silent Night, and soon the two armies were exchanging handshakes, gifts, and playing soccer on the killing field. What united the two antagonists was a song with meaning and significance understood by both parties… something to be remembered in the war-mad present.

Most Americans remain blissfully unaware that Gruber and Mohr’s Silent Night is a Christmas standard in the Spanish speaking world as well. Known as Noche de paz (Night of peace), it differs from the English language version only in that each stanza begins with the words, Noche de paz, Noche de Amor. But the words “Silent Night, Holy Night” take on new meaning during the Christmas Season in today’s crisis shattered Mexico.

Screenshot of the Ayotzinapa Christmas tree at the Benito Juárez monument from a video by the Guardian.

Screenshot of the Ayotzinapa Christmas tree at the Benito Juárez monument from a video by the Guardian.

In the weeks just prior to Christmas, religious and political activists raised a Christmas tree decorated with artworks depicting the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa kidnapped by government forces on Sept. 26, 2014.

The tree was erected in Mexico City’s Alameda Park at the Neoclassical monument dedicated to President Benito Juárez. The group, Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics for a Free Choice), invited the public to come light the tree “For truth, justice, and peace in Ayotzinapa,” and also to “call for solidarity and accompany the families of those who have been victims of state violence, because if their families are not complete, then as a society, neither are we.” On Dec. 16th, the tree was consecrated in an evening ceremony before hundreds of people.

Affixed to the top of the Christmas tree was a Star of Bethlehem ornament that read, Justicia (Justice). The gathered crowd said a prayer for the eradication of corruption and government impunity. Hymns were sung and candles lit while 43 white balloons representing the missing students were released into the night sky. Photos of the event went viral, and that árbol de Navidad para Ayotzinapa was seen all over the world.

On Dec 22, the parents and relatives of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students delivered a Christmas message to the world in the form of a short video, “We wish you a Merry Christmas, and ask that you don’t forget about us.”

But in truth what actually got me thinking of Mexico when I heard Silent Night, Holy Night, was the announcement that dozens of organizations and activists had called for a huge Marcha Silenciosa (Silent March) to be held in Mexico City the day after Christmas. Starting at the capital’s Ángel de la Independencia statue that memorializes those that died in the 1810-1821 war of Independence against Spain, the silent throng will converge on another symbolic site, the Monumento a la Revolución, which commemorates the revolution of 1910. The idea of an immense but silent multitude dressed in black and carrying candles representing the people’s fallen, a determined crowd that through their silence demands justice and liberty, no doubt terrifies the country’s vampiric ruling class.

On December 21, 2012, there was another silent march in Mexico, it took place in San Cristobal de las Casa, Chiapas when up to 40,000 indigenous supporters of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation - EZLN) marched in absolute silence to show the world that they exist and have not succumbed to government threats or intimidation. No speeches were made that day, the people just marched in steely, disciplined silence. It should be noted here that the EZLN has given full support to the families and supporters of the missing Ayotzinapa students.

A number of poster images announcing the 2014 yuletide demonstrations have been circulated in Mexico, three of which illustrate this article.

"Marcha Silenciosa" (Silent March) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announces a mass Silent March in Mexico City the day after Christmas.

"Marcha Silenciosa" (Silent March) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announces a mass Silent March in Mexico City the day after Christmas.

The poster Marcha Silenciosa (Silent March) announces the silent march in Mexico City the day after Christmas; drawings of all 43 disappeared students appear on the poster. The announcement exclaims in the voice of the people that “it has been three months and we are still waiting for them, alive.”

A rather crazed looking militant Santa Claus is featured in the poster, De la Universidad a las calles (The University to the streets), a poster announcing three Holiday Season student activities against the corrupt government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Yes, Santa knows if Presidente Nieto has been naughty or nice, and by the look on the face of the irate man in the red suit, Nieto ain’t gettin nuttin’ for Christmas.

Señor Claus’ white fur-lined red suit is unbuttoned to reveal a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words, ¡Fue el Estado! (It was the State!), the popular slogan that charges the government as being responsible for the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa students. Old Kris Kringle’s suit is also ornamented with patches that read, Ya Me Cansé (I am tired), and 43, the number of kidnapped students.

"De la Universidad a las calles" (The University to the streets) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing Holiday season activities in Mexico City to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

"De la Universidad a las calles" (The University to the streets) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing Holiday season activities in Mexico City to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

The placard that Father Christmas holds over head is actually a calendar listing of activities in Mexico City to protest the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. On Dec. 21 there were “Artistic activities and discussion forums at the Palacio de Bellas Artes” (Palace of Fine Arts).

On Dec. 26 Saint Nicholas encourages one and all to participate in “the 6th Global Day for Ayotzinapa,” which includes the massive silent march in downtown Mexico City.

And finally, St. Nick announces that on Jan 4, the Casa del Lago art & media lab at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) will host “arts, discussion forums, social health brigades, and various workshops” related to the Ayotzinapa crisis.

The poster Marcha Silenciosa, No Más Desaparecidos (Silent March, No More Disappeared), was designed by an arts group and announces the Dec. 26 silent march. The poster uses an altered version of the painting The Scream, by the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Munch’s original 1893 oil painting depicts a disturbed individual shrieking in abject terror while standing on a bridge against an undulating backdrop of a bloody red sunset.

"Marcha Silenciosa, No Más Desaparecidos" (Silent March, No More Disappeared) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing the Dec. 26 silent march to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

"Marcha Silenciosa, No Más Desaparecidos" (Silent March, No More Disappeared) - Anonymous artist. 2014. Poster announcing the Dec. 26 silent march to protest the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students.

The painting has become iconic of modern day angst and trepidation. The artist that created the Marcha Silenciosa poster counted on people recognizing Munch’s vision; the horror portrayed in Munch’s original painting was intensified in the Mexican poster by making the figure absent. That is the dismay and alarm that grips Mexico today.

It is highly unlikely that you will read any authoritative accounts of Mexico City’s post-Christmas Silent March in the pages of the New York Times or other U.S. newspapers, who altogether have barely covered the earth shattering changes washing over Mexico since September 2014; but that is not to say those events never happened.

I am amazed by the artistic and cultural responses to the Ayotzinapa crisis now flowing from cultural workers in Mexico, and their efforts have only just commenced. A powerful new art of social concern is blossoming across Mexico as I write these words, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. I will continue to document, encourage, and participate in that rising tide of artistic resistance.

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UPDATES 12/27/2014

On the YouTube video channel for Ruptly TV you can view a brief video that documents Mexico’s Silent March of December 26, 2014.

"Monumento a la Revolución." Dec. 26, 2014. Photo courtesy of www.webcamsdemexico.com

"Monumento a la Revolución." - Photo of protestors massing at the Monument to the Revolution in downtown Mexico City, at the end of the Dec. 26, 2014 Silent March. Photo courtesy of www.webcamsdemexico.com

"Marcha Silenciosa" - Anonymous photographer. December 26, 2014.

"Marcha Silenciosa" - Anonymous photographer. December 26, 2014.

The Marcha Silenciosa photo shows a banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe carried by the crowd. Mexico’s Catholics believe that Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), is the protector of the poor and downtrodden. It is said that she appeared to an Aztec/Mexica peasant named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on Dec. 9, 1531 on the Hill of Tepeyac, an ancient place of worship for the Aztec Earth Mother goddess, Tonantzin. Speaking to Juan Diego in the indigenous language of Nahuatl, the Virgen asked that a Church be built on the spot of her miraculous appearance. Today that church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in México City, is the most visited Catholic site in the world.

But the Guadalupe is also a battle emblem of Mexico’s insurgents. On Sept. 16, 1810, the Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his famous Grito de Dolores (Shout of Dolores), a call that marks the beginning of Mexico’s War of Independence against the colonial power of Spain. Hidalgo led an army of 90,000 poorly armed indigenous soldiers under the banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe. This is beautifully depicted in a detail from the mural La Independencia de México by the great Mexican muralist Juan O’Gorman that hangs in Mexico City’s museum at Chapultepec Castle.

With the banner of the Virgen of Guadalupe leading the way, the triumphant rebel armies of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa entered Mexico City in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution. Even today’s Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation - EZLN), has adopted the Guadalupe, as evidenced by this EZLN poster announcing their First World Festival of Dignified Rage, held in Mexico City in December of 2008.

"Santa Claus did not bring me the 43" - Screenshot from a Euronews video on the Dec. 26, Silent March.

"Santa Claus did not bring me the 43" - Screenshot from a Euronews video on the Dec. 26, Silent March.

Christmas Thoughts: 2013 Edition

 "Feliz Navidad" - Xmas decoration on a vendor's storefront door during the Dec. 24, 2013 Las Posadas celebration on Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the birthplace of the city. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

"Feliz Navidad" - Xmas decoration on a vendor's storefront door during the Dec. 24, 2013 Las Posadas celebration on Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the birthplace of the city. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

“Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread, so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys… to the little rich boys”
Father Christmas.” The Kinks. 1977

While Father Christmas by The Kinks remains one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs (”give my daddy a job cause he needs one, he’s got lots of mouths to feed”), the working-class angst expressed in the song is nearly matched by the superlative Christmas-themed album from Joey Ramone (1951-2001), Christmas Spirit… In My House. Released a year after Joey’s untimely death, four of the rockin Christmassy cuts on the album express romantic troubles and woes, but it is the fifth song, a punk reworking of a song made famous by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, What A Wonderful World, (1901-1971), that always brings tears to my eyes.

On Donner! On Blitzen! On Djibouti!
Twas the Night before Christmas, the composition in verse by American poet, Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) told of children snuggled in bed “while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Moore wrote of Santa “with the sleigh full of toys” drawn by his eight reindeer; “On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!” Let us add another reindeer to that list of names… the camo-clad Djibouti. The Night before Christmas 2013, news reports told of U.S. Marines being deployed to Djibouti, Sudan, in preparation for intervention in the civil war between Sudan and oil-rich South Sudan. Never heard of South Sudan before? Don’t worry, another great American writer, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913), once penned “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

President Obama has said the U.S. must intervene in the Sudanese civil war in order to “support the security of U.S. citizens, personnel, and property, including our Embassy, in South Sudan,” but the likelihood of military intervention has more to do with South Sudan’s natural resources like uranium, diamonds, gold, and yes… oil. Prior to the current crisis foreign oil companies in South Sudan were pumping 250,000 barrels of oil a day (source: London Financial Times, Dec. 23, 2013), but the civil war has threatened oil production. U.S. moves can also be seen as an attempt to block Chinese influence in Africa. The second largest supplier of African oil to China is Sudan (source: Council on Foreign Relations), and China has enjoyed a 40 percent stake in Sudan’s oil industry (source: Analysis Intelligence). One has to wonder, where will the next Christmas war take place?

Placards seen carried by those involved with the now non-existent US anti-war movement once read, “Who would Jesus bomb?” Indeed.

Forget Djibouti the Reindeer, give Santa a Fighter Jet Escort!
It has come to this writer’s attention that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is providing Santa Claus (codename, Big Red 1) with a virtual Fighter Jet escort. And thank goodness, it is a dangerous world out there.

What is it about Christmas, anyway?
December 29, 1890 - the massacre of some 300 Sioux/Lakota women and children by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation; December 18, 1972 -the “Christmas Bombing” of North Vietnam by the Nixon administration; December 20, 1989 -the “Christmas Invasion” of Panama by the George H.W. Bush administration. Now the “Christmas Sudan Intervention”?

This year President Obama launched a Christmas day drone strike in Pakistan, killing four unidentified people; the attack was the very first Christmas Day drone strike. I suppose one must add the 2013 Christmas Day bombings in Baghdad, where al-Qaida killed at least 37 Christians celebrating the birth of Christ. Yeah, sure glad we “liberated” Iraq from the forces of evil.

It’s A Wonderful Life nothing but commie propaganda.
And think about this the next time you pull out your copy of It’s a Wonderful Life to watch with family and friends on Christmas Eve. Nominated for five Academy Awards and proclaimed by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest American films ever made, the truth about Director Frank Capra’s 1947 It’s A Wonderful Life, has finally been revealed. Starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, the film tells the story of a down-and-out fictional character named James Bailey (played by Stewart), who nearly commits suicide at Christmastime, save for the divine intervention of a guardian angel named Clarence. Recently released files obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that the FBI believed Capra’s film was a “carrier of political propaganda” that was the result of scriptwriters who “were very close to known Communists.” In the words of the FBI, those writers, Frances Goodrick and Albert Hackett, “practically lived with known Communists.”

Quoting informants in Hollywood, the FBI stated that It’s A Wonderful Life “represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ’scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.” Moreover, the film “deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

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Ghosts of Christmas Past:

Green Chri$tma$ (2011)
O Blessed Christmas! (2009)
Christmas in Fallujah (2007)
O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum! (2004)

Green Chri$tma$

My humble holiday offering to the world… a brilliant satiric radio play from American comedian Stan Freberg. While his Green Chri$tma$ was produced in 1958, it is perhaps more pertinent today than ever before. Freberg’s scathing indictment of capitalism run amok during the Christmas season was promptly banned by commercial radio and attacked by advertisers and advertising trade magazines; an editorial in the Los Angeles Times wrote a condemnation of Freberg’s musical production. Green Chri$tma$ received virtually no radio airplay in the United States until around 1983, and the work still remains largely unknown to the overwhelming majority of Americans.

O Blessed Christmas!

 O du fröhliche, O du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1935.

"O joyful, o blessed, miracle-bringing time." - John Heartfield. Photomontage. 1935.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing!
Machine Gun Clatter!
Bomb Blast!
Poison Gas!

The anti-militarist Christmas message from John Heartfield shown at left was published on December 26, 1935, in the German magazine, Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or “Worker’s Illustrated Paper”).

The title of the photomontage, O du fröhliche, O du selige, gnadenbringende Zeit (O joyful, o blessed, miracle-bringing time), was taken from one of Germany’s most popular Christmas carols.

Heartfield made a number of photomontage works that touched upon Christmas and how its message of peace was being subverted by the forces of war and fascism.

For instance, in the 1934 Christmas edition of AIZ, the artist published his photomontage, O Tannenbaum im deutschen Raum, wie krumm sind deine Äste! (O Christmas tree in German soil, how bent are thy branches). The artwork depicted a Christmas tree with its branches twisted into the shape of a swastika.

The cover of the 1933 Christmas issue of AIZ featured a photograph of an American battleship with the headline, “And Peace on Earth!” When opening the magazine the reader would see a Heartfield photomontage on the first page - its message read, “Peace on Earth? No peace on earth, as long as the poor become poorer!” Heartfield’s artwork depicted hungry Germans peering into an upscale shop window that was bursting with Christmas merchandise they could not afford.

Christmas in Fallujah

“They say Osama’s in the mountains deep in a cave near Pakistan. But there’s a sea of blood in Baghdad, a sea of oil in the sand. Between the Tigris and Euphrates another day comes to an end. It’s Christmas In Fallujah, Peace on earth goodwill to men.” - Words and Music By Billy Joel. Preformed By Cass Dillon, 2007.

I’d like to offer readers best wishes for the holiday season. I’ll resume my regular writing schedule come the new year.

O Tannenbaum! O Tannenbaum!

How bent are thy branches!

The yuletide carol, O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas tree) was written in 1820 and based on a German folk melody. German anti-Fascist artist John Heartfield created the above photomontage in 1934 to deride the Nazis who had seized control of his country the year before. The artist titled his work O Christmas tree in German soil, how bent are thy branches! With Christmas only a few days away, it’s good to remember Heartfield’s searing commentary on how unrestrained militarism makes a mockery of the Christian message of peace.