Customs, Cuzco Neighborhoods

At Midnight In Cuzco Light Explodes and Manuel Arrives

A Ceramic Nascimiento of a Womb-like Home

Midnight tonight, Cuzco will erupt in explosions of light. The fireworks celebrate peoples placing the Niño Manuel in the carefully composed scenes called nascimientos, or births, and found in most family homes. The light also comes in the midst of food, hot chocolate and panetones and then soup and a meal.

But for this note I want to focus on the nascimiento. Generally called manger scene or crèche in English to emphasize the context in which the Christ child appeared in Christian tradition, the Spanish of Cuzco emphasizes his birth, his appearance. That takes place at midnight, the depth of the night, about half way between dusk and dawn, and almost at the solstice.

Though deeply Christian, as are most of the people of Cuzco, this moment also marks a telling connection with indigenous Andean thought and practice. As a result, it maintain the Inca and pre-Inca into modern days, though now within the vessel of Christianity, although you could also argue the Christian is developed within the jar of Andean society.

This last way is certainly the way the Christian priests saw their task; the need to rework existing Andean ideas to fit the demands of Christianity. But after five hundred years of Spanish rule it is worth turning that around and noticing the places where that Spanish, Christian society that is strongest in Peru’s cities opens and embraces the Andean, especially when it is done openly.

The Niño Manuel on Andean Cloth and in Andean Clothes
The Niño Manuel on Andean Cloth and in Andean Clothes

This is one moment. At one of the key times in the Christian calendar—the day when the Christian world celebrates Christ’s birth, in Cuzco he is born in an Andean manger, wears Andean clothes, and his celebration takes some basic Andean forms.

Andeans traditionally emphasize the coming forth, such as when the Ayar sisters and brothers came out of the mountains to found the Inca empire, or the moment when a visitor comes into ones home, or the time when a person accepts the obligation to sponsor a feast. It is the movement from inside to this world that is important and celebrated.

People carefully acquire their figure of the Niño Manuel. While there have been fairs throughout Cuzco these days to sell all that is needed to celebrate Cuzco at home, including the figure of Manuel, today Cuzco’s main square, its Plaza de Armas, is transformed into a market called Santuranticuy, or to buy yourself a holy figure, a saint. Again, the Quechua emphasizes the acquisition, the movement, the appearance, rather than the static place of a market.

Mountains for Nascimientos
Mountains for Nascimientos

The figure of the Christ Child has a long history in Cuzco and ones from Cuzco are highly esteemed in other cities, such as in nearby La Paz, Bolivia.

Of course, this is not the first time an image of a Child has been celebrated in Cuzco and the Andes in emanation from this city. In Inca times, one main image of the sun was that of a Child. Furthermore, after the end of the Empire the Santo Niño, the Holy Child became a Catholic image that the descendents of Inca nobility claimed as their own and celebrated as their form of being Christian in a conflictive society where their status was often challenged and was not simply given.

As a result, the moment when the skies explode in light tonight is like an entire spectrum, where a single color has within it a range of colors that come together to make the particular shades one sees today. You can look at the percentages of those colors to understand the contemporary color and light.

Candles for Sale for Christmas
Candles for Sale for Christmas

While a percentage is Christian, another very large percentage is Andean and stems from the history of Cuzqueños building lives in all the many years since Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo—the sacred, founding couple of the Empire, sank their golden bar into the soil of Cuzco.

The Christ child will not go into a tableau reduced simply to a canonical set of manger, Joseph and Mary, sheep, cattle, shepherds, and wise men. Instead, while those are generally present, he will go into a mountain scene, a diorama like the landscape in which people live.

In this people portray a Christ that comes from their land, like the sun every day as it rises in the sky, and like the stories of the Incas, or also like potatoes that grow from the earth.

Joseph, Mary, a Llama, and an Empty manger
Joseph, Mary, a Llama, and an Empty manger

As an outsider one can look at the scenes and notice, as the seminal work of celebrated art historian Teresa de Gisbert does, the detail of composition and the importance of vertical levels. Gisbert noticed how Andeans took the image of the Virgin Mary and made her a model of a mountain, like that in which Manuel will be placed today, at the same time she saw how their paintings of her flattened perspective to emphasize the layering at the very time perspective became dominant in European Christian painting.

People will hit the streets today to acquire the moss, the grass, stones to make a mountain and its holy features, as well as scenes of life on the mountain to frame an empty space, an empty crèche.

Tonight, after the tableau is created, the empty will be filled will be enlivened, when the Niño Manuel takes his place at its center in the middle of family’s sharing food and drink, family joy and happiness, and sometimes song or even dance, to greet the Child and make him welcome in their world, their life.

Tonight is not just a celebration of Chritianity, but a florescence of Andean tradition. Christ will be born, fireworks will fill the sky, and Cuzco’s Incan-ness will be reborn.

Christmas Market, Santurantikuy, in Cuzco
Christmas Market, Santurantikuy, in Cuzco
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