(CNN Spanish) — The country lists that do not recognize the celebration of the Christmas —or even prohibit it— are usually dominated by authoritarian regimes or nations that officially profess religions other than Catholicism. However, there is a secular Latin American country that more than 100 years ago, and in full democracy, eliminated the feast of the birth of Jesus from the official calendar and replaced it with one that today, curiously, may be more representative for millions throughout the world: Family Day.
Since 1919, Uruguayan law it does not recognize the Christmas holiday and neither Three Kings Day, Holy Week nor the Day of the Virgin. These dates are still celebrated, and in a big way, but with other official denominations: Christmas is Family Day, Three Kings Day is Children’s Day, Holy Week is Tourism Week and the Day of the Virgin It is the Day of the Beaches.
The secularization of religious holidays is just one of the many actions that the country carried out between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century to completely separate the State from the Catholic Church. This is such a unique process in the region that it has become a case study for academics.
From cemeteries to Christmas: how Uruguay got rid of religious symbols
The first significant milestone marking this process of secularization of the country occurred as early as 1861, barely 30 years after the country approved its first Constitution. That year the cemeteries, which were under the control of the Church, came under the orbit of the State. From then on, until a Constitution was approved in 1917 that formally separated the Church from the State and guaranteed freedom of worship, the Catholic institution was losing more and more real and symbolic power.
In 1885, for example, civil marriage before religious marriage became mandatory. And a few years later, in 1907, the Divorce Law was approved and references to God and the Gospels in the oath of parliamentarians were suppressed. A year earlier it had been decided to remove all crucifixes from public hospitals.
One of the most significant decisions came in 1909, when the teaching of religion in public schools was abolished. José Pedro Varela, the promoter of secular, free and compulsory education in the country, summed up in these words the spirit that guided the decisions of the politicians of the time: “Let us not profess any cult, but let us have the religion of the future, with the gaze fixed on the star of justice, which shines on us; let us march incessantly preparing the establishment of democracy, in which the people turned into priest and king will have freedom as their guide and God.
The process, however, was not uniform. The first decisions, according to academics such as Roger Gaymonat, did not necessarily have the intention of making the country secular. However, starting in 1885 an “anticlerical storm” was unleashed and since the early years of the 20th century there was already an offensive led by the president who would shape modern Uruguay: José Batlle y Ordóñez, who ruled between 1903 and 1907 and 1911 and 1915.
Do the Uruguayans believe?
A 2014 Pew Research Center study that is still used as a reference in academic studies placed Uruguay at the top of Latin American countries with the most people without religious affiliation: 37% in total, divided among those who do not have a particular religion (24 %), atheists (10%) and those who define themselves as agnostics (3%).
Pew describes Uruguay as an “outlier.” “In no other Latin American country surveyed did people without religious affiliation even reach 20%” of the population, ”he says. To put it in context, in neighboring countries these percentages rise to 11% in the case of Argentina and 8% in the case of Brazil. At the other end of the regional list is Paraguay, where barely 1% falls into these categories.
Regarding the religious affiliation of those who do declare themselves part of a religion, the Pew study records 42% Catholics, 15% Protestants and 6% belonging to “other” religions.
For Christmas lovers, peace of mind: the trees are decorated and sweet bread is eaten
The fact that Christmas has been eliminated from the law does not mean that it is not celebrated: in the streets of Uruguayan cities, as in so many in the world, Christmas trees and colored lights multiply, although in public spaces they are not usually present. accompanied by nativity scenes as in other countries more identified with Catholicism.
Looking back 103 years later, replacing Christmas with Family Day may hit the spirit of the holiday much more today than those who decided to do so might have imagined then.