Christmas in Mexico
A guest post by Mely Wilcox
Christmas is just a couple of weeks away. The stores are all decorated, the Salvation Army bells are ringing, and we have snow on the ground. These are a few of the trappings of an American Christmas. However, customs in Mexico are quite different. I still remember the things that were typical during Christmas when I was younger. Mexico, while geographically close, has rituals that Americans might be confused by. And, not all of Mexico celebrates in the same way. Close to the border things are more similar to the United States (but still not the same). But, further south is quite a different story.
To understand the difference we must first understand something about Mexican people. Traditional Mexicans see Christmas as a celebration of the Nativity -The birth of Christ. The religious implications of the holiday prevent the same commercialization we see here in the US. 95% of the population is catholic, and they take their Nativity scenes seriously. Thus, in Mexico, it’s still a religious holiday, with all the ceremony and ritualism that implies. With a shrinking world things are changing and there is more commercialism. Still, saying that Christmas in Mexico remains Christian is a solid statement of fact.
The start of the celebrations is called Posadas (Inns); also called Novenas (meaning ninth). The tradition involves 9 parties celebrated during the nine nights leading up to Christmas. The parties are a reenactment of the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem as described by scripture. The parties are necessarily coordinated by neighbors, as each night is hosted by a different household. The parties start on the eve of December 16th and end on Christmas Eve, Dec 24th. Each neighbor who hosts is required to set up a nativity scene at their home; some of the displays can be quite fancy. The night of the Posada neighbors gather on the street. They carry candles, and a few will be chosen to carry the statues of Joseph and Mary, called Los Peregrinos – The Pilgrims. The crowd moves, in procession, singing religious songs through the neighborhood. They knock on three different neighbors’ doors, and ask to be let in (as if the houses were inns). But, they get denied until they come to the third house, the host of the Posada for the night, who takes them in, pretending to be the Innkeepers. Upon being received, the guests gather around the Nativity Scene to pray the Rosary, a Catholic prayer consisting of 50 Hail Mary’s, 5 Our Father, and 5 Glory and the Litany, all prayers to the Virgin Mary. Afterwards they sing Christmas songs to start the party.
If there are children among the guests there will be a piñata for them, usually filled with oranges, sugar cane, tangerines, and typical candy called “colación” – which are varieties of nuts covered in sugar or just plain sugar balls of different sizes, colors and flavors. The partygoers are served a variety of typical Mexican foods. The usual drink is Ponche (Christmas Punch). It’s a hot beverage of seasonal fruits and cinnamon sticks with, not atypically, some shots of brandy. The last night of Posadas, on Christmas Eve, everybody goes to a Mass lasting until midnight. After mass everybody goes home with their proper families for Christmas Eve dinner. That night they lay a small statue of the baby Jesus into their Nativity Scenes.
Children, in the past, did not receive presents on Christmas as they do not believe in Santa Clause. Instead they would receive presents at a later day, on January 6th. But, alas, times are changing, and so do traditions. It is becoming more common to see kids celebrating a more Americanized Christmas. I can’t say it’s a bad thing, but it does demonstrate our shrinking world.
The Three Kings Day is on January 6th. That morning, kids wake up to find presents by their beds. This is their Santa Clause equivalent. The children believe it is the Three Kings that bring them their presents, not Santa. The night of Three Kings Day, at dinner, they eat a Rosca. A rosca is wreath shaped bread covered with sugar and decorated with dry fruit. The uniqueness of the bread is the addition, by the baker, of a small plastic (these days) doll somewhere in the circular mass. The tradition is that whoever finds the small doll in their slice of bread will have to host a party on The Day of Purification (or Día de la Candelaria) on February 2nd, which is the day the Nativity Scene is put away. The person who gets the doll must act as the godfather of their little baby Jesus and must cloth them for the occasion. Again, another party and more food, this time tomales and atole.
Although Christmas is mostly a religious celebration in Mexico, they have not escaped holiday commercialism. These days, especially in bigger cities, it is common to see an exchange of presents on Christmas Eve. Also, colorful decorations, lights and secular Christmas parties are en vogue. Santa Clause is even becoming more common. New Years is not dissimilar. Whereas it was once a near uniformly religious event, it is now marked by raucous parties, horns and kissing. I suppose it’s natural for dominant American culture to seep into Mexico. Nevertheless, my childhood was memorable, and unique. I was never a Catholic, but I always recognized the solemnity of the occasion.