Christmas In Mexico

Christmas In Mexico

Making Merry in Mexico – by Dale Hoyt Palfrey

( Dale Hoyt Palfrey is a freelance writer, translator, interpreter and public relations

consultant based in Ajijic, Jalisco. Her moth-eaten parka, mittens and longjohns

have remained packed away for the 20-plus sunny Christmases she has celebrated

in Mexico.)

Dreaming of a white Christmas? If you’re spending December in Mexico, forget it!

You can expect the holiday season south of the border to be as warm and colorful as

a tropical garden. And you’ll discover a delightful array of seasonal traditions that

make celebrating “Navidad” (Christmas) in Mexico a unique and unforgettable



Christmas festivities begin with “Las Posadas,” nine consecutive days of candelight

processions and lively parties starting December 16. In villages and urban

neighborhoods throughout Mexico youngsters gather each afternoon to reenact the

holy family’s quest for lodging in Bethlehem. The procession is headed by a

diminutive “Virgen María,” often perched on a live burro, led by a equally tiny “San

José.” They are followed by other children protraying angels, the “Santos Reyes”

(Three Kings), and a host of “pastores y pastoras” (shepherds and shepherdesses),

all usually decked out in colorful handmade costumes and carrying brightly

decorated “báculos” (walking staffs) or “faroles” (paper lanterns). The parade of

“Santos Peregrinos” (Holy Pilgrims) stops at a designated house to sing a traditional

litany by which the Holy Family requests shelter for the night and those waiting

behind the closed door turn them away. They proceed to a second home where the

scene is repeated. At the third stop the pilgrims are told that while there is no room

in the “posada” (inn), they are welcome to take refuge in the stable. The doors are

flung open and all are invited to enter.

This is an active way of teaching children the story of the Nativity, but the chief

attraction is the merrymaking that follows, above all the chance to engage in the

ruthless smashing of “piñatas” and a mad scramble for the shower of fruits, sugar

cane, peanuts and candies released from within.


“Pastorelas” (Shepherds Plays) are staged throughout the holiday season by both

amateur and professional groups. These traditional, often improvised, theatrical

presentations date back to Mexico’s Colonial period when Roman Catholic

missionaries wooed converts and taught doctrine through dramatizations of Biblical


The light, humor-filled “Pastorelas” tell of the shepherds’ adoration of the Christ

Child. First they are visited in the fields by an angel who announces the holy birth.

As the shepherds attempt to follow the great star leading them to Bethlehem they are

plagued by a series of evils and misadventures provoked by the Devil. But in the

proverbial “all’s-well-that-ends-well” finale, good triumphs over evil and the

shepherd’s reach their intended destination.


In most Mexican homes the principal holiday adornment is “el Nacimiento”

(Nativity scene). The focal point, naturally, is a stable where clay or plaster figurines

of the Holy Family are sheltered. The scene may be further populated by an angel,

“Los Reyes Magos” (the Magi), the ox and the ass, shepherds and their flocks, and

assorted other people and livestock. It is not unusual to also find the forces of evil

represented by a serpent and a grotesque Lucifer lurking in the shadows. The figures

may be simply positioned in a bed of “heno” (Spanish moss), or scattered throughout

an elaborate landscape.

A major masterpiece may occupy an entire room, often near the front of the house for

convenient viewing by neighbors and passersby. The creation of the basic landscape

begins with “papel roca” (paper painted in earth tones) draped over tables, taped

onto boxes, crushed and shaped to form a multi-leveled, natural looking terrain that

frequently includes a series of hills and dales, a cellophane waterfall, a mirror pond,

artificial trees, cacti, palm trees, and little houses set to form an entire village scene.

Colored sawdust and a variety of natural mosses may be spread out as ground cover

before the addition of strings of Christmas lights and the assorted human and

animal figures. The scene will not be completed until Christmas Eve when the

newborn Baby Jesus is finally laid in the manger bed.

Nowadays a decorated Christmas tree may be incorporated in the “Nacimiento” or

set up elsewhere in the home. As purchase of a natural pine represents a luxury

commodity to most Mexican families, the typical “arbolito” (little tree) is often an

artificial one, a bare branch cut from a a copal tree (Bursera microphylla) or some

type of shrub collected from the countryside.


Holiday festivities culminate on “Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve) with the celebration

of a late-night “Misa de Gallo” (Rooster’s Mass). Afterwards families head home for a

traditional Christmas supper which may feature a simple fare of homemade tamales

and “atole” (corn gruel) or other regional dishes. A more exotic feast might include

“bacalao a la vizcaína” (Biscayan cod) and “revoltijo de romeritos” (wild greens in

mole sauce). Roast turkey, ham or suckling pig are other popular menu items for

those who can afford it. “Ponche” (a hot fruit punch), “sidra” (sparkling cider) or

other spirits are served for the holiday “brindis” (toast). The evening is rounded out

with the opening of gifts and, for the children, piñatas and “luces de Belen”

(sparklers). As these happy family gatherings generally last into the wee hours,

December 25th is set aside as a day to rest and enjoy that universal holiday bonus –

“el recalentado” (leftovers).

ncidentally, Santa Claus and the clatter of reindeer hooves on the roof do not

generally figure in the scheme of Navidad. A Mexican youngster’s holiday wishlist

is directed instead to “el Niño Dios” (the Holy Child) for Christmas Eve and the

“Reyes Magos” (Magi) for Three Kings Day.


Its Latin name is Euphorbia Pulcherrima. Its Mexican monikers include the ancient

Nahuatl term “Cuitlaxochitl” (star flower), along with “Catarina” (Catherine), “Flor

de Pastor” (Shepherd’s Flower) and, most commonly, “Flor de Noche Buena”

(Christmas Eve Flower).

In the English-speaking world this illustrious holiday bloom is called the Poinsettia,

named after Dr. Joel R. Poinsett, a U.S. diplomat who served as Minister to Mexico in

the 1820′s. Like many newcomers to Mexico, he was no doubt enthralled by the sight

of the gargantuan shrubs covered in mid-winter with brilliant vermillion blossoms.

After experimenting with various methods of propagation, he returned home to

Charleston, South Carolina with enough cuttings to begin the cultivation of these

stunning plants in northern climes.

The bright petals of the poinsettia are not really flowers, but bracts or leaves that

surround the true blossom, a rather inconspicuous cluster of yellow florets. The

bracts may be solid creamy white, salmon pink or scarlet, variegated or double


Among pre-Hispanic tribes of ancient Mexico, the Cuitlaxochitl was more than just a

pretty face. The blood-red bracts were often placed on the chests of those suffering

afflictions of the heart to help stimulate circulation. They were sometimes crushed to

a pulp to be used as a poultice for the treatment of skin infections.

A note of good cheer to those more inclined to be couch potatoes than gardeners:

Modern-day Mexicans enjoy still another form of “Noche Buena”– a rich, dark,

bock-like beer distributed only during the holiday season.


December 28, Day of the Holy Innocents, is a religious commemoration of King

Herod’s ordering the slaughter of all male infants in his kingdom, intended to

include the Christ Child. In Mexico it is celebrated as day akin to April Fool’s, an

occasion for jokes and pranks. The usual tactic is to approach a friend and ask to

borrow cash or some object of value. If fooled by the ploy, the victim may be given a

candy or silly gift in return, along with much joking and name calling. So beware or

you may find yourself titled “Fool Saint” for a day!


The Christmas season continues unabated in Mexico through Epiphany, which is

called “Día de los Reyes” (Three Kings Day). Echoing the arrival in Bethlehem of

Wisemen bearing gifts for the baby Jesus, children throughout Mexico anxiously

await waking up January 6 to find toys and gifts left by the “Reyes Magos” (Magi). In

some regions it is customary to leave out shoes where treasures may be deposited by

the visiting Wisemen.

A special treat served one this day is the “Rosca de Reyes”–a crown-shaped sweet

bread decorated with jewel-like candied fruits. Tiny figures of babies are hidden in

the dough before baking. There is much excitement as each partaker cuts his or her

own slice, for whoever gets a piece containing a baby is obliged to host another party

on or before Candlemas, February 2, when Mexico’s holiday season finally comes to

an end.

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