Making Holidays Merry in Mexico

A white Christmas is an unknown experience to our southern neighbor Mexico. This beautiful country has many ways to celebrate the Christmas Holidays in a delightful array of seasonal traditions that make celebrating Navidad (Christmas) in Mexico a unique.


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 children gather each afternoon to reenact the holy family's quest for lodging in Bethlehem. The procession is headed by a minuscule Virgen María, often balanced on a live burro, led by a just as tiny San José. They are followed by other children depicting 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 appeal is the merrymaking that follows, above all the chance to engage in the merciless 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 courted converts and taught doctrine through dramatizations of Biblical stories.
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 unfortunate events goaded 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 display can occupy an entire room, often near the front of the house for easy 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.

In recent times 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 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 that 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).

Incidentally, 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.


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 Wise Men bearing gifts for the baby Jesus, children throughout Mexico restlessly awaits 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 Wise Men.

A special treat served on 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.

Our Holiday Special Issue continues with these offerings:
Holidays Around The World for 2004 | Holiday Recipes | Festivals and Displays
Christmas Facts | Feliz Navidad (Mexican Christmas)
Techno Presents: Camcorders | Day After Christmas (rhyme)
Christmas Cookies (Dark Humor) | Solitary Yule Ritual (Wicca)

From last year (2003):
World Holidays November-December 2003 - Winter Festivals and Lighting Displays 2003 - Saying Merry Christmas In Many Languages - Origin Of December 25th As Christmas Day
Story of the Candy Cane - Christmas in The USA - Treats To Leave For Santa
Fable of St. Nick - Poetry: Christmas Recalled - Poetry: Whispers The Wind
Holiday Traditions Revisited - Movies: Santa Films - Gift Ideas for Computer Owners
Picture Perfect Gift Ideas - Religion: Luke's Christmas Story From The Bible
Recipe: Cooking A Turkey Recipe: Turkey Teriyaki - Movavian Love-Feast Buns
SUFGANIYOT - A Solitary Wicca Yule Ritual - Why Are There Christmas Lights? -

From 2002:
Holiday Festivals, Displays and Events - Bah Humbug! - Gift Ideas Under $10
Some Unique Mail Order Gifts - Staying In The Holiday Spirit
Holidays Around the World

From 2001:
Holiday Festivals, Displays and Events - Diwali - India's Festival Of Lights
Holidays Around the World - How Christmas Is Celebrated In Many Countries
The Origin of Some Christmas Traditions - Picking and Trimming a Christmas Tree
Shipping Your Holiday Gifts - Oh Ye Disbelievers: The Fable of Saint Nick - Gifts She'll Love
Techno Gifts - CD Musical Stocking Stuffers from Then to Now - Every pick's a hit!
Recipe: Christmas Cake - Craft: Wreaths - Craft: Stockings



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