I like the way the Christmas season in Mexico lasts from mid-December until early January — some might say even until Feb. 2. Almost every day there is some form of celebration and foreigners are almost always welcome to participate.
This festive season was key for early Christian missionaries in their evangelizing efforts. After all, who doesn’t like a fiesta? From the beginning, the Franciscans in particular invited indigenous people to take part in ever-expanding festivities.
It may have been a way of getting people into the churches, but I’m not sure it worked out quite the way the padres intended. Many of these festivities have been enriched by the syncretism with pre-Hispanic indigenous festivals.
Today, the events surrounding this season are so much a part of Mexico’s cultural life that many Mexicans, Catholic or not, would have difficulty explaining their religious significance.
When the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego as a bronze-skinned, pregnant, beautiful woman, it was easy for her to meld into the beloved Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of fertility, in indigenous peoples’ minds. Millions accepted conversion.
Mexicans commonly refer to the period between Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Day (Lupe) on Dec. 12, and Epiphany, Three Kings Day (Reyes), on Jan. 6, as Lupe Reyes, as if it is a person’s name.
Bracketed by these two major dates are Posadas, Pastorelas, piñatas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Day of the Holy Innocents, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The Christmas season culminates with Candlemass Day, Feb. 2. Each of these has its own rituals and associated foods. Mexico doesn’t skimp on fiestas.
Roses have already doubled in price as we prepare for the Virgin of Guadalupe’s Day. No other flower will do for the family shrine dedicated to her. Throughout Mexico children dress as indigenous young Juan Diegos and Marias. Rockets (cohetes) may already be going off in your neighborhood. On the night of Dec. 11, neither dogs nor humans will be able to sleep through the night. In the early dawn, the faithful will sing Las Mañanitas to the Virgin and attend Mass before sharing pozole and tamales.
If there is one ubiquitous food throughout this season, it is the lowly tamale. For these six weeks it is in its glory. If you don’t make tamales in your own home, you’ll want to order early from your favorite tamale vendor.
Posadas begin Dec. 16 and continue until Dec. 24. No self-respecting pueblo in Mexico is without a community posada. At dusk,
children and families assemble and walk through the neighborhood seeking shelter (a posada or inn) for Mary and Joseph — usually represented by carved or plaster representations. At various homes the community sings asking for room in the inn
They’re refused until they reach the designated home for the night. Usually there will be liberally filled piñatas for the children and atole, ponche, and pan dulce for all.
The piñata is also part of Christmas in Mexico. Magnificent piñatas are everywhere and you may have already made your pick. Acolman, near Teotihuacan, claims to be where the piñata originated. Legend has it the seven-pointed piñata represents the seven cardinal sins; participants beat the piñata thus defeating evil.
The Pastorela is perhaps the most complicated Mexican Christmas tradition. There is debate as to whether these plays began with the Franciscans in Acolman or in Cuernavaca. Either way Pastorelas are ubiquitous. They can be highly complex or very simple plays designed to tell the story of the Nativity, though they often stray far from the simple facts.
Regardless of how they are written, and whatever their style of costume, the lesson will inevitably be that good always wins. The most elaborate Pastorela I know of is presented for nine nights each year at Tepotzotlan, State of Mexico. Tickets, which include a sit-down dinner in the elegant museum restaurant, always sell out but are still available through Ticketmaster.
Some of the traditional Christmas dishes of Mexico are pavo (turkey), bacalao (cod), and Chiles en Nogada. Poinsettias, which by the way are native to Mexico, have been hybridized and are available in a rainbow of colors.
Roscas are making an early appearance. This special ring of sweet bread is traditionally served on Jan. 6, and you’ll find the baby Jesus or, if you’re lucky, perhaps even the whole Nativity cast hidden within it.
To open the season Cuernavaca has an additional event this year. Maestra Andrea Carr will lead her wonderful Deo Gracias Chorus in “Despertad, la Voz Nos Llama” (“Awaken, the Voice Calls Us”). The concert featuring fine soloists will be offered Friday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at Museo de la Ciudad and Saturday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m., at Parroquia Maria Madre de la Misericordia Church. More information can be found at www.facebook.com/deograciascuernavaca.
Holiday travelers take note. The long-awaited, innovative new border-crossing pedestrian bridge at Tijuana’s airport opens tomorrow, Dec. 9. Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins will be among the first travelers across and will share her experience next week. For those of you seeking low-cost, time- saving, travel to the United States this is certain to become a preferred gateway.