Due to the highly religious nature of Mexican people, Mexican Christmas is celebrated in this country in a very singular manner. The pageants and festivals continue from mid-December through the beginning of January, and then Candlemas follows on February 2. These customs are a blend of Spanish traditions, colonial influence and indigenous rituals, with strong influence from the Catholic Church.
Christmas in Mexico is one of the biggest fiestas, or holidays, observed in the country. There are two full weeks of celebrations, and everyone tries to get those last two weeks of December off of work.
Here's a rundown of the main Mexican Christmas traditions.
In Mexico, people say Feliz Navidad, the way it is said by Spanish speakers everywhere, including Spain, most of Central and South America, and the Philippines. People from Spanish-speaking parts of the southwestern United States also say Feliz Navidad as a Christmas greeting.
© Bud Ellison - 'Feliz Navidad' Greeting in Mexico
At Christmas time, new stalls spring up in the marketplaces that sell gifts and Christmas decorations. Other stalls sell poinsettias, nativity scenes and special treats to eat.
One of the first observances of Christmas in Mexico is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Nine days of prayers to Mexico's patron saint end with a feast to honor her on December 12.
© Larry Lamsa - Celebrations for the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe
As with any other religious holiday, the Mexicans take the time to prepare themselves for the celebrations. In the case of Mexican Christmas, this preparation takes place during the nine days preceding Christmas’ Eve, or “Noche Buena” (December 24th). This celebration, referred to as Las Posadas, lasts from December 16 until Christmas Eve on December 24.
Every night of this period, children perform a re-enactment of the holy journey made by Jesus’ parents, Saint Joseph and Saint Mary (the “Peregrinos”, which means pilgrims or travelers). The Bible tells us that an Angel of The Lord appeared before them and told them to go to Bethlehem, in order to protect the baby who was to be born from the despotic decree promulgated by the king Herodes, according to which every newborn first son had to be killed.
The children of Mexico commemorate this journey by walking through the streets of their neighborhood in a colorful procession, singing Mexican Christmas songs, carrying lit candles and holding statues of both Mary and Joseph. They, as the original Peregrinos did, ask for a place to spend the night. This request is denied twice, but the owners of the third house allow them to enter. The act of staying at someone else’s house as a guest is called “Posada”.
© Anza Trail NPS - Las Posadas Procession
Posada means inn or shelter, and every evening there is a pageant that represents Mary and Joseph looking for room at an inn. Children accompany Mary and Joseph from house to house, looking for a place to stay.
People saying prayers accompany the walkers. The children carry clay figures of Mary on a donkey with Joseph beside her. While they walk, the travelers sing Mexican Christmas carols, and there is a party at the last house, often including a piñata filled with treats.
© S. Alexis - Las Posadas Pinata
Houses are decorated with moss and evergreens, and sometimes lights and decorations. Farolitos, paper bag lanterns with cut-out designs, line the streets. The candles inside are said to shine with the Spirit of Christmas. Every family has its own Nacimiento, which is called a crèche, nativity or manger scene in the U.S., and some of them are very elaborate and detailed.
On Christmas Eve, the final day of Las Posadas, the pageant ends at a church where shelter has been prepared. The manger scene at the church is also called a Nacimiento (nativity scene).
© Bud Ellison - Christmas posada, Mexico
After Mary and Joseph are symbolically given shelter, the church holds a midnight mass. Many people ring bells and blow whistles to celebrate their safe arrival before the service begins. There is a feast following the mass, and children often play with sparklers.
Throughout Christmas in Mexico, plays are put on to tell the story of the savior. Pastorelas are plays based on the birth of Jesus and the shepherds who follow the Star of Bethlehem. They are performed in a traditional way in small towns and mostly stick to the original Christmas Story.
In bigger cities, Pastorelas are sometimes elaborated upon, with wild scenes of the Devil trying to make the shepherds stray from their journey. The pastorelas are performed in churches and also in theaters with known artists playing the main roles.
© Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation - Pastorela
In Mexico City, many people celebrate by decorating Christmas trees and adorning their houses with Christmas lights. There is a Festival of Lights held in the capital at the Plaza de la Constitucion. Colorful lights are hung everywhere in the ancient plaza, and there is a flag-raising and lowering ceremony every morning and evening throughout the holidays.
In Northern Mexico, Santa Clos (Santa Claus) brings children large gifts on Christmas Day, and Los Reyes Magos give smaller gifts in January. Los Reyes Magos is Spanish for "the three wise men." Presents are sometimes opened very early on Christmas Day, right after the midnight mass and accompanying feast.
In the Southern states, El niño Dios (baby Jesus) brings a few small gifts on Christmas Day, and Los Reyes Magos give the larger gifts on January 6. This is the original tradition of Christmas in Mexico, but it has been changed in parts of the country to be more like Christmas in the United States.
© Omar Bárcena - Noche Buena Food
After the midnight mass, feasting and celebration continue into the early morning hours. There aren't any Christmas Day celebrations in Mexico because this is considered a day to relax and be with family. During Christmas day, most people rest and eat leftovers from the feast.
What is known as the "Epiphany" in the U.S. is called Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or Three Kings' Day, in Mexico. This celebration on January 6 marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts for the Christ child. In many parts of Mexico, children leave a shoe by the door the night before for the Wise Men to fill with small gifts. Sometimes they leave written requests for presents inside the shoes.
There is a follow-up Christmas festival in Mexico on February 2 called Candlemas. This holiday commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple forty days after his birth. The day is also called Dia de la Candelaria, or Day of the Candles, because candles are brought to the church to be blessed along with the infant Jesus.
© eljoja - Nativity Scene with the Three Kings
The baby Jesus in the manger scene of the church is provided with fine new clothing at Candlemas. People also dress up their own figures of the Christ Child and bring them to the church to be blessed.
Following the ceremony, there is a feast with tamales as the traditional food served. Tamales are very time consuming to make and Candlemas is the traditional holiday for families to gather and share the work of making them.
Villancicos are the traditional Hispanic Christmas carols that express the spirit of the holidays. Some of the best known Mexican Christmas songs are Noche de Paz (Silent Night), La Nanita Nana and El Tamborilero (The Drummer).
There is music in the streets, and people sing carols at the festival of Las Posadas and other celebrations during Christmas in Mexico. At the last house of each evening during Las Posadas, children often sing a special song as they strike the piñata.
Revelers sometimes wear colorful costumes during Las Posadas, as they go from door to door looking for room at the inn. Sometimes two children dress up as Mary and Joseph. Like people in the U.S., some Mexicans wear bright clothing and outfits with Christmas sayings or pictures on them during the holidays.
One decoration that is unique to Hispanic culture is the sugar skull. This decoration comes from the Aztec Day of the Dead celebration, but it appears at Christmas as well, especially in the traditional handcrafted Mexican Christmas decorations.
Sometimes at Posada parties, piñatas representing the seven deadly sins are filled with coins and candy. Another sweet treat available during the Christmas holidays is the buñuelo. Similar to sopapillas, buñuelos are fried flour dough dredged in cinnamon and sugar. They are served cold, while sopapillas are served hot and drizzled with honey.
© bionicgrrrl - Mexican Buñuelos
Ponche (punch) is a hot drink that is popular during Christmas in Mexico. Vendors sell it in the marketplaces, often along with buñuelos. Ponche is made with dark brown cane sugar and cinnamon sticks, mixed with water and fruits such as apples, oranges and guavas.
Christmas Eve dinners often include Christmas Eve salad with lettuce, beets, jicama, apples and oranges. Codfish is also a traditional Christmas Eve food and it is usually served with tomatoes, olives and chilies.
A special cake called Rosca de Reyes is baked for Three King's Day in January. The oval sweetbread is decorated with candied fruit and has a small figurine of Jesus hidden inside. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the figurine is responsible for hosting the celebration at Candlemas in February, as well as providing the new set of christening clothes for the infant Jesus in the Nacimiento at the church.
© garlandcannon - Rosca de Reyes