The traditional Christmas season in the United States is considerably short when compared to the season in Mexico, which stretches from Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12 through Dia de la Candelaria on February 2. Many of the special festivities in Mexico during the Christmas season are a fusion of indigenous culture and Spanish culture, with pre-Hispanic symbols like the poinsettia, which decorate many homes and businesses throughout the holiday season, holding particular prominence. These pre-Hispanic symbols and traditions intermingle with traditions from Spanish culture to create a season of festivities that are uniquely Mexican. The Christmas season in Mexico is filled with feasts, gift giving, festive processions and parties, pastorelas (nativity plays), special masses, nativity scenes, and pilgrimages to special religious sites. In Mexico, Christmas is not a single day—it’s a whole season.
DAY OF THE VIRGIN OF GUADALUPE
The Christmas season starts in Mexico in early December with celebrations to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. On December 3, the novena—a Christian tradition of devotional praying consisting of public and private prayers lasting for nine days—to the Virgin of Guadalupe begins. On December 12, the novena concludes with the feast day of the Virgin, which celebrates the fourth time the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint of the Americas, who was born in Mexico in 1474. Mexicans celebrate this day with processions, special masses, dancing, feasts, and with pilgrimages to special religious sites that venerate the Virgin, like her basilica in the north of Mexico City—the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world—and by singing Las Mañanitas, a traditional Mexican birthday song, in her honor.
From December 16 through 24 Las Posadas, a series of processions and parties, take place to celebrate the Christmas season. In the most traditional of these processions, children dress up as Mary and Joseph and parade through their neighborhood with their family and friends to re-enact the part of the Christmas story where Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay in Nazareth, stopping at different houses in their neighborhood to ask for shelter. After the processions, a traditional star-shaped piñata is broken. The star-shaped piñata represents Satan, with its colorful ornamentation symbolizing distracting earthly delights. Traditionally, these piñatas have seven points, with each point representing one of the seven cardinal sins. The stick that is used to break the piñata represents the Christian faith, through which evil is defeated and the treasures of the piñata are released. After the breaking of the piñata, a meal is served—typically consisting of tamales, atole, buñuelos, and ponche—and guests are given an aguinaldo, a small gift usually consisting of cookies, fruits, and candies. The posada ends with the singing of villancicos—Christmas carols.
The last posada of the season is on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and is followed by the Mass of the Rooster, a late-night mass that gets its name from the belief that Christ’s birth was announced by the crowing of a rooster. The celebration includes sparklers, fireworks, and torches, along with food and dancing. After the mass is a traditional late-night feast—which includes foods like mole, pazole, turkey, ham, bacalao, and ponche—that is followed by the opening of presents at the strike of midnight.
Christmas Day in Mexico is a fairly sedated and quiet affair where people recuperate from the celebrations of the night before by spending quality time with their family while eating leftovers from the midnight dinner. Gifts are not usually opened on this day, although the cultural influence of the United States means that Santa Claus is starting to make more visits on this day than he used to.
DAY OF THE SAINTED INNOCENTS
On December 28 is Dia de Los Santos Inocentes (Day of the Sainted Innocents), which marks the day when King Herod tried unsuccessfully to keep Christ from surviving by ordering all newborn boys in Bethlehem to be killed. In Mexico, this is a day of practical jokes and tricks that is similar to April Fool’s Day in the United States. On this day, the tradition is that if you borrow anything from someone you don’t have to return it.
THREE KINGS DAY
Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), on January 6, celebrates the day the three wise men visited the newborn Jesus and presented him with their gifts. This is the day in the Mexican holiday season when it is most common for children to open gifts, although the tradition of opening gifts has also infiltrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One of the most important traditions of this day is the eating of Roscas de reyes, a sweet bread that is baked in the shape of a circle and topped with sugared and crystallized fruit meant to resemble the jewels in the crowns of the three wise men. Baked inside the rosca is a little figurine of the baby Jesus. The person who finds the figurine in their piece of rosca is responsible for paying for the tamales and the atole consumed on Candlemas in February, and oftentimes responsible for hosting the Candlemas party as well.
On February 2, the Christmas season in Mexico ends with Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas), which commemorates the presentation of the Child Jesus to the Temple. Mexicans celebrate this day by bringing the infant Jesus figurines from their nativity scenes to church to receive a special blessing. After the blessings, they celebrate the day by eating tamales and drinking atole, a sweetened drink made from masa (corn hominy flour), with their family and friends. The person who found the figurine of baby Jesus in their piece of rosca on Three Kings Day is responsible for providing the tamales and atole for the festivities.