When you travel abroad it is always interesting to see and experience different customs and this is certainly the case in Mexico. Mexicans celebrate Navidad with great gusto, surrounded by their families and deeply conscious of the reason for the festivities, the birth of Christ. Here’s a rundown of the most important traditions, some of which are a blend of ancient ceremonies and Christian beliefs introduced by 16th-century Spanish friars, wrapped up in all the trimmings of Christmas we know and love. Have yourself a very merry Mexican Christmas!
Nativity plays or Pastorelas were introduced to Mexico in the 16th century by Jesuit priests who used them in their missionary work with the Aztecs, Maya and other native cultures, hoping that the music, dance and pageantry would help them win hearts and minds. They relate the Nativity Story and the adventures of the shepherds as they journey to pay homage to Baby Jesus. Angels and demons vie for their souls, representing the eternal battle between good and evil, but the plays always have a touch of comedy with the Devil being ridiculed and losing in the end.
A traditional Mexican Pastorela or Nativity play
Posadas are parties that traditionally take place from December 16 to 24 and symbolize the journey of Mary and Joseph and their search for lodging in Bethlehem. The guests at the posada split into two groups: the pilgrims and the hosts. Holding flickering candles, the pilgrims walk along the street, knocking on doors and singing a song asking for lodging. Twice they are refused admittance, but on the third attempt, they finally reach the house selected to be the “inn,” after several rousing verses of the song and the reply from the homeowners, they are invited in for supper and the festivities begin.
Traditional Mexican Posada
The traditional posada menu features ponche, a hot drink made with fruit (oranges, guava, tejocotes or crab apples, among others), spices such as cinnamon, sugar cane, water and a dash of rum or cognac; tamales and buñuelos or sweet fritters.
A cup of Ponche with Tejocotes or crab apples
Mexican families gather to celebrate the birth of Christ on Nochebuena or Christmas Eve. They eat dinner late in the evening and many still attend Midnight Mass or Misa de Gallo. The menu varies from region to region and from house to house but popular dishes are bacalao (salted codfish), sprigs of a plant called romeritos served with shrimp cakes in mole sauce, roast turkey, ham or a leg of pork. A crisp, tangy salad with apple, cabbage and candies is traditionally served.
No posada or Christmas Eve party is complete without a piñata or brightly colored figure made of papier mâche and tissue paper and filled with goodies, and after supper children line up to take their turn to hit the swaying, suspended likeness of a star, cartoon figure or animal. They are blindfolded and rely on directions from the chanting crowd to help them in their task. Finally the battered piñata bursts open, showering the ground with candies, tangerines and nuts and there is a mad dash to grab as many Christmas treats as possible. The air echoes with the sounds of exploding fireworks set off to herald the newborn king.
Girl hitting a Piñata at a Posada
Artistic representation of a Posada with Piñata
The Christmas tree decorating the home may be a European tradition, but the bright red poinsettia plant or nochebuena used to such spectacular effect inside and outside the home is Mexican. Prized for its medicinal properties by the Aztecs, the striking shrub was used by Colonial missionaries to add color to their Nativity celebrations and is now a seasonal symbol the world over.
The festivities continue on New Year’s Eve with a family dinner. On the stroke of midnight, everyone eats 12 grapes and makes a wish, one for each chime of the clock and month of the year. This custom dates from the days of the early Spanish vineyards when wine growers would pray for a good harvest.
January 6 or Día de Reyes has a special meaning for Mexican children – it is the day that they traditionally receive gifts from the Three Kings. Families and friends gather to drink hot chocolate and eat the Rosca de Reyes, a delicious cake in the shape of a ring, topped with dried fruit and a sugar glaze and containing several tiny plastic dolls to symbolize Baby Jesus.
Actors representing the Three Kings or Tres Reyes Magos
One by one, guests take turns to cut the cake and the tension mounts until all the dolls are found. According to tradition, those with a doll in their slice of cake must host a dinner or party with festive fare – traditionally tamales – on the Día de la Candelaria or Candlemass Day, February 2.
If you are in Mexico in the run up to Christmas, why not pick up some unique decorations for your tree or an eye-catching Nacimiento or Nativity scene.
Craftsmen all over the world take pride in depicting the Nativity but nowhere more so than in Mexico where cultural diversity, access to varied raw materials and innate creativity result in an array of masterpieces. Nativity scenes come in all shapes and sizes and feature Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus in his manger, the angel, oxen and a donkey, along with some uniquely Mexican additions: agaves, cacti, turkeys, sheep and even pigs. Some scenes are extremely elaborate and include a cast of dozens – the shepherds, the animals in the stable, the woodcutter and the Star of Bethlehem.
Small Nativity scene with clay figures
The tradition is thought to have originated in Italy in 1223, with St Francis of Assisi who honored the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi with a tableau featuring real people. The custom spread throughout Christendom but with china and wood figurines replacing actors. Spanish missionaries introduced the nacimiento to Mexico during the 16th century.
Mexican craftsmen make their Nativity scenes from glazed and unglazed clay, which can be painted in bright colors, gilded or left au natural; carved and varnished wood, copper or beaten tin plate, woven rushes and rattan. Other ingenious creations call for cornhusks, sugar cane leaves, vanilla pods, cloth, cut tissue paper and painted bark paper. Look for wax sculptures, glass, onyx, stone and even silver filigree work. They can be found throughout the country, but Tlaquepaque and Tonala in Jalisco, Jacona in Michoacán, Guerrero, Tlaxcala and the state of Mexico are renowned production centers. The colorful ceramic Nativity scenes made in the Yucatán depict the Baby Jesus in a Mayan thatched hut or a hammock.
Nativity scene figures
Once you have chosen a Nativity scene, it’s time to look for Mexican decorations for your Christmas tree. They range from glass spheres sprinkled with glitter to hand-painted clay figurines of portly ladies and gents, mariachis and piñatas from the Yucatán; burnished black pottery cherubs crafted from barro negro and hojalata or tin angels, birds and poinsettia flowers made in Oaxaca. You’ll also find carved jicaras or gourds and exquisite Huichol beaded eggs to hang on your tree, wooden miniatures, plaited straw wreaths, bells and flowers and angels made from cornhusks.
Finally, for a truly festive dinner table, choose a hand-woven tablecloth and napkins in Christmas colors or pure white linen and lace from the state of Aguascalientes and combine them with embroidered mats and table runners from Chiapas. Mexican glassware, silver cutlery and candelabra set the scene to perfection. And of course, vanilla, organic coffee, honey, chocolate, chili, wine and tequila are a welcome addition to any pantry.