Christmas Traditions in Mexico
In a country known the world over for its fondness for fiestas and its reverence for the Virgin Mary, it should come as no surprise that Mexico’s Christmas season begins on Dec. 16, with Mary as the focal point.
The nine days before Christmas in Mexico are known as las Posadas, which means “inn” and commemorates the nine days of Mary and Joseph’s journey through Bethlehem. Every night, candlelit processions wind their way through Mexican towns and cities, with “Mary” riding a donkey while “Joseph” walks beside her.
House to house they travel, singing songs that contain a plea for rest. Finally, one house welcomes them – the one with a Nativity scene and altar – and everyone gathers in prayer before great rejoicing begins.
The last posada takes place on Christmas Eve and ends at a church, where the likeness of the baby Jesus is placed in a cradle before Mexicans attend midnight Mass. Afterward, it’s not uncommon for the celebration to last all night long with song and dance. The festive mood is sometimes punctuated by fireworks and the sound of clay or paper mache piñatas broken open as children scramble to scoop up candy, nuts and small toys.
Las Posadas unites the Mexican people in their devotion to their faith. Since many Mexicans have Aztec, Mayan or Spanish ancestors, many Spanish people brought Roman Catholic traditions to Mexico. Today, the country of 112 million people remains overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.
The nine-day celebration also strengthens bonds between the Mexican people as they are greeted by other “pilgrims” throughout the Mexican countryside, which forms a graceful curve between the United States and Guatemala and Belize. In Mexico, homes are often decorated with Spanish moss, evergreens and paper lanterns and “flowers of the holy night,” or poinsettias.
In fact, the poinsettia is native to Mexico, as it blooms most noticeably during the month of December. Mexicans are largely credited with incorporating the plant into their Christmas decorations, as the first poinsettia is believed to have been used in connection with Christmas in the 17th century, when Mexican Franciscans thought that the plant’s robust, red leaves made a festive statement.
Today, the plant is ubiquitous in Mexico, and many people still believe that it is inherently “blessed”. Legend has it that a little boy named Pablo was on his way to visit a Nativity scene in his village when he realized he had no gift to offer the baby Jesus. Being resourceful, he gathered some branches growing by the side of the road. People were heard to belittle his gift, but then a miraculous event occurred. When little Pablo laid the branches next to the manger, red star-shaped flowers appeared on each branch, making his gift the most remarkable of all.
Poinsettias are widely available at puestos, or market stalls, that are set up in many towns and cities throughout Mexico in the weeks before Christmas. Here, vendors also sell fruit, cookies and other gifts that are so unique that some Mexicans travel for days from remote areas of the country to reach the puestos.
Still, after all the excitement associated with las Posadas, Christmas Day is relatively quiet in Mexico. Some people exchange gifts while others wait until Jan. 6, which is known as Dia de Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day. Mexican children who leave their shoes at the door the night before are rewarded with small gifts, in memory of the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
Whether the mood is quiet or festive, food remains a focus of Mexicans’ Christmas Day celebrations. Corn, beans, chili peppers and tomatoes remain staples of some of the country’s most popular dishes, including tacos, enchiladas, tamales, quesadillas and chiles rellenos, or long green peppers that are stuffed with cheese or ground meat, dipped in egg batter, fried and then simmered in a tomato sauce. Tortillas are served with almost every meal, although many Mexicans now buy them from a factory called a tortilleria rather than undergo the tedious process of making their own.
Mexico’s national dish – mole poblano – often takes center stage at Christmas, though it is usually not for the faint of heart. This thick, rich and spicy sauce often contains between 20 and 30 ingredients, which Mexican families refine based on their own tastes. Still, some standard ingredients in most recipes include several kinds of chili peppers, almonds, peanuts, sugar cinnamon, cloves, day-old bread and – almost always – bittersweet chocolate.
Depending on the ingredients, this immensely popular sauce can be black, green or even shades of purple. Served over chicken, turkey or pork, it too enjoys “legendary” status in Mexico. It is thought to have originated in the city of Puebla during the 16th century, when nuns learned that an archbishop was planning to visit but had no idea what to serve him. Praying for guidance, they grabbed nearly every ingredient within reach and hastily chopped, stirred and blended the sauce until the bishop arrived. As legend has it, he was delighted with the result, and the nuns eagerly spread word through the countryside.
To cool down the potency of mole poblano, many Mexican families prepare a donut-shaped cake with a small doll inside. According to custom, the guest who receives the slice must host a tamale party on February 2 – proving once again that this festive country celebrates the spirit of fiestas all year long.