Monday, December 25, 2006
Christmas in Mexico
By Allan Wall
It’s that time of year again — Christmas
The worldwide diversity of Christmas in its various
cultural forms makes a fascinating study. The essence of the holiday — a celebration of the incarnation and birth of
Jesus Christ — is the same throughout Christendom. The holiday possesses
a remarkable flexibility and power to inspire art, literature and folk customs, taking on diverse cultural manifestations
in different cultures.
Real celebrations come from the people, and are not
imposed by government to promote an agenda. In Mexico, Christmas is a true folk
celebration. Mexican Christmas customs are an eclectic mixture of the old and
the new, including elements from Europe, others developed in Mexico, and in recent years elements borrowed from the U.S.A.
One prominent aspect of the Mexican Christmas season
is the widespread use of the “nacimiento” — the crèche or Nativity scene. It is often more elaborate than those used in the United States. It also includes interesting features
such as cactus, a hermit or ducks. (I’ve even seen ducks with halos!) My
Mexican wife has fond memories of the nacimiento in the house of her late grandmother.
In northern Mexico, the traditional gift-giving
occasion is the night of December 24th. Traditionally, in southern Mexico
the principal gift-giving date is January 6, Epiphany, or more commonly the Day of the Magi Kings, commemorating the presentation
of the gifts by the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.
The piñata is probably the most famous Mexican Christmas
custom, though it is not exclusively a Christmas tradition. The piñata is used throughout the year at children’s birthday
parties, suspended in midair and struck repeatedly by children until it breaks.
In the U.S., the most famous type of piñata is in
the form of a donkey, but nowadays a piñata might be in any form. For example, you might see a Bart Simpson piñata or a Spiderman
The original piñata though was a big ball with seven
spikes. In colonial times this was a teaching device used by friars, in which the spikes represented cardinal sins and the
piñata represented the Devil. Therefore, breaking the piñata represented defeating
Another Mexican Christmas custom is the “posada,”
a musical call-and-response. It’s somewhat like the Christmas caroling custom practiced in English-speaking countries,
but not exactly. In the posada custom, the people outside sing the part of Mary and Joseph asking to stay in the inn, and
the people inside sing the part of the innkeeper.
The Mexican “pastorela” is a special
type of Christmas play, with roots that go back to the mystery and morality plays of medieval Europe. The pastorela focuses on the shepherds, “pastor”
being the Spanish word for shepherd. In the pastorela, the shepherds hear
from the angel about the Christ Child, and they set out for Bethlehem to see Him. Along
the way they encounter the Devil, who puts various temptations in their path to prevent their arrival at the manger, and each
shepherd is tempted by a particular sin. But they resist the temptations and
at the end of the play they reach the Christ Child.
In more recent years, gringo customs such as Santa
Claus and Christmas trees have been adopted in Mexico. And actually they have been assimilated quite well into the culture.
During the season, stores do a brisk business in
Christmas trees. I recall one December in Mexico City, seeing a gigantic artificial
Christmas tree in the Zocalo, the main plaza of Mexico City.
Santa Claus is well-known in Mexico now, and many
small children eagerly await his annual visit.
One curious result of the adoption of Christmas
customs from the United States is seeing snow-related decorations, an inflatable snowman for example, in regions of Mexico
where it hardly ever snows.
Just as in the U.S.A. (and maybe everywhere it’s
celebrated), Christmas is very commercialized in Mexico. But maybe that’s
inevitable, insofar as the main reason it’s commercialized is the holiday is so important to people. As long as you remember the real reason for Christmas, and as long as you don’t go into debt buying
presents, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly good
for the economy, in fact a lot of stores do a big share of their business during the season.
In conclusion, allow me to wish all readers of MexiData.info
a hearty Merry Christmas, or as they say here in Mexico — ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!
Allan Wall, a MexiData.info columnist, recently
returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He currently resides in Mexico, where he
has lived since 1991. He can be reached
via e—mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.