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How They Celebrate Christmas South of the Border

by Liam Williams
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While Mexico has adopted some of the more modern American Christmas traditions, most are still adamant to keep in touch with their own roots and traditions. Mexico carries an incredibly rich culture dating back further than the great Aztecs and Mayans civilizations.

This is how they celebrate the days leading up to and after Christmas. It’s celebrated from the 12th of December starting with the Day of the Virgin Guadalupe on the 12th of December and ending with Candlemas on the 2nd of February when the festivities come to an end.

Day of the Virgin Guadalupe (Dia de la Virgin de Guadalupe) – 12th Dec

A famous painting of Virgin de Guadalupe hung over a large Mexican flag

Our lady of Guadalupe (Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) also known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico is a Catholic title of the Blessed Virgin Mary associated with a series of five Marian apparitions in December 1531, and a venerated image on a cloak enshrined within the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

On the 12th of December, thousands of people gather in Mexico Cities’ heart at the Basilica where they set off fireworks, put on musical shows & parades, and family restaurants serve freshly fried buñuelos.

Las Posada – 16th – 24th Dec

Las posada is an ancient tradition of devotional praying also known as a Novena. It is chiefly celebrated in Latin and Spanish countries like Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, and Spain. The traditions have hardly changed since the inception of the event over 400 years ago (since 1586). Traditions like parades and reenacting biblical events in play fashion, which were eventually banned with the addition of things like folk music and other ‘non-religious’ elements.

Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) – 24th Dec

Nochebuena is a deep-rooted tradition across many European, Pacific, South, and Central American countries. Like most countries, food is a huge factor during Christmas. The celebrations are often preceded by a day of fasting (sometimes a few days) followed by a late-night mass known as Misa de Gallo (roosters mass) and ended with a midnight Christmas feast.

In pacific nations like the Philippines or Hawaii seafood and shellfish are unsurprisingly very popular. In Spain, it’s common to start the feast with a seafood dish, followed by a hot, heavy soup, then a roasted lamb or pig. Turkey and hallacas are popular in South America along with a strong association with festive music.

Christmas Day (Navidad) – 25th Dec

A large artificial tree in Mexico city

Mexico has adopted many German and US Christmas traditions, one of the biggest examples, Christmas trees. Christmas trees were unheard of in Mexico until the early- to the mid-19th century when German settlers put the first trees on display in Pennsylvania as early as 1747.

After the Misa de Gallo on the 24th, families sit at the dinner table and enjoy a feast of bacalao, cod cooked in onions, tomatoes (sauces and soups), olives, revoltijo, and most notably a whole suckling pig, which has sadly been more or less replaced by turkey or ham in modern years.

Adults sip ponche navideño while fireworks and sparklers are lit. Presents are traditionally opened at the stroke of midnight. Christmas day is spent living down the night before, enjoying gifts, and eating leftovers from the days prior.

Day of the Sainted Innocents (Dia de Los Santos Inocentes) – 28th Dec

The Day of the Holy Innocents is the commemoration of a hagiographic episode of Christianity. the slaughter of children under two years born in Bethlehem, ordered by King Herod I the Great in an attempt to have the newborn Jesus of Nazareth assassinated.

Churches widely celebrate offering gifts to baby Jesus. The gifts range from bread, food, or sweets, to clothes and other offerings. Dia de Los Santos Inocentes is the equivalent of April fools day in America. Pranks and jokes are played on people followed by the joker shouting ‘
Inocente’.

Three Kings Day (Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos) – 6th Jan

nativity scene in commemoration to the three wise men

January 5th marks the 12th day of Christmas. Where Santa Clause is the generous, multitasking fat man that delivers gifts in much of the western world, the three wise men who offered Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh do it in Mexico. Mexican families also commemorate the date by eating Rosca de Reyes.

In modern Mexico however, and particularly in the larger cities and in the North, local traditions are now being observed and intertwined with North American traditions. I.e Santa Clause

Candlemas (La Candelaria) – 2nd Feb

La Candelaria, also known as the feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a Christian Holy Day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Candlemass is typically the day when Christmas decorations get taken down.

During the tasting of the Rosca de Reyes cake on three kings day, whoever finds the muñeco (bean-shaped Christ child) is named godfather of the child, who will then dress the niño Dios (an image of the Christ child in the form of a doll) on Candlemas with richly decorated clothes, which is then brought to the church to be blessed. Whoever draws the bean on Epiphany must also prepare tamales, which is believed to echo Mexico’s pre-Christian past with its offerings of maize.

Mexican Christmas Traditions

Nativity Scene

Mexican Christmas is all about food, music, togetherness, and most importantly, religion. You’d be hard-pressed to find a traditional Mexican household without a nativity scene. In the colonial period, a distinctly Mexican touch was added to the classic nativity scene with the use of a bed of Spanish moss.

Customs

  • Eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight on the 31st – Make a wish for each grape you eat.
  • If you want luck with love this year – wear red underwear. If you want more money, wear yellow.
  • If you want to travel this year, taking your luggage out for a walk around the block.
  • Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, open the front door to your home and symbolically sweep out the old.
  • At midnight, toss 12 coins on the ground and sweep them into the house to bring prosperity and financial success.
  • Breaking plates, pots, and other dishes as a way to break with the past and make way for new things to come.

Food

Mexicans use bacalao (dried and salted cod) to make a dish called Bacalao A La Mexicana. It involves soaking and poaching the dried cod with Mexican herbs, spices, and vegetables.
A suckling pig is a whole pig, normally a piglet, roasted on a spit. A browned suckling pig with an apple in its mouth is the epitome of feast dishes.
Ham is also very common in North America which is probably what popularised it in the south.
Tamales are classic Mexican meat and/or vegetable dish steamed in corn husks
75% of legumes grown in Michoacan are Lentils. even that can’t keep up the high demand for the legumes in Mexico.
Ponche is a Mexican alcoholic beverage often made with hibiscus, apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, and tamarind.
Sparkling cider is the main drink during Christmas in many central American countries.
Buñuelos are fried dough balls and are really best when bought mid-parade from a family street vendor frying them fresh and drizzling them with fresh, sweet, golden syrup.

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