The Christmas period effectively stretches from December 3 to February 2. To start, there is the Celebration for the Virgin of Guadalupe (undeniably the most important figure in Mexico) from December 3rd to 12th; followed by the Posadas, from December 16th to 24th; then you have Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and Christmas Day on the 25th, followed by Dia de Los Reyes on January 6th. To finish off the Christmas epic there is El Dia de la Purificación, on February 2nd.
Posadas are a kind of cross between street theater and a party. What generally happens is that a posada will take place every night between the 16th and 24th. There will be children who are dressed as Jesus and Mary (sometimes with Mary on a donkey), who will reenact the search in Bethlehem for an inn (posada), led by other childen with lanterns playing the part of a guiding angel. The trio is accompanied by shepherds, and upon arriving at an "inn," the group will split in two, one half going inside the house, the other remaining outside with Jesus and Mary. Then ensues a choral exchange between the two groups, with Jesus and Mary pleading for shelter, and the group inside rejecting them, except for the final posada on the 24th, where they are finally given shelter.
Once the singing is over, everyone goes inside for the piñata, a tradition that involves breaking a star shaped (although cartoon characters are now more popular) papier-maché container full of sweets, mandarines, and small toys. A stick is used, and the piñata is hung on a cord, which in turn is moved around to make it difficult for the person to hit with the stick. Firstly children try breaking it, then adults (blindfolded). While all this is going on, people drink ponche, a hot fruit punch, to which sometimes a piquette (a drop of tequila or rum) is added, and tamales are eaten, which are milled corn dumplings with various fillings.
After the last posada, on the 24th, a midnight mass traditionally takes place, although this is now more common in the provinces.
The light, humor-filled pastorelas are reenactments of the shepherds' adoration of the Christ Child. First the shepards are visited in the fields by an angel who announces the holy birth. As the shepherds attempt to follow the great star leading them to Bethlehem, they are plagued by a series of evils and misadventures provoked by the Devil. But in the end, good triumphs over evil and the shepherds reach their intended destination.
The pastorelas have a bit of history behind them. They were introduced by catholic priests in the struggle to convert Mexico to christianity. In common with most pagan cultures, the Aztecs held ceremonies during the winter solstice, in this case they were in honor of the virgin birth of the sun God Huitzilopchtli. After having observed that the Aztecs used a type of theatre to reenact historically important events as part of the ceremonies, some priests came up with the idea of using reenactments of the shpherds' journey to the stable, superimposed during the same period as the pagan celebrations.
Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, is an important family reunion, the meal takes precedence over that of Christmas Day. The supper is at 12pm, and often consists of turkey, as well as romeritos (an herb) in mole (a spicy chocolate sauce) with shrimp and potatoes, and bacalao (cod served a la vizcaina, a Basque dish). The traditional dessert is colación, a mixture of candies in syrup.
After the big meal the previous night, most people aren't in shape to wake up very early in the morning. When they eventually do, the present opening takes place. Sometimes, in large families, instead of giving everybody a present, a gift exchange is common so that each person only gives one gift. Some time before Christmas names will be drawn, so the issue of who gives what gift to whom is resolved. The Christmas meal is re-served from the previous night, since the main focus of Christmas festivities is celebrated on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve).
An important part of Mexican Christmas decorations are the nativity scenes. Instead of just focusing on the stable scene, sometimes the decorations include the surrounding villages and countryside, with the shepherds on their way across fields and rivers. Some of the nativity scenes can be so big that it is difficult to find where the stable is! Decorations are often left up until February 2nd, Dia de la Candelaria.
Los Santos Inocentes
December 28th, Day of the Holy Innocents, is a religious commemoration of King Herod's ordering of the slaughter of all male infants in his kingdom, intended to include the Christ Child. In Mexico it is celebrated as a day akin to April Fool's, an occasion for jokes and pranks. The usual tactic is to approach a friend and ask to borrow cash or some object of value. If fooled by the ploy, the victim may be given a candy or silly gift in return, along with much joking and name calling. So beware, or you may find yourself titled Saint Näive for a day!
New Year's Day
On New Year's, the custom is to eat 12 grapes at midnight, each one on the strike of the bell, for good luck in each one of the following twelve months.
Dia de los Reyes
January 6th is Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), which is great for children, because they receive more presents. In the evening a rosca will be cut, which is a doughnut shaped cake. Hidden inside are small plastic "child Gods." If you discover one of the plastic figurines in your slice of cake, you won't win anything, but you will be buying the tamales on February 2nd, Dia de la Candelaria, Purification Day.
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