In Baja, with the close proximity and the strong influence of the U.S., many of the Christmas traditions from the U.S. get blended with the more traditional Mexican celebrations. But Mexico has some very traditional and festive celebrations that take place during the Christmas season. As Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, most of Mexico’s traditions tend to be centered around religion. Sometimes you’ll hear the holiday season in Mexico referred to as Guadalupe-Reyes. This refers to the time between Día de Guadalupe on December 12th and Día de los Reyes (the Epiphany) on January 6th. This time frame includes the eight days of Posadas Navideñas from December 16-24th.
December 12th: Día de Guadalupe
For Catholic Mexicans, the Virgin Guadalupe (or Our Lady of Guadalupe) is the most revered religious icon. On December 12th 1531, the Virgin Guadalupe appeared to a young boy, Juan Diego, on a hill in modern-day Mexico City and told him to tell the local Bishop to build a church on the hill. The Bishop did not believe the young boy about the apparition. Once again, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego and this time told him to collect flowers from the hill. Despite the cold winter, the boy found the hillside covered with beautiful flowers which he took to the Bishop in his cloak. When the boy opened his cloak to the Bishop, the unseasonal flowers appeared along with an image of the Virgin Guadalupe on the cloak. The Bishop then believed it was a miracle and built a church on the hill. This is where the modern day Basilica de Guadalupe stands today.
December 16-24th: Posadas Navideñas
Posada is a word for inn and the Posadas Navideñas represent the time leading up to the nativity when Joseph and Mary were looking for a place to stay. Local posadas will feature a street procession that reenacts Joseph and Mary’s search for an inn on their way to Bethlehem. The procession will knock at doors along the way while singing traditional posada songs. Joseph and Mary are turned away at each door until they reach the end of the procession where a designated place lets them in to stay and a Christmas party ensues. Today, you may hear the word posada used around the holidays to simply refer to a Christmas party.
December 24th: Noche Buena & December 25: Navidad
Christmas Eve, referred to as Noche Buena, is the large celebration in Mexico. Most families go to Christmas Eve mass and then gather with friends and family for celebrations that carry on until very late in the night or early the next morning. This makes Christmas Day a day of rest and recovery in most of Latin America.
January 6th: Día de Reyes
Día de Reyes, (or Three Kings Day or the Epiphany) is the official closing to the Christmas season in Mexico. Traditionally in years past, it was the day when gifts were given. Children would lay out their shoes on the night of January 5th which would be filled with small trinkets when they woke up the next day. One of the most important traditions of Día de Reyes is eating a rosca de reyes (Kings’ loaf). The round wreath-shaped sweet breads are topped with crystalized fruit and sugar. Most importantly, a small plastic figurine of baby Jesus is baked into every loaf. Whoever is the lucky recipient of the figurine is supposed to make or buy tamales for everyone on Día de Candelaria on February 2nd.
Food and Drink:
Traditional foods vary from region to region throughout Mexico, but there are a number of common foods and drinks that are consumed during Christmastime. Tamales are one of the most prevalent dishes for Christmastime in Mexico, made of a corn masa dough stuffed with a filling and wrapped in corn husks. Because tamales are so time and labor consuming to prepare, they are a special holiday food usually made in large batches. Family and friends gather to make them at large parties called tamaladas.
Other comfort foods like pozole (hominy soup) and birria (stewed meat) are prevalent at Christmas, as is an ensalada nochebuena (Christmas Eve salad) full of seasonal fruits and vegetables. For dessert, many enjoy a sweet buñuelo (fried dough covered in cinnamon sugar). And to wash it all down, ponche navideño (Christmas punch), rompope (Mexican egg nog), or champurrado (a chocolate version of atole, which is a thick corn drink).
Decorations and Traditions:
Noche buenas or poinsettias are prevalent in Mexico during Christmastime. The legend comes from the story of a very poor girl who had no present to give baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve service. She picked a handful of weeds and when she presented them in the church, they turned into the bright red flowers we know as poinsettias. This is how the poinsettia flower in Mexico became known as Flores de Noche Buena (flowers of Christmas Eve).
Piñatas, especially those shaped like a star with seven points, are traditional at Christmas parties. They are filled with treats and broken open with a stick by someone who is blindfolded. As with many holidays and celebrations in Mexico, colorful papel picado (perforated paper) is used to decorate the plazas, markets, businesses, and homes. The colorful paper banners are a beautiful Mexican folk art that let us know that it’s time for a celebration.