Christmas in Mexico

It’s that time of year again, Christmas in Mexico.

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.   

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 piñata. 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 Satan.

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.

Merry Christmas, or as they say in Mexico ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!

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