How to Celebrate a Mexican Christmas
Mexicans have a plethora of rich cultural traditions associated with Christmas. If you're looking to diversify your family's celebration (or, in this case, have a few more parties!), Mexican culture is a great place to start.
Preparation for Christmas begins early in Mexico. For nine days—from December 16th to the 24th—there are fiestas to represent Mary and Joseph's quest for lodging, or la posada, in Bethlehem. These nine parties are also said to represent the nine months of Mary's pregnancy. A procession of the Virgen Marìa and San José on a donkey begins la posada, which is a community event. The parade goes throughout the town and at designated houses the holy family stops to ask for lodging and is denied each time, until one house says there is room for them in the barn if they like. At this point all guests are invited in and the Mexican Christmas season begins. Piñatas are popular at these parties to symbolize the beginning of the celebration. Children get to beat the piñata till it breaks, freeing candies and treats and starting off the season.
La posada continues until Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). Interestingly enough, "flor de Nochebuena" is what Mexicans call the poinsettia—it literally means "the Christmas Eve flower." These flowers originate in Mexico and were cultivated and brought to the United States by Joel R. Poinset. On Nochebuena, la Misa del Gallo or "the Rooster's Mass" is held at midnight. Sometimes after families return from the services there is a feast or late meal to begin the actual Christmas day celebration.
After Christmas, Mexicans wait until January 6th to have the fiesta for Epiphany. Dia de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day) is the traditional day for gift giving. On this day the rosca de reyes (wreath or crown of the kings) is eaten. This bread wreath is baked with either one or many small figurines of the baby Jesus inside. When guests at the fiesta eat their piece of bread if they find a figurine they are expected to host a party for everyone on February 2nd, Candlearia (Candlemas). On Candlearia, a party is thrown in the honor of Jesus Christ, the figurine is taken to a church to be blessed, and el nacimiento is put away until the beginning of the next Christmas season.
Christian Roots and Modern Influences.
The Mexican holiday season is focused on the Christian roots of Christmas rather than the more secular elements, even though secular elements have made their way into the celebration. Christmas trees are a little more common nowadays, since modern times have made them a worldwide symbol, but pine is still a rare commodity. Families might get a small tree or use a branch and decorate with lights and ornaments. These decorations are hardly the centerpiece in Mexico that they have become in the United States. Instead, el nacimiento, the nativity scene, is set up in public places and in homes for neighbors to see. These scenes can be very elaborate or simple, but the baby Jesus is not added until December 24th, and the Three Kings are not added until January 5th.
Typically Santa Claus was not part of the traditional Mexican Christmas celebration. Instead of asking Santa for presents, children would write their requests to the Three Kings; instead of receiving gifts on December 25th the gifts are given on January 6th, which is Dia de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day or the beginning of Epiphany). In the story of the first Christmas the three wise men brought gifts to Jesus, so this Mexican tradition attempts to align modern celebrations with the original story.
Not all modern influences have totally altered the cultural traditions, though. Pastorelas have changed, but are still plays that focus on the shepherds who follow the Star of David to find and worship the baby Jesus. Originally these plays were much like the European "miracle plays," which were used to relay stories from the Bible to people who couldn't read. Missionaries from Spain brought the plays to Mexico and they have been adapted over time to suit celebratory purposes. Many of the plays are held outdoors. The battle between good and evil is always the focus, but a comedic element has made its way into the tradition, which makes the plays very popular holiday entertainment.