There is so much going on during these next two months! Let me give you a small taste of Pátzcuaro activities that lie ahead.
The first fiesta of this season is in honor of Pátzcuaro’s most important goddess, the Virgen of Salud (Health). Her feast day is the 8th of December followed almost immediately on the 12th by the Feast of the Virgen of Guadalupe (Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas). Both of these icons deserve their own blog at another time. Promise!
Many, if not all, of the Saints of the Catholic church in Michoacán are gods and goddesses of the Pre-Hispanic culture simply “repurposed” in order to evangelize the Purhepecha. In fact, recently it was discovered by X-ray that inside the statues of these saints are small images of the Pre-Hispanic gods, likely placed there in secret by artesanos who made those original statues. The Indigenous found a way to pray to their own gods while appearing to pray to the gods of the conquerors!
Here is what I look forward to during this season:
December- January: The monumental Christmas display on the Plaza Grande.
Each region of Michoacán is represented on the Plaza Grande by giant figures made by local artesanos of materials such as reeds and grasses from Lake Patzcuaro. My favorites are the giant elephant, camel and horse, each accompanied by one of the Three Kings, or Wise Men. There is also a beautiful creche with Mary, Joseph, an ox and a donkey. When I first came to Patzcuaro, I would make a nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. It was made very clear to me very quickly that the Baby Jesus did not appear till December 25th. What was I thinking!
December 8: Virgen of Salud
December 12: Virgen of Guadalupe
December 16 – 24: Las Posadas
The Posadas are re-enactments of Joseph and Mary looking for a place to stay while the baby is born. In Patzcuaro, between the 16th and 24th of December, each neighborhood takes one night to recreate the search for a manger. The neighbors all light small bonfires in the street, which is closed-off for this procession. Above are strings of balloons strung across the street, which add to the magic.
Neighbors walk from house-to-house singing a song in front of each home. The song asks, “Do you have a place for us to stay? The answer from inside the house is a song that says, “No, we have no room here,” and then the procession moves on to the next house. At the end there is a hot winter punch made of seasonal fruits and cinnamon that is shared by everyone.
December 25: The Christmas temples around the lake.
I usually drive around Lake Pátzcuaro to visit the village churches (called Temples by the Purhepecha). I LOVE to see the fanciful decorations. Mary, Joseph and recently born Baby Jesus are all dressed in their finest rebosos with flowers and candles everywhere. Very touching, and not on the tourist route.
December 25 – Feb 2: Las Pastorelas
This ritual play includes a dance and was created by the priests as a way to teach their religion in the absence of a common language. The play clearly expresses the struggle between good and evil. It is fascinating in all its various interpretations. The basic story is this: On the 25th of December a star appears and the shepherds are called to follow the star. Their goal is to find Baby Jesus and honor his birth. However, the devils set out to try to stop them. The devils are led by Lucifer. The devils create chaos and deception to stop the good shepherds from arriving at their destination. The interpretations are distinct in different pueblos.
In Tsurumutaro, the devils are seriously frightening. The masks are scary with heads of horsehair and brutal mean faces looking around for the next victim. The day begins with a mass. Crowded into the tiny church are a band, the congregants, youngsters dressed in white taking their first communion and a Baby Jesus area where the just-born Baby Jesus dolls from every household are waiting to be blessed. The devils are ugly and very scary and often drunk (the ritual chaos). All of this engulfed in the smoke of copal creating an other-worldly sense.
The Pastorela in Tocuaro, for a different example, is almost the opposite. The Tocuaro devils are elegant and proud. It takes up to a year for each devil to make the sequined cape that he wears. The masks are famous for their intricacy and are often museum quality. They take months to make and are often made out of one solid piece of wood. Lots of snakes and skeletons. Tocuaro is famous for its mask makers. Images of the ancient serpent, the “devil dragon,” are carefully woven into the costume by each devil along with the name Lucifer or other names. Most of the pueblos have one version or another during this period between Christmas Day and Candelaria on February 2.
January 6: Three Kings Day
On this day, the Three Kings brought gifts to the Baby Jesus so, in Mexico, this is the day that children receive gifts. There is a kind of fruitcake/sweet bread wreath baked on this day to share with the family. Inside are little plastic dolls. There can be one or more depending on the size of the bread. If you get a little doll in your piece you must make tamales for the family on February 2, Candelaria. This marks the official end of the holiday season.
February 1: Fuego Nuevo de Los Purhepechas
This is the one seasonal ceremony not related to Catholicism. In a different but similar way this is related to the natural cycle, the change from winter to new life. It is somehow a universal ceremony passing the torch. The Nuevo Fuego is a fire that has been kept burning all year and is literally carried on foot from one Pueblo to another. The new pueblo has the sacred responsibility to keep the flame alive till the Fuego Nuevo ceremony the following year.
I have to admit I never cared much for Christmas until I moved here. It seemed so commercial and somehow shallow. Here, there is a richness because the tradition of the birth of Jesus is still alive. From the beginning to the end of this wonderful season it is all about ways to be with the family and continue traditions into future generations.
For me personally, I find it tells me that every year there is the opportunity for rebirth. We are given a chance once again of an innocence that is recreated each year. For me, it seems that all this is part of the natural cycle. Winter is almost over and the fertile earth is once again about to give life and abundance to us mortals.