Every culture you encounter will have its own unique Christmas traditions, but as a long-time expat here, I believe Mexico is a very special place to celebrate Christmas
For some, Christmas is a strictly religious holiday. For others, its religious roots tend to fade into the background as societies become more secular – though even when this happens, it is notable that no societies ever say, “Oh well, I guess we are through with parties now!” Even those cultures that do not officially celebrate Christmas have people who join in the fun with trees and presents.
For a complex mestizo culture like Mexico, there is – lucky for us – a little bit of everything.
Behold! A few of the many surprising things to expect in Mexico during the Christmas holiday month.
Christmas Is Not a Day, It Is a Season That Lasts Until January 7th
Actually, it technically goes on until February 2nd, but schools go back after January 7th, so we might as well count the end there.
While Mexico is no different than most places in decorating its cities for the winter holidays, there is much more to do in the days leading up to Christmas than shopping for gifts and taking your kids for their picture with Santa Claus.
Starting in mid-December, you may be invited to participate in posadas, pastorelas, and the eating of the traditional rosca de reyes on January 6th, known here as Three Kings Day and religiously as The Epiphany. The final event connected to the holiday season is on February 2nd (more to come on that).
But First, Decorations!
You will certainly see plenty of the types of decorations that you are used to, at least if you live in North America, like Christmas lights, nativity scenes, decorated trees, and even blow-up Santas on people’s roofs.
One thing that might surprise you is how many people put their Christmas trees outside, often on front-facing balconies. A couple of places in Mexico proudly produce glass ornaments, and there are plenty beautiful hand-painted ones to be found. People do not tend to over-do it with gifts on Christmas in Mexico, and presents do not typically stay sitting under the tree for days or weeks before-hand.
In nativities, by the way, you will notice that Baby Jesus is not there…he will not arrive until December 24th.
Traditional (and not-so-traditional) Posadas
The short answer regarding the definition of a posada is that it is a very big Mexican Christmas party. Posada means “inn” in English, and the activities during one mimic the traveling of a very pregnant Mary and Joseph searching for shelter and being turned away multiple times.
These parties can span from one day in one place, which is the norm in most urban and industrialized cities, to many days – the 16th to the 24th of December to be precise – and in a different house each night in smaller and more religious rural communities, culminating in either the home of an important community member or the church.
Short or long, there are a few elements you can count on. First, music! The attendants who represent Mary and Joseph and the hosts of the party who represent the inn-keepers first stand on opposite sides of the door and sing a traditional song in which the guests ask for shelter, and the inn-keepers tell them there is no room before finally letting them in.
Once in, there is ponche, a sweet traditional hot drink made with fruit and spices that will be in your cup, piñatas and general merriment. Whether you go to one of these events or several, you are sure to have a great time!
The pastorela (pastor is “shepherd” in English) is a humorous traditional Christmas play put on during the holiday season, often by schools and churches.
The play is about shepherds following the star as they try to make their way to see Baby Jesus. Along their journey, trickster demons do their best to distract them from their path. My daughter was a demon in her school pastorela several years ago, and it was the role of a lifetime for her. It is meant to be absurdly funny, and laughter throughout is expected.
As you might guess, the shepherds defeat the demons with the help of an angel, and they arrive to see Baby Jesus, give him gifts and sing.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
Traditionally, the final posada is celebrated on Christmas Eve with a very late meal and general merriment. Christmas Day is mostly used for resting up after the big party the night before and eating left-overs, the way some of us might think of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
While the concept of Santa Claus has been gaining a foothold over the past few decades, gifts on Christmas tend to be modest and not as plentiful as most other North Americans are used to. Children may receive a few, but most are reserved for Three Kings Day.
Three Kings Day (Epiphany)
Mexicans celebrate el Día de los Reyes Magos by eating a Rosca de Reyes on January 6th (and likely for several days after depending on how big it is!). The roscais in the shape of a crown and decorated with candied fruits, a delightful surprise in and of itself.
But that is not the end of it. Hidden within the rosca is at least one (and sometimes, it seems, a billion) plastic baby Jesuses baked in. When a person receives their slice, they must inspect it for one of these tiny dolls. If their piece has one, then it means that they must make tamales for everyone on February 2nd, Candlemas Day, or if you are as talented as I am in the kitchen, you must simply buy tamales for everyone.
Children especially like this day since it is the day that they receive their gifts. The gifts are from “the Three Kings,” and much like the tradition of children telling Santa what they want for Christmas, there are opportunities for kids here to tell the Three Kings what they want, and of course have their picture taken with them.
Like any large and diverse country, traditions will vary depending on the region. In my particular area of Veracruz, one very traditional – and still very much alive – activity is to sing La Rama, which means the “branch” in English.
Here is how it works: a group of people decorate a large tree branch with tinsel and ornaments, and then go caroling around to homes and businesses. La Rama is a traditional song, and when it is over, the owner of the home or business will give a few pesos, sweets or fruits to the performers before they move on.
The singing might be professional and include traditional instruments, or it might be three kids with a homemade maraca. However it comes, it is meant to be enjoyed!
If you have spent any Christmases in Mexico before and would like to share your experiences, we would love to hear about them in the comments section below this article.
In the meantime, happy holidays from Mexico, everyone.