How Are Christmas Traditions Celebrated in Mexico?
Mexican Christmas Celebrations and Traditions
When most English-speakers think of Christmas, they think of the customs and traditions which originated in Northern Europe, like Christmas trees, evergreen wreaths, Santa Claus, mistletoe, and more. However, Mexican Christmas traditions are very different from the holiday celebrations in the USA. Christmas in Mexico is influenced by Spanish as well as indigenous culture.
In this article, we'll go through some of the traditions that people in Mexico celebrate at Christmas time, but keep in mind that many of these customs and their celebration vary across Mexico from region to region. Many of them are also changing with the influence of other cultures (most notably that of the United States).
Read on to find out more about:
- Important dates in the Mexican Christmas season
- Traditional Mexican Christmas food
- Other traditions like decorations and Christmas entertainment
Fun Fact: The Wise Men Bring the Gifts in Mexico!
In the US, it's Santa who brings children gifts on Christmas Eve. In Mexico, however, the big day of gift-giving is January 6th, called "Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos" (Three King's Day). This is the date that wise men brought gifts to the Christ child.
How Christmas Got Its Start in Mexico
Christianity arrived in Mexico along with Spanish Catholic priests in the 16th century. With the priests and Catholicism came the celebration of Christian holidays, including Christmas.
Some of the Christmas traditions that Mexicans celebrate today are a result of the influence of these first priests, though many have grown and changed over time, and others have been added as a result of interactions with other cultures.
The Christmas traditions in Mexico today are a blend of indigenous culture, Spanish heritage, and many other influences.
Important Dates in the Mexican Christmas Season
December 3rd: Start of the novenas to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe
December 12th: Feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe
December 16th–24th: Las Posadas
December 24th: Christmas Eve (Nochebuena)
December 25th: Christmas Day (Navidad)
December 28th: Day of the Sainted Innocents (Dia de los Santos Inocentes)
January 6th: Three Kings Day (Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos)
February 2nd: Candlemas (La Candelaria)
Celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe: December 3rd–12th
In Mexico, Christmas is not just a single day, but a whole season of Christmas-related celebrations which stretches from December 3rd through February 2nd.
The Christmas season starts with celebrations that honor the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, a powerful symbol of Mexico who plays a huge role in the country's political and religious history.
December 3rd marks the start of a nine-day novena to the Virgin of Guadalupe. A novena is a Christian tradition of devotional praying that consists of private or public prayers repeated for nine successive days.
December 12th, the end of the novena, is the feast day of the Virgin. The feast celebrates the fourth time that the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, a devout Indian man born in 1474. On this day, many people of Mexican heritage (both in Mexico and abroad), celebrate with processions, special masses, serenades, dancing, and singing of the traditional song "Las Mañanitas" to honor the Lady of Guadalupe.
Some make pilgrimages to her shrine on a hill in Mexico City or other religious sites that venerate her. In some places, young boys dress up as Juan Diego and go to church to be blessed, in remembrance of how the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac (which is now within Mexico City).
Las Posadas: December 16th–24th
Then begins the season of las posadas. The name comes from the Spanish word for "inn," because of the role of an inn in the Christmas story. Posadas are processions or parties that take place to celebrate the Christmas season. They can take a variety of forms.
In their most traditional, they are processions (complete with candles and singing) in which children take the part of Mary and Joseph and go out into the neighborhood with a parade of other friends and family members to re-enact the part of the Christmas story where Mary and Joseph try to find a place to stay in Nazareth. Throughout the neighborhood, the children approach different houses looking for shelter. In one tradition, they are "rejected" from two houses before the third one takes them in.
In another, the procession divides into two at one house. Half of the group (on the outside) sings the part of the peregrinos, representing the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph, and the unborn Christ child) as they request shelter. The other half plays the part of the innkeeper. Eventually, the peregrinos are admitted and there is a party in the house, with food and drink like tamales, atole, buñuelos, and ponche (more on this below). There also might be a piñata!
The posada is one of the traditions that Spanish priests began in order to teach indigenous people about Christianity. The piñata was also a teaching tool. In its most traditional form, it has seven points, which represent the seven deadly sins. Its vessel represents Satan, which looks attractive and holds worldly goods, and the stick represents the Christian faith.
Though traditional posadas are now most frequently found in rural and low-income areas of Mexico, these eight days are still filled with parties in the evening to celebrate family and friends.
Christmas Eve: December 24th
On Nochebuena (Christmas Eve), it is traditional for Mexican families to attend midnight mass before returning home to a late-night feast that includes foods like bacalao, ham, turkey, and mole, with ponche to drink. Gifts are not usually given at this time, but this is changing with increasing cultural influence from the USA. Santa has started coming to Mexico!
Christmas Day: December 25th
Called La Navidad in Spanish, Christmas Day is a fairly quiet day to spend with family members and recuperate from the big celebration the night before.
Day of the Sainted Innocents: December 28th
December 28th, or Dia de los Santos Inocentes, originally marked the day when King Herod ordered the killing of all newborn boys in the village of Bethlehem to keep the Christ from arriving.
In Mexico, this has come to be celebrated as a day of practical jokes and tricks, like April Fool's Day. It is said that you do not have to return anything that someone lends you on this day.
New Year's Eve and New Year's Day: Dec 31st and Jan 1st
New Year's Eve is celebrated in Mexico much like it is in other parts of the world—including parties and fireworks. One special tradition is eating twelve grapes quickly right at midnight—each grape is supposed to bring good luck for each month of the New Year.
Three Kings Day: January 6th
Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos celebrates the visit of the three kings to the newborn Christ child. This is the day when people usually give gifts (though this has started to also happen on Christmas Eve), though the gift-giving is not as important as the religious celebrations or time spent with the family. A certain food called rosca plays an important role on this day.
Rosca is a round fruit cake or bread that is baked in the shape of a circle. Also baked inside is a little figurine of baby Jesus. Whoever finds the figurine in their piece of rosca is responsible for paying for the tamales and atole of the Candlemas celebration. Tamales and atole are also served on this day alongside the rosca.
Note: Around the world in other Christian countries, this day is celebrated as the day of Epiphany.
Candlemas: February 2nd
Dia de la Candelaria is the last day of the Mexican Christmas season. On this date, Mexicans bring the infant Jesus from their nativity scenes to church to receive a special blessing. Afterwards, families share tamales and atole (described below). This is the food that the person who found the Christ child in the rosca on Three King's Day is supposed to have purchased.
Mexican Christmas Food
Mexico has a wonderful tradition of food, using a rich cornucopia of flavors to create dishes which delight people around the world. Many people know foods like guacamole, burritos, pico de gallo (hot salsa), and quesadillas, but what kind of dishes are enjoyed at Christmas time?
Tamales are a dish made of seasoned meat (or other fillings) wrapped in cornmeal dough and baked or steamed in a corn husk or a banana peel. Tamales are often eaten on holidays, including during Las Posadas, Candlemas, Christmas Eve, and Three Kings Day. Since they are very time-consuming to make, there are often tamale-making parties—or tamaladas—where people get together in order to help make all of the tamales necessary for a party.
Ponche (con Piquete)
Ponche is a warm spiced fruit drink that is served all throughout the Christmas season, including at parties during Las Posadas as well as on Christmas Eve and New Year's. Though the recipes can vary widely, in general, it is made from simmering sugar, cinnamon, and seasonal fruits like tejocote and guava. Adults might add rum or tequila to the drink (which is the piquete—sting).
Many Latin American countries have some version of the buñuelo, which is a treat made of fried dough. In Mexico, buñuelos are flat and round—almost like a thin, crispy cookie—and are topped with powdered sugar or a sweet drizzle. They are served all throughout the holiday season, especially during Las Posadas (with ponche!)
Atole is another warm drink that, though consumed all year round, is very popular during the holiday season, especially for Candlemas. It is a sweetened drink based on masa (corn hominy flour) that also generally consists of water, unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Some versions also add fruit or chocolate.
Rosca is mentioned above—it is a cake or pastry baked in the shape of a circle and served on Three Kings Day (also called Epiphany in other parts of the Catholic world). Somewhere inside the cake, a little figurine of the baby Jesus is baked in—the person who finds the figurine or the trinket is responsible for providing tamales and atole on Candlemas. Recipes for the cake vary, though they are often decorated or baked with candied fruits.
Bacalao is a European import to Mexico where it's taken on its own unique flavors—it is a dish made of reconstituted dried, salted fish that is combined with other ingredients like tomatoes, onions, green olives, chiles, and garlic to make a kind of stew. This dish is often served for the midnight Christmas Eve feast as well as throughout the Christmas season.
Revoltijo de Romerita
Often served as part of the Christmas Eve feast, Revoltijo de Romerita is a dish that consists of dried shrimp, nopales, potatoes, and romeritos cooked in a mole sauce with ingredients like ancho, mulato, and pasilla chiles as well as almonds, cinnamon, garlic, onions, and breadcrumbs. Romeritos are a Mexican green that looks like rosemary and have a taste that some say resembles that of spinach.
In addition to tasty food and lots of religious events, there are also some other customs that play a big role in Christmas in Mexico.
The singing of carols (villancicos) is a common custom. There are many Christmas songs in the Spanish language which are traditionally sung in Mexico. Some are religious carols such as Noche de Paz (the Spanish language version of Silent Night), or Los Peces en el Rio (a traditional Mexican Christmas carol) and others are fun songs like Feliz Navidad.
Pastorelas are a traditional form of Christmas play in Mexico that are done by various groups—both amateur and professional—throughout the Christmas season. The word roughly translates to "shepherd's plays," and they began many centuries ago when Catholic priests would act out scenes from the Bible to teach the local population about Christianity. The tradition has grown into more humorous stories of the eternal struggle between good and evil.
Traditionally, the plays begin with an angel announcing the birth of Christ to a group of shepherds who then try to follow the star of Bethlehem to find the Christ child. On their way, however, they are delayed by continual attempts by the Devil to keep them from arriving.
Pastorelas can vary significantly from one to the next with the actors often improvising the script and different elements added based on the audience. The most traditional kind can be found in rural areas.
Flor de Nochebuena
This is perhaps the Mexican Christmas decoration which English-speakers are most familiar with—the red poinsettia flowers that adorn many Mexican and American homes and Christmas displays at Christmas time. There is a Mexican legend about how the flowers came to be associated with Christmas:
One Christmas Eve (nochebuena) a poor girl picked a few weeds to bring to church for the baby Jesus, for she could not afford anything else. The other people in her neighborhood looked down on her, but she believed that Jesus would appreciate any gift given in love. When she arrived at church, the weeds bloomed into a wonderful bunch of red flowers with thick green leaves. Then all the people around knew that they had witnessed a true Christmas miracle.
Nacimientos—or nativity scenes—are the most important part of Christmas decorations in Mexico. As in other parts of the world, the scene depicts the Holy Family, shepherds, and angels. The three kings are added on January 6th. In addition, Mexican renditions of the nativity scene often incorporate Spanish moss and don't add the actual Christ child until Christmas Eve.
On Candlemas, families bring the Christ child from their nativity scenes to the church for a blessing, often dressed in ornate clothing.
I hope you enjoyed learning about some Mexican Christmas traditions—Feliz Navidad!
© 2011 Marie McKeown