It all begins innocently enough. The mariachis start singing Las Mañanitas (the birthday song) to the Patron Saint of Mexico at the stroke of midnight on December 11. December 12 marks Dia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the start of the festivities with parades, fireworks and a religious mass. The Christmas season starts early — and ends officially when the last nativity scene is packed up on Candlemas (Día de la Candelaria), February 2. With miles to go before you sleep.
The image of the Virgen of Guadalupe (the Madonna with darker skin) appeared on a hill near Mexico City in 1531 and today, you will find her image everywhere from church altars to casinos. The apparition appeared to a peasant named Juan just 10 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico and this event played a huge part in converting the native Atzecs to Catholicism (or at least their own form of it). There is a midnight mass (or sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, depending on the region) and bombas (exploding sky rockets) at all hours. Many save for this important religious holiday all year. The menu on the 12th will often include Chicken Mole and Pulque (an alcoholic beverage made from the Maguey plant). And so it begins.
On December 16, Las Posadas start — there will be nine of them, one each evening until December 24. This symbolizes the nine months of pregnancy of Mary, before giving birth to baby Jesus. The posada is a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging and a candlelight procession of children, with a designated Mary and Joseph (Mary rides on a donkey or burro), wanders the neighborhood (colonia) knocking on doors. Each night, the first two houses (prearranged) will turn away the couple but the third will provide lodging, kicking off a party with pinatas and hot chocolate each evening (and perhaps something a little stronger for the adults).
The piñata, of course, is a tradition in Mexico. Filled with nuts and candies and sometimes small toys, children take turns trying to break the treasure open with a bat, while blindfolded. While the seven-point star is the most traditional, they are made in all shapes now (think Tinkerbell, Buzz Lightyear and Santa Claus, ah, consumerism). Originally, each of the seven start points represented a deadly sin (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony) and the act of breaking them with a club was to beat down the sins and then be rewarded with a shower of treats.
Another tradition is the fireworks, bombas (rockets that explode without any color) and castillos (huge pyrotechnic frames, often with spinning wheels). Many are homemade and they are everywhere during religious fiestas (and other times, too). You can’t run and you can’t hide. Often, they are set off at 4 and 5am. Yes, that’s AM. The Aztecs held prayer ceremonies in the early morning to force the sun to rise and ensure a good day. With the arrival of the Spaniards, gunpowder was incorporated and voila — fireworks and rockets became an integral part of life in Mexico. The fireworks and bombas will stop at sunrise, mission accomplished.
On December 24, Buena Noche (Good Night), the final Posada is acted and the baby Jesus is placed in the manger. In San Miguel, there is a life-size nativity scene in the Jardin, with live lambs, burros, the whole enchilada (so to speak). The night culminates with a midnight mass, called La Misa de Gallo — or the rooster’s mass. And don’t forget the skyrockets, torches and bombas. After church, families head to their homes for their big Christmas dinner and some more fiesta-like behavior, including the opening of presents. In the northern states, the influence of “Santa Clos” is evident, and the largest trove of gifts are opened on Buena Noche, with a smaller group of presents reserved for January 6. In this south, this is reversed (see Dia de Los Reyes Magos, below). Common foods include red tamales, pork tamales, sweet tamales and pozole. The celebrating lasts until late in the night (or should I say early in the morning) and Christmas Day is a much quieter affair in Mexico as everyone recovers.
The next day of note in the lineup is December 28 — Dia de los Santos Inocentes — Day of Holy Innocents, which is like April Fool’s Day north of the border. If someone calls you “Inocente! Inocente!”, you’ve just fallen for their practical joke. While it actually commemorates the day Herod sent his troops out to murder all the male babies — hoping to kill the King born in Jerusalem on December 25 — the celebration is because Jesus was not found. Overall, it’s a minor event compared to the rest of them, but a fun day.
New Years Eve is the next celebration, again with many fireworks, bombas, sparklers and people out on the streets until late at night. Lots of bar hopping and probably the best fireworks of the season. Tradition holds that if you eat 12 grapes after midnight, you will have twelve months of luck. If you’re visiting during this season and are not a good sleeper, you won’t have much luck no matter how many grapes you eat. You may find it easier to sleep in the daylight hours, leaving your nights free to participate in all these marvelous local parties.
The next major day is Dia de los Reyes Magos on January 6, celebrating the visit of the three magi, or wise men (kings), to the manger of Christ. (Did you know they were astrologers and astronomers? That’s how they found the star.) This is another day when the children get presents, and it is the original present-giving day in Mexico. The children leave their shoes out for the magi to fill with presents and will also leave hay and water for the camels — similar to leaving stockings for Santa and sugar cubes or apples for his reindeer. On December 5, the children write letters to the magi, asking for the gifts they want. They tie them to colorful helium balloons and let them fly off into the sky to reach their benefactors: Balthazar, Melchor and Gaspar. On January 5 in San Miguel, an all-night market is set up with over 700 vendors and you can be sure the bombas will be going off.
The traditional Kings Cake (Rosca de Reyes) – a sweet cake with candied fruit – is served and there is more good cheer. A figure of the baby Jesus is hidden inside the cake, the person who gets Jesus in his slice must throw a party on February 2, for the celebration of Candlemas (Día de la Candelaria) and they must serve tamales. Those are the rules. In addition, in some circles, they must purchase a new dress for the baby Jesus doll to wear when taken to church on Candlemas. This holiday, by the way, falls on the 12th day of Christmas — and this is what the song refers to. And the hidden baby Jesus? It symbolizes hiding the newborn child from Harrod.
12 cups water
1 large onion, quartered
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons salt
4 cups red chili sauce*
3/4 cup shortening
6 cups masa harina (available in most supermarkets)
2 teaspoons baking powder
40 dried corn husks
Directions: In a large pot, bring pork, water, onion, garlic and half the salt to boil. Simmer covered, about 3 hours until meat is tender. Remove meat from broth and allow to cool. Shred the meat Strain the broth and reserve 6 cups. In a large sauce pan, heat the red chili sauce and add meat; simmer, covered for 10 minutes. Beat shortening on medium speed in a large bowl for 1 minute. In a separate bowl, stir together masa harina, baking powder and remaining salt. Add masa harina mixture and broth to shortening, alternating, and beating well after each addition.
In the meantime, soak corn husks in warm water for at least 30 minutes; To assemble each tamale, spread 2 tablespoons of the masa mixture on the center of the corn husk.. Place about 1 tablespoon meat and sauce mixture in the middle of the masa. Fold in sides of husk and fold up the bottom. Using a bamboo steamer, bring water to boil and reduce heat. Cover and steam 40 minutes, adding water when necessary. Makes 40 Tamales. Like the 40 days between Christmas and Candlemas.
*You can purchase red chile sauce in a bottle or can – or you can make your own – a google search will turn up many good recipes.
And so we come to the final Christmas fiesta/celebration: Candlemas (Día de la Candelaria) on February 2, corresponding with the day that Jesus was taken to the temple the first time, 40 days after Christmas. Many Mexican families have a Jesus doll (niño Dios) which is dressed up and brought to the church this day to be blessed. It is also known as the Feast of Candles, and many locals bring candles to the church to be blessed. And then, there is the party, hosted by the one who got the baby Jesus in the cake on January 6, and tamales are required. All told, the season spans 52 days — and then it’s all over and the nativity and other decorations are put away. It is also the mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox — and Ground Hog Day north of the border.
For those who are sorry that the Christmas season ever has come to a close, take heart. February 5 is Constitution Day (quite a big deal) and February 24 is Flag Day. Elaborate celebrations preceding Easter begin April 6 this year, with at least two full weeks of parades and parties including the blowing up of a papier-maché Judas (see video below) and reenactments of Christ’s suffering on the Cross. Be sure to get some rest before the Easter marathon begins — a few siestas before the next fiestas. Viva México!