In Mexico old traditions die slowly and despite the 20th century commercialized tinsel and glitter seen around Christmas time, holiday customs have remained practically unchanged. Unlike the United States and Northern Europe where feasting and exchanging gifts are reserved for Christmas Day, Mexicans celebrate on the Eve of December 24th, the last posada, which is the culmination of 9 days of processions and parties of Dias de Los Santos Peregrinos. Christmas Day itself is considered a holy day and the atmosphere is imbued with an air of piety. Restaurants, offices and shops are closed and the towns are enveloped in quiet sobriety where even the roosters, dogs and burros seem to be in peaceful relaxation. |
Noche Buena, Night of Goodwill or Christmas Eve, is observed with religious and secular practices reflecting the customs of Spanish colonial days with many primitive overtones. Though the Spanish conquerors tried to suppress most pagan rites in their attempt to Christianize the native population, the missioners encouraged the Indians to dedicate their songs and dances to the Christian God and the saints, incorporating them into Catholic ceremony and celebrations. Thus in many localities today, nativity plays and primitive folk dances are still part and parcel of the Christmas expression. Some of the most traditional interpretations of the events surrounding the birth of the child Jesus are well documented and flawlessly performed by Miguel Sabido at the Teatro Ritual Popular Mexicano in Mexico City.
In La Manzanilla, contests of pastorelas or nativity tableaux are held and every playwright in the city comes out with his own version of the Christmas story. Those shepherds' plays are native folk theatre, childlike, innocent, rowdy, farcical inventions involving citizens from all walls of life. The pastorela is as Mexican as a cactus, and is kept alive and folksy for all the folk who love it.
In Quiroga, Michoacan, amateur actors and dancers present Pastorales or Paradise plays in the beautiful settings provided by the colonial sites of the city. These plays date back to medieval times and are the reenactment of the legend of Adam and Evets expulsion from Paradise and end in Bethlehem with the coming of Jesus. The viejitos or Little Old Men dance is performed in the atrium of the church and in the green lush patios of the houses beautifully ornamented for Christmas. The people of the houses give away aguinaldos or little bags of candies to the children after the performances.
In Vera Cruz, Las Fiestas Navidenas start on Christmas Eve and finish with Epiphany on January 6th, the Day of Three Kings. Jarocho music (typical Vera Cruz music) is played throughout the week with small guitars (jaranas and requinitos) and harps (arpas) or by strolling marimba bands making the gayest sounds ever heard. Nightly, regional dances of the Christmas Huapanjos with jarocho music are presented in the town square. According to tradition, many of the ethnic groups of the area wearing their particular native dress (all so different and varied), perform their lively dances including the impressive Palo Volador or flying pole, the touching Marqueses danced by the children and the unforgettable Culebra or snake dance. All festivities take place with a carefree spirit and with much jarama or carousing.
Another Spanish colonial town, Queretaro, carries on the Christmas customs in a more subdued and disciplined tone in the fashion of the Spanish aristocracy. On Christmas Eve, there is a grand parade with marching bands, charros in all their silver glitter on horseback and monos or dwarfs with huge papier mache heads similar to those used for fiestas in Spain. Special mules pull decorated carriages or calandria representing various biblical episodes with both live actors and carved images. All of this is followed by a quiet family oriented midnight supper.
After the last posada in Tuxpan, Jalisco, the Holy Family or Nacimiento is paraded through the town and is glorified with folk dances such as Moros y Christianos (Moors and Christians) and Sonajeros (Rattlers). A rare pre‑Hispanic dance, Paixtle, is performed by masked dancers completely covered with moss along with the dance of the region called Chayacates for which the performers wear long hair and deer horns. The town folk, young and old, in native dress endlessly perform these stirring dances throughout the night, accompanied by homemade instruments: drams, violins and reed flutes.
Christmas Eve is uniquely recognized as the Night of the Radishes or Las Fiestas de Los Rabanos in Oaxaca, because the local grown large radishes are in season. Horticulturists hold a large exhibition of their produce, including beautiful floral arrangements and clever little figures carved from the radishes. The town plaza and surrounding stalls are decorated with the radish sculptures and a prize is awarded to the best artist. The night is climaxed by an old practice of eating bunelos, the traditional Christmas wafer, floating in a cracked clay dish of syrup. One must hurl the plate into the air and let it smash to the ground. By midnight, the plaza is heaped with broken pottery and everyone is having a smashing good time drinking pulque and chicha (see Index).
The nativity scene is the traditionally hallowed element of all these posadas and pastoral plays. It is a symbol of renovation and ……….rms an indispensable part of all the Christmas celebrations everywhere in Mexico, which inspires the Mexican artisan to interpret the concept in every possible type of medium. From Italy, in the early 13th Century, popular belief tells us that the initiator of the joyful creations of the nacimiento was Frances of Assisi, the saint who personifies love. The fascinating and charming folk art was further spread by Carlos III and brought to Mexico by Fray de Pedro Gante. This Franciscan monk worked industriously with the Indian population and while teaching arts and occupations, he encouraged the use of native skills to recreate the nativity figures needed in the Christmas processions. Today, the Indian and Meztizo artisans combine the earthly and the divine in a hope for a better life and express this hope in figures and colors which blend tenderness with gaiety. Perhaps the most famous and popular nacimientos are the miniature figures, highly ornate polychromed ceramic forms which are hand molded in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco. In addition to the traditional members of the Holy Family, balloon and taco vendors, water carriers and other quaint types appear on the scene, with whom the poorer classes are familiar in their daily activities. No less artistic and even more symbolic are the small dried everlasting flowers which the people of Ocotlan, Oaxaca, use to form a half moon cradle to crudely hold the three actors in the divine drama, the Christ Child, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. In contrast to this sobriety, the explosion of Indian baroque in clay at Metepac, State of Mexico, is a veritable festival of interwoven forms and colors sprang from the deepest layers of Mexican nationality; with its rosy archangels, virgins in embroidered cloaks, kings riding magenta elephants and camels along with the traditional animals of the manger decorated with flowers. A magnificent pottery "Tree of Life" may be included among a throng of biblical figures. And not to be omitted are the fantastic or surrealistic figures of Santa Crux, Jalisco, where the unglazed polychromed ceramic biblical characters are mixed with mariachi bands and strangely costumed figures of the tactoanes (ancient lords) in Noah's Ark.
Yearly, an immense exhibition of nacimientos are on view at the National Auditorium in Mexico City as part of the "Exhibition of Revival of Our Traditions". A fabulous giant nativity scene is featured at Guadalajara's Christmas Tianguis (impromptu open market) in Plaza Tapatia, with life sized figures and real animals, sheep, a donkey and a bull. Award winning original handmade interpretations from local church groups, schools and villages also attract thousands of spectators. Many families spend weeks in preparation of the nativity scene which often spills over onto several tables and makeshift platforms. The nacimientos navidenos are the main center attraction at traditional Christmas Eve dinners. At the stroke of midnight, the figure of Baby Jesus is placed in his cradle in the manger, which signals the time to open gifts brought by the Niño Jesus and not by Santa Claus. According to another tradition, thyme was part of the straw bed of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child; it was a major herb and thus is always included in the nativity scene.
The Christmas tree, which was originally an evergreen tree decorated with apples to represent the first fruits of sin in the Garden of Eden in the Paradise Plays, takes many forms in Mexico where fir trees are scarce. The tree plays a secondary role to the importance of the nativity scene and is recreated from the natural foliage of each region. Thus it is not uncommon to see an amaranth tumblewood festooned with wafer thin ceramic shapes representing the life saving fruit of the sacrament and candles symbolizing Christ as the Light of the World.
In recent years, La Manzanilla, the one time sleeping fishing village, now under the influence of its tourist trade and its young modern population, has slowly slipped into a mini-gringo‑ized Christmas production. Tinsel and Christmas lights decorate the city's main streets and a life size realistic creche is set up in front of the fountain in the main square. Pastel colored plastic trees with electric lights and baubles simulating the cold climate Noel, adorn the hotels, shops, offices and homes. The first snow birds arriving from the North in the guise of Santa Claus come loaded down with stateside goodies and Christmas parties with lavish buffets and holiday cheer a la Madison Avenue abound in many homes. The traditionalists, referring to most of the Mexicans in La Manzanilla, however still participate enthusiastically in the last posada on Christmas Eve and solemnly attend a midnight mass (Misa de Gallo), part of which is delivered in English at the main church off the central plaza. A midnight supper of elaborate traditional dishes follows, which is a veritable showcase of Mexican cooking. In prosperous Puerto Vallarta, this prolific spread includes the usual six courses of a festive supper or cena; appetizer or entremes, soup of sopa, fish entree or entrada, meat or fowl entree or platillo fuerte, dessert or postre, coffee or chocolat' with sugar symbol cookies. A few additional delicacies are added before the meal with a punch and after with a Brandy snifter, just because it is fiesta time, which means eating and drinking in Mexico. Plenty of wine flows and a special lager ale produced for this night, called Cerveza de Noche Buena, is offered between courses. Fresh field ripened fruit (fruta de tiempo) are liberally used to complete a full course meal, followed by a fine Mexican brandy to sip reflectively in peace and goodwill.
The special dishes for this once a year gastronomic event keep reappearing year after year as tradition dictates in Mexico.
A white tablecloth, multicolor candles, a centerpiece of a potted poinsettia (flor de la Pascua or flor de Noche Buena) and a bowl of holiday punch with punch cups create a warm and inviting picture. A large variety of colorful Mexican specialties decorated with Christmas greens turn the serving table into a veritable horizontal Christmas tree overflowing with surprises.
An elegant and colorful table d' hote may be any combination of the following items. For openers, a spicy mulled punch with raw sugar cane and wild crabapples is offered along with appetizers of codfish a la Vizcaina and pork liver pate. The formal menu really starts with an oyster soup and a homemade holiday bread and is followed by an entrada of little shrimp cakes on a bed of cooked greens and cactus strips called revoljito or a half portion of cold stuffed red snapper. While turkey in mole sauce (see Index) is the classical dish and a must for this most joyous of all the Mexican fiestas, the food most relished is a roasted suckling pig served on hot tortillas and smothered with a drunken chile sauce of tequila. An added modern touch may be a sweet potato stuffing for the piglet alongside the customary beans and rice dishes. In the coastal regions, a large fresh fish stuffed with seafood is the delicacy of choice for the platillo fuerte or main course. A huge crunchy salad known as Ensalada de Noche Buena is an unusual mixture of cooked vegetables, raw fruit and raw sugar cane. It is an old colonial dish, an ensalada de dames, which repeats itself yearly at the Christmas Eve table. Baked pineapple with custard sauce is a most characteristic dessert of an already rich meal any time of the year, but especially so for the midnight super supper fete.
As one delves into these gustatory delights and samples the cornucopia of plenty available in Mexico, one needs to remember that in the humble thatched hots, where more than one third of the population dwell, just one lone stewing hen is affordable once a year. At Christmas, these poor poverty stricken descendants of the Aztecs buy one fowl and prepare a dish called Gallina a la Mexicana, with the same ingredients and by the same methods used by their ancestors. Once a ritual food served only to give thanks to the gods, it is now affordable just once a year to be relished and shared among many in a communal fashion for the Christmas fiesta.
The traditional way you celebrate Christmas is deeply rooted in your family history, religion and the place where you live. I would not presume to suggest that you change these treasured observances and sentiments, but I can offer ideas which may be incorporated into those wonderful plans for home entertaining during the winter holiday season. The quite elaborate menu described above can readily be simplified to suit your taste and needs. Reduce it to a mulled fruit punch bowl with a simple pork pate hors d'oeuvre, one fish appetizer, one main meat dish with salad and dessert. Or simply fill the punch bowl and the cookie jar, hang a garland of tropical greens with mistletoe (muerdago) and open your door to your neighbors with a cup of good cheer and a Christmas aguinaldo sweet like bunelo wafers for the children. To help set the joyous mood, dig up your old Christmas records and cassettes like "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" or Crosby's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". Better yet, treat yourself to a Christmas present. Buy Christmas records in Spanish and sing along "Noche de Paz, Noche de Amor" or "Silent Night". "Navidad, Hoy es Navidad, Es un dia de alegria y felicidad" to the tune of "Jingle Bells" is easy to learn. And old popular carol reminds us "Esta nache es Nochebuena y no es noche de dormir" "This is Christmas Eve and it's no night to sleep". So make merry. Feliz Navidad!! Feliz Pascuas!!
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