While countries like the US and the UK celebrate Christmas over perhaps a three-day period at best, from December 24th to 26th, Mexico goes one better – almost one month better actually! Festivities across the country begin on December 12th and extend right through to January 6th the following year. So just how exactly is this holiday period celebrated?
- Everything gets kicked off with the tradition of Posadas. While this literally translates to ‘inn’, over the yuletide period it refers to a series of processions or parties in which both children and adults participate. Traditionally, each night from December 16th through to Christmas Eve, various houses are decorated and children pass from door to door to sing a song and ask if there’s a figurative ‘room at the inn’. This recreation of the Christmas tale which sees Mary and Joseph doing much the same thing only ends on Christmas Eve when they are finally invited in to celebrate and enjoy the party. In practice though, a posada most commonly refers to a generic Christmas party enjoyed in the run-up to the festive season, with an abundance of food, drink and, of course, piñatas.
Aside from the posada tradition, Mexico is well-known for its love of an over-the-top Nativity scene, or Nacimiento. While many houses will lay out their own interpretation, town centers also go mad for the tradition, with many places creating huge replicas of the manger, surrounded by animals, the Three Kings and shepherds. Baby Jesus, the undeniable main attraction, isn’t added until December 24th however.
Speaking of which, in Mexico, unlike the US and the UK, Christmas Eve bears the brunt of the festivities rather than December 25th proper. Otherwise known as Noche Buena, Mexicans will typically take part in the final Posada celebrations before enjoying a large and extravagant family meal and heading to mass to ring in Christmas Day. It isn’t uncommon for there to be fireworks and heaps of poinsettia flowers (a.k.a. flores de nochebuena) present during this time either. As in most of the Western world, the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree has also taken off in Mexico. Again, in town centres right over the festive period, you’re likely to come across enormous examples in the central plaza, decked out with lights and decorations to mark the occasion.
An additional Christmas period celebration in Mexico is that of Día de Los Santos Inocentes on December 28th, not to be confused with Día de Los Angelitos which takes place on November 1st. The most straightforward explanation for this day of mischief-making is that it’s the Mexican version of April Fools’ Day.
But what about Santa Claus?! Well, he does ‘exist’ (so to speak) in Mexican Christmas celebrations, although he stops by Mexico on the evening of December 23rd and early hours of December 24th to leave presents. Typically, Mexican children used to expect the delivery of their much longed for gifts on the Día de Los Reyes (January 6th, otherwise known as Epiphany). They would write a letter to the Reyes Magos, before sending it into the sky tied to a balloon and leaving a shoe on their windowsill in which to receive the presents. While this tradition endures in the south of the country, most other places have adopted a more Western approach to present delivery. Even without presents though, January 6th marks an important date in the Mexican Christmas calendar, as it’s when the sweet bread known as Rosca de Reyes is eaten. Hidden within this oval-shaped loaf, which is decorated with jellied sweets, are tiny figurines of baby Jesus. But you don’t want to be the one to find him in your slice, because tradition dictates that the Jesus-finder must buy everyone tamales on February 2nd during Candelaria, or Candlemas.
While celebrations are generally the same format across the country, there are still some regional traditions worth mentioning, most notably Oaxaca’s Noche de Rábanos (Radish Night) which is held annually on December 23rd and celebrates all things created from radishes. In Yucatan, there’s a Mexican take on Christmas caroling over the festive period, whereas the State of Mexico’s Tepoztlán, in contrast, is known for its pastorelas, or Nativity plays.
In the run-up to the festive period when the nights are drawing in and the temperatures are dropping in most parts of the country, it’s not uncommon to indulge in a warming champurrado or atole of an evening. Atole is an Aztec-in-origin, corn-based drink that can be found in various different flavors, whereas a champurrado is typically a thicker beverage, made with corn dough plus water or milk, chocolate and a hint of vanilla. As with an atole, this drink can also be adapted flavor-wise. Both atole and champurrado are typically consumed with the ever-present tamal or the crispy, sugary and cinnamon flavored snacks, buñuelos. Speaking of which, tamales are a festive food favorite in Mexico, and you might even find yourself growing bored of them by the end of the Christmas period given the large quantities that some families prepare them in and their seemingly constant presence at traditional posadas.
Other drinks of the festive season include the deliciously creamy rompope creation, which is akin to alcoholic eggnog, and the warming, fruity flavors of ponche. This concoction includes several ingredients such as apple, guava, lime, tamarind, sultanas, and the crucial component, sugar cane. Often served with cinnamon for extra flavor, you can get alcohol-free versions or those that have an extra kick of warmth in the form of piquete, or rather, a splash of alcohol.
When it comes to Christmas eating, though, the date to mark in your calendar is Christmas Eve, the traditional time when Mexican families gather to indulge in their largest meal of the period. As in many other countries, turkey (known as pavo or guajolote) is often the centerpiece of the meal, accompanied by that classic standby of Mexican cuisine, mole. However, it’s not uncommon for families to serve a sugary joint of pineapple-topped ham or even the traditionally festive bacalao. Bacalao is essentially salted codfish and is typically served in a stew, although other methods of preparation exist. Alternative Christmas Eve dishes include pozole, a pork and corn-based stew served with fresh onion and radish, although this tends to be more heavily associated with Independence Day.
Accompanying the main dish at the Mexican Christmas dinner are several side dishes that are often slightly more regional in popularity. One such example is romerito, which was once a favorite at Mexican dinner tables, but has waned in popularity over recent years. A kind of hash, the dish consists of a leafy vegetable, alongside potatoes and prawns in a mole sauce. Alternatively, you might see an Ensalada de Noche Buena on the table. While ingredients vary across the country depending on availability, this salad typically includes lettuce, beetroot, jicama, nuts, and fruits, before being topped with pomegranate seeds.
Christmas Day is a time to relax, lounge around and enjoy time with family. While the main meal may have been and gone (or, based on the amount of dishes served up, perhaps it hasn’t gone just yet!), there are still plenty of treats to be had. One of the best parts of a Mexican Christmas celebration is the recalentado, or leftovers! This can be in the form of a turkey mole, or even just the tamales that have been accumulating in the fridge throughout the festive period; either way, it’s delicious. Even after Christmas has officially come and gone, Mexicans don’t stop with the seasonal treats. With the arrival of King’s Day (Día de Reyes), on January 6th, comes the rosca de reyes. This is an oval shaped sweet bread, topped with jellied sweets and usually eaten accompanied by a mug of hot chocolate. Within each loaf are tiny baby Jesus figurines, which are to be avoided at all costs – if your slice has a Jesus couched within, you have to buy everyone tamales!