One of our guests at the Luna Blue Hotel & Garden recently saw us putting up the Christmas tree in the hotel and asked, quite seriously, “Do they have Christmas here in Mexico?” We explained that Mexico has been celebrating Christmas for a long time and that it has holiday customs that are some of the oldest in the world.
||Fishes in the River
The Virgin is combing her hair
between the curtains.
Her hairs are of gold
and the comb of fine silver.
But look at how the fishes
in the river drink.
But look how they drink
in order to see God born.
They drink and they drink
and they return to drink,
the fishes in the river,
to see God being born.
Traditionally Christmas in Mexico has been less about gifts and consumerism and more about religious celebrations and family gatherings. The holiday season lasts from December 15th until Jan 6th. The city governments close except for police and emergency workers. Schools are out, and the children begin the long difficult wait for presents and parties. In the evening small groups of kids will stroll the main streets carrying a large tree branch decorated with tinsel and bulbs. Sometimes they also carry pictures of religious icons like the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. The kids then will stop at a house or store or even tableside at a restaurant and begin to sing. Usually off key, almost always too fast as they hurry through the song, they still manage to look adorable as they do it. One of the more popular songs they sing, in Spanish of course, is Peces en El Rio (Fishes in the River).
Afterwards, they wait for a reward of candy or a few pesos before heading off, the little ones’ hands held by older brothers and sisters, the young teenagers quickly pulling out cell phones to call friends between songs (some things are universal).
By December 20, people will have received their aguinaldos. This is the Christmas bonus which every employer is required by law to provide in their employees’ paychecks mid-December. It’s equivalent to about two weeks pay. It is also a tradition that employees are given gifts, usually in the form of food or household items. To make gift giving easier, stores offer pre-packaged gifts boxes or bags, called despensas, which generally include different types of food, such as rice, beans, corn meal, etc.
By now, the city has begun to decorate. Playa del Carmen, being well-off financially, is able to afford lots of decorations. Palm trees and bushes are strung with Christmas lights up and down the main avenues. A large crèche is set up outside of City Hall. It’s interesting to note there is no separation of religion and government here. Mexico is primarily Catholic and openly displays that fact.
As the season proceeds, more and more people attend Posada celebrations. The Gospel says that Joseph and his wife Mary (pregnant with Jesus) could not find room at the inn (la posada) until one kind person let them stay in the stable. This story is acted out as people go to dinners with family and friends. People carry candles and sparklers and sing a request for admittance to the dinner. They are denied until a statue of the baby Jesus is shown and then all are invited in. In modern times the Posada dinner has become the primary way to celebrate even for businesses. Employers are expected to have a Posada for their employees and families.
We held our own Posada a few nights ago. We invited our employees and regular workers and ended up with about 40 people. Many brought families, including adult children with their families, visiting relatives from out of town and a few friends they picked up along the way. We served a traditional Posada menu of posole (traditional Mexican soup made of pork and corn), chicken and pork tamales in red, green and mole sauces; and tamales of rajas con queso (one of the best things we’ve ever eaten). For dessert, there were sweetened fruits wrapped in corn husks. In addition, ponche navideño, a strong, spicy punch served warm with large pieces of tropical fruits floating in it, was served. A bottle of rum is set next to the ponche bowl (we chose Havana Club, our favorite) so that adults could liberally spike their punch as they wished.
We hired a large mariachi band to play traditional songs. Normally a Posada would have a piñata for the children, but because of space limitations we opted for gift bags of toys & candy for all the kids. They were a big hit. There were also presents for our employees and other workers. A good time was had by all.
Next on the holiday calendar is Christmas Eve. Known as Noche Buena (the “Good Night”), it is the big celebration of the season. People will attend church and have family dinners. This is also when families and friends exchange gifts. Sadly for the kids, mostly they will receive practical gifts like clothes (just like you used to get from your grandparents). But don’t despair, on January 6, Three Kings Day (Dia de los Tres Reyes) arrives. Celebrating the three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus, children awake to find toys and other presents brought during the night by the three kings. The holiday season then comes to a close.
Many of Mexico’s holiday traditions continue today as they have for many years. However, more and more American/European style Christmas customs are making their way south of the border. Christmas trees have become very popular here. So has the figure of Santa Claus. Stores play English language Christmas music continually and offer holiday sales much like one finds in the US. The manger scene set up at City Hall now competes with a gigantic Christmas tree. Last year it was festooned with giant elf dolls which looked amazingly like maniacal Cabbage Patch Kids crossed with Chucky the homicidal puppet. It was actually kind of creepy. However thankfully this year the dolls have been replaced by lights in the shapes of poinsettias, the traditional Christmas flower of Mexico, here called Flor de Nochebuena.
Despite these changes, Mexico still has not caught the Christmas shopping fever that exists back in the States. The holiday spirit here is calmer, quieter and less about things and more about family. We think it’s kinda nice. We’ll be celebrating Christmas with our son Christopher who has joined us from his home in San Diego. We have decorated our tree and have already watched a Charlie Brown Christmas (probably not for the last time). We are listening constantly to our 150 Christmas CDs, including a few we just picked up in the States. We will be working at the hotel on Christmas Eve but are planning on taking Christmas day off. We’ll start with a big breakfast of praline pecan pancakes (courtesy of Harry & David back in the States) followed by an exchange of gifts by the tree. Later that day we’ll have a family Christmas dinner, including a honey bourbon glazed ham for us and chili-cheese enchiladas for Chris, who is a vegetarian. And Christmas day will also include our newest tradition: heading down to the beach and swimming in the Caribbean Sea to celebrate.
We hope all of our friends and readers of this blog will have a happy and peaceful holiday, however you celebrate.
Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo,
Tony & Cheri