Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and candy canes are some of the most common symbols associated with Christmas north of the border, but holiday images and traditions developed differently in Mexico, which reveals a strong Spanish influence due to Mexico’s colonial past. While the decorations, foods, and observations vary from the way the holidays are celebrated in the United States, there exist some Mexican holiday traditions you might like to incorporate into your own family’s celebrations.
Poinsettia flowers, so popular as a Christmas decoration in the United States, are actually native to Mexico, and are commonly seen in Mexican holiday settings. The name of the plant in Spanish, Nochebuena, which literally means “good night,” is the same term used to refer to December 24, Christmas Eve.
Families in Mexico may or may not put up a Christmas tree, but almost every home will have a nacimiento, or nativity scene, displayed prominently. Many families add a new piece to their nativity each year and create an elaborate scene that might include hay or fresh plants placed around the figures. The people depicted include Mary and Joseph and shepherds, who are surrounded by a few farm animals and at least one angel. The manger usually remains empty until Christmas Eve, when the baby Jesus is put in place, and many families hold off adding the three kings until January 6, which is celebrated as Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day.
One of the most characteristic features of Mexican Christmas traditions is the Posadas. These special celebrations begin on December 16 and take place each night until Christmas Eve. Posada participants re-enact Mary’s and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem, parading through the streets to a home (a different one each night). Upon their arrival at the door, they sing a special song. The guests standing outside sing the words of Joseph, and the hosts inside the house respond as the innkeeper, who first insists that there is no room at the inn. Later, they agree to take in Mary and Joseph, opening the door to let everyone in. A party ensues that includes food, drinks, and games like breaking piñatas. The traditional star-shaped piñata is the most common during these celebrations. Following the final posada on December 24, families gather for a late-night meal, and many also attend midnight Mass. Christmas Day is generally a quiet day as people sleep in and enjoy a rest from the late-night celebrations.
Food is an essential part of any celebration, and there are particular foods and drinks that are commonly associated with the holidays in Mexico. A salad known as Ensalada de Nochebuena, containing beets, apples, pomegranate seeds, and other fruits placed on a bed of lettuce, is often served as the Christmas Eve meal. Tamales are also common. One of the special drinks associated with the holidays is ponche, a hot fruit punch flavored with cinnamon that may be spiked with a dash of tequila or rum.
In Mexican holiday celebrations, Santa Claus is much less evident than the Three Kings, who are the ones who traditionally bring gifts to children on January 6. Before going to bed the night before, children leave a bit of hay out for the kings to give to their animals to eat, and the next morning, they wake up to find gifts left for them by Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar, as the kings are known. Also on January 6, it is customary for families and friends to gather to eat Rosca de Reyes, a sweet bread in the shape of a wreath that is decorated with candied fruit and contains tiny figurines of the baby Jesus. The person who finds a baby Jesus in their slice is supposed to provide tamales for another celebration that takes place on February 2, Día de la Candelaria. On that day, families dress up figurines of baby Jesus and take them to church to be blessed.
Which Mexican traditions might you incorporate into your own family’s holiday celebrations?