Christmas holidays in Mexico: Festivals of light, love and peace

articles Cultural Customs Living, Working, Retiring

Judy King


Chanukah, one of the celebrations of light during the time of Winter Solstice begins at sunset on December 3 this year. Each evening, families light candles to remember the triumph of the Maccabees who regained control of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the great miracle which happened there, when the remaining supply of consecrated oil burned for eight more days.

Amazed to discover Mexico’s large Jewish population, in what appears at first glance to be a completely Catholic country? Since Mexico was settled at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, it is not surprising to discover that many Spanish Jews made their way to freedom in the new world.

La Virgen de Guadalupe

The celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Patrona of Mexico, the Queen of the Americas also begins on December 3 and culminates on her special day, December 12, when all Mexico pauses to celebrate the mother of God as she appeared on Tepeyac, the prehispanic site of the temple to Tontanslin , one of the most influential Aztec goddesses, asking that a temple be built to her on that site, as the Mother of Mexico.

An aura of sun rays surrounded the Virgin, when her image appeared on the tilma (cloak) of Juan Diego on December 12, 1531, marking her as an ambassador from the sun, the highest of all the Aztec gods. Her power, her light and her love are remembered for the nine days of processions and pilgrimages — another fiesta of light.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe remains one of the great mysteries of the world. The image was first seen when Juan Diego dropped from his cloak the Castillian roses the Virgin produced as a sign to prove her existence showered from the tilma to the Bishop’s feet. That this rough handmade garment has lasted over 460 years is a mystery. The normal lifespan for the fabric which had been made from agave, the succulent from which Tequila is also made, would be from 10-20 years. This incredible image has survived unscathed by 166 years of unprotected display and reverent touching, the explosion of a bomb left in a nearby vase, and, in the 1800’s, silversmiths repairing the frame, spilled nitric acid which covered nearly two thirds of the cloth.

Over the centuries scientists and experts from around the world have inspected and tested the fabric, but have never detected a trace of ink or paint.

The Indians who saw the image read it much like you read these words. They saw that this woman was greater than the moon she stood on, but that she was lesser than and coming from the Sun god. Her blue green outer cloak told them that she was an ambassador, coming with messages from the most powerful of gods, the sun. The stars on her cloak formed the constellations as they appeared in the sky on December 12, 1531. At her waist was a black sash, as was worn by all pregnant women at that time. Most important of all, unlike the paintings and the statues in the churches, this messenger from God had skin the color of their own, a coppery brown.

In recent years, with the invention of more powerful microscopic instruments, study of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe has continued, with more and more discoveries. First it was found that the highlight in her downcast right eye is a perfect profile image of Juan Diego. Years later, using computer imaging, scientists found as many as 18 persons in the eyes of the Virgin, one very Ghandi-like, another a black woman, and more.

All the science in the world, however cannot begin to understand the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, in Latin America and in the United States. For this understanding, we must look at the people’s devotion to her, their relationship with her. This is not a simple viewing of an image in a silver frame, this is the relationship with a mother, a sister, a friend, a neighbor, another part of self.

The devotion to Guadalupe transcends any form of religious scope to become a symbol of Mexican nationalism and patriotism. Guadalupe creates a bond, a sense of being Mexican, of profound pride in being Mexican. Her influence crosses all borders and boundaries. She transcends the normal division of social strata found yet today in Mexico, and her devotees are the rich and humble, the industrialized and the farmer, the educated and the illiterate, the religious and the cynical. Her altar is a glitter of lights, roses and hope, the Mexican love for her is an endless hymn, the Mexican’s contact with her is hourly, she is the Mother of Mexico, the Queen of the Americas, She IS Mexico.


The first nacimiento or nativity scene was displayed in 1223 by Saint Francis of Assissi in Italy, when he recreated the ancient scene in a real stable, using barnyard animals and local persons.

Some of the first Mexican monks were taught by the Spanish to carve nativity figures. As with most religious customs in this country, traditional folklore has crept into some of the figures. A fascinating Sunday or Thursday excursion during late November and December is to the Tonala market which features dozens of stalls which sell nothing but supplies, bits and pieces for nacimientos.

Nacimientos have traditionally been the main decorations in local homes, businesses and churches, and what tributes they are. Using moss, sawdust, sand, and painted paper, multi-tiered bases are created to resemble hills, deserts, rivers and lakes. Whole villages appear on tabletops, and more characters and scenes are added each year Dozens of figures are lovingly arranged around December 14th, and kept on display until February 2.

Look for purely Mexican traditions and twists in the nacimientos, like the rooster who crowed to announce the birth of the child, fish in the river (from the lovely Mexican carol of the same name— Los Peces en el Rio), Lucifer lurking in his cave to tempt the shepherds from their journey, the Egyptians camping with their tents and pyramids. These are representations of complete villages, with wells, vendors with carts of fruits and vegetables, playing children, musicians, dancers, mutton and pork roasting on spits, even women making tortillas.

Foreigners are frequently confused when confronted by nativity scenes and other Christmas decorations all through January, and even into February. Even more puzzling to newcomers are 4 inch figures of Mary and Joseph, and a nearly life size Christ child. But there is tradition to explain this, too. On January 6, during the fiesta to honor the arrival of the Three Kings at the manger, a special ring-shaped bread called the “Rosca” will be served. Baked into the bread is one or more small plastic figures of the Child God. The guests who find these images in their serving of bread are named the Godparents of the Christ Child from the Nacimiento. It is then their responsibility to host a party on February 2, El Dia de Candlelaria or the Day of Purification, the final celebration of a Christmas holiday which began on December 3 with the beginning of nine day celebration of The Virgin of Guadalupe.

At the time of the birth of the Christ Child, Jewish tradition and law forbade women access to the Temple for 40 days after the birth of a child. Mary and Joseph would have presented the Baby Jesus, the Child God in the Temple then on February 2. In many villages, the Child from the Nativity scene is dressed in a long white gown and bonnet, placed on a small chair and taken to the church to be blessed on February 2. In the newer church in Chapala, this custom is still practiced, with tiny clothing and shoes and accessories available at the church.

Nacimientos are especially important in Guadalajara, due to the artistic influence of Tlaquepaque, where many figures are made and a competition of creches is held each year.

Las Posadas

Las Posadas are a series of nine charming children’s processions which are uniquely, genuinely and exclusively Mexican, seemingly invented by the early Spanish missionaries solely to comfort and convert the former Aztecs.

The tradition of the nine days of processions (Posadas) began soon after the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico. Clever San Ignacio de Loyola created the custom to teach the story of the birth of Jesus and more importantly to coincide with the nine day Fiestas of the Sun, which celebrated the virgin birth of the Aztec Sun god, Huitzilopchtli, from the 16th through the 24th of December. Special permission was received from Rome to celebrate nine “Christmas Masses” to represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy.

This December, children in the villages here at Lake Chapala, will set out each evening from the church for a pilgrimage to a different neighborhood. This procession symbolizes the journey made by Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Joseph’s search for shelter (Posada) at an Inn (also Posada). The peregrinos (pilgrims) include Joseph leading Mary on a burro, an Angel, shepherds, kings, and a large flock of excited, giggling, jostling, bumping, wiggling, shiny-eyed others, most with bright ribbon and flower decked shepherds’ staffs which they tap in time to the music.

The lovely verses of the traditional Posada song are exchanged back and forth between Joseph and the group outside each house and the Innkeeper and the group inside. At each location, Joseph asks for entry, until finally at a prearranged location, the Innkeeper and friends sing from inside the shelter (house):

“Enter holy pilgrims, receive this humble corner, that while we know it is a poor lodging, it is given as the gift of heart.”

And the party begins, with joyous music, piñatas, with candy, fruit, and treats for everyone. Like the fiestas held by the ancients to honor Huitzilopochtli, the Mexican Posadas are full of the deepest of feeling—laughter mixed with deep spirituality, combined with the Mexican’s thirst for diversion from the daily sameness of survival. This is truly a merrily religious celebration, and for most of the children, far more anticipated than Christmas itself.


Although the Piñata originated in China, the traditional party favorite of Mexican children travelled along the trade routes to Italy where it was named pigata or pineapple in Italian, then to Spain in time to be taken to the new world by the missionaries. In every Mexican village, every few blocks there is a housewife making all sizes and designs of piñatas from fringed crepe paper and cardboard glued to a clay jar (cantero).

The serious symbolism of this simple party toy is very typical of Mexico as there is always more to understand than appears on the surface.

The decorated clay cantero represents Satan who often wears an attractive mask to attract humanity. The most traditional style of Piñata looks a bit like Sputnik, with seven points, each with streamers. These cones represent the seven deadly sins, and the breaking of the Piñata with the ensuing shower of sweets and fruits and nuts vividly shows the triumph of good over evil and the unknown joys and rewards which will be given in heaven to the good and faithful. The blindfolded participant represents the leading force in defying evil, faith, which must be blind, and is guided only by the voices of others crying “ arriba, abajo, atras” (up, down, back). In Ajijic, the children cry out, “Chapala” or “San Juan”, the villages to the East and West, to indicate the location of the Piñata to the blindfolded child.

You will hear the parents and children singing special Piñata songs including a verse which says,

“I don’t need gold, nor do I desire silver
All that I want is to break the Pinata!”


When the missionaries arrived in Mexico, they often used exaggerated outdoor plays to teach many of the Christian legends and ideals to the Indians. Thus were born the Pastorelas, the wonderfully naïve, irony packed story of the birth of the Christ Child.

Today Pastorelas continue, with the script improvised by the participants. Especially fun are the simple country shepherds traveling to visit the newly born child in the manger, and the many encounters they have with Lucifer, his attractive disciples, and the ultimate battle of good and evil. Each year, amidst the jokes, jeers, laughter, songs, slang, bawdy humor, discussions, cigarettes, tequila, even ladies of the evening, it is a fight to the finish between Lucifer and the Archangel Gabriel. Even if you don’t understand Spanish, the broad acting, fun and laughter will give you the overview of this very typically Mexican tradition.

Watch for the Pastorelas on the steps of San Andres Church on Christmas Eve, in Plaza de los Fundadores, near the front of the Teatro Degalldo, in Guadalajara between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. daily during the nine days before Christmas. Other presentations may be announced in the Guadalajara Reporter.

Christmas Eve (La Noche Buena) and Christmas (Navidad)

Just six years after arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, Father Pedro de Gante began the celebration of Christmas with the “ Misa de Gallo” (The mass of the rooster) Held at midnight, the mass quickly became very popular with the newly-converted Indians.

To sustain the newly converted Indian Catholics with the comfort and continuity of the more familiar fiestas for the God of the Sun Huitzilopochtli, Father Diego de Soria and other priests added the familiar skyrockets (cohetes,) torches, sparklers (Luces de Bengala), the Pastorelas, the arrival of the Posadas from the various neighborhoods, displays of live nacimientos, piñatas, ponche (Christmas punch with a fruit base) groups of Indian dancers, tamales, and more to the Christmas celebration.

Christmas Eve in 1999 in Ajijic and Chapala will be much the same. More than 750 years after St. Francis of Assi’s first nacimiento, the patio of the main church of San Andres and in the plaza in Chapala will be filled with live nativities representing countries around the world, and areas of Mexico. Mary, Joseph, the baby, an angel and two shepherds will be dressed to reflect each region, as will a few well placed props. Expect to see wooden shoes and tulips, cotton snow on bushes with an igloo, Aztecs and other Indians, or “Africans” with wild animals. Each creche features a live cooing baby in the manger.

During the evening, the last Posada will arrive at the Church, to visit each manger. A group of local residents will honor the babe with traditional Indian dances while musicians play their gift and Mexicans and Anglos exchange greetings of Feliz Navidad and Merry Christmas, with hugs and abrazos, and feel the spirit of love and peace.. Be prepared to smile throughout the night as sounds of the celebrations of the Mexican community continue with music and joy.

Christmas Day (Navidad) is an unearthly quiet Mexican day, as the families sleep and recover after all-night festivities. Foreigners quietlymake their rounds on empty streets, to visit friends and enjoy feasts.

La flor de la Nochebuena

Few of our friends back home realize when they give and receive Poinsettias each holiday season, that Mexico gave the world this special holiday floral tribute.

Of the many names for this flower, the most beautiful is La Flor de la Nochebuena, (The Flower of the Holy Night). The ancients knew this plant as Cuetlaxochitl, which means “the flower of leather petals”. The ancients considered all flowers to be divine gifts of the Gods, not only because of their wonderful beauty, scent and color, but they were also believed to be metaphors of the most beautiful feelings. This star-shaped, red, winter-flowering plant was a special favorite long before the arrival of Columbus.

The Nochebuena was considered by the Aztecs to be a symbol of the new life earned by the warriors who died in battle. As hummingbirds and butterflies, these warriors would return to earth to sip the nectar of the Poinsettia. ( Click for more info on the Nochebuena)

Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents)

It might be more accurate to refer to December 28 as December Fool’s Day, as on this day it is said that you can borrow something and never return it, and the day abounds with jokes and requests and fantastic stories, to convince the naive of lending almost everything.

It is believed the custom originally recalls King Herod’s instructions to kill all the newborn children in order to destroy the infant child god. It is typical of Mexico and Mexicans to laugh in the face of tragedy, to challenge the fears which intimidate.

In Victorian times, friends would send one another elaborate notes detailing some great tragedy or horrible problem requiring them to borrow sums of money, tools, or household items, much like an April Fool’s prank. When the friend, forgetting the day would respond, the prank player sent a gift of sweets or miniature toys in memory of the Innocents lost to Herod with a note saying “Innocent little dove who allowed yourself to be deceived, knowing that on this day, nothing should be lent.”

New Year’s Eve (Año Viejo y Año Nuevo)

What would a celebration in Mexico be without music, dancing, skyrockets, fireworks? Not a celebration in Mexico! The New Year is ushered in with an abundance of noise, of wonderful fireworks and hundreds of skyrockets.

One may encounter a bit of a problem driving about the village, as logs or cars block off sections of streets where neighbors, friends and families celebrate in the street with huge bonfires, music, food and dancing. These parties may well last till dawn. One charming tradition is that one should eat twelve grapes, one with each stroke of the chiming bell, for luck in the coming 12 months. New Year’s Day is just a quiet and empty, and unearthly on the streets of the villages as Christmas Day as the Mexicans recover from the parties of the night before.


Published or Updated on: December 1, 1999 by Judy King © 1999
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