December has been a celebratory month in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times, when the winter solstice, one of the two most important holidays of the year (the other being the spring solstice) was celebrated by the Aztecs. After the Conquest, a new set of holidays came to be observed, always festive and always featuring traditional food and sweets.
Though the ancient Mexicans did not bake bread or cookies as we know them today, they did make sweets out of amaranth and pumpkin seeds, using honey or the syrup of maguey, corn, or cactus fruit. Amaranth candy, known as alegría, is a popular candy descended from the figures of gods that were fashioned in pre-Hispanic times as a form of communion. Later, the Spaniards drew on the tradition of sweets inherited from the Moors to expand Mexico’s candy repertoire. They introduced confections made with sesame seeds, walnuts and almonds, including turrón, the nougat candy that is especially popular during the holiday season. (A box of turrón is always a welcome gift in Mexico at this time of year.) A selection of sweets, individually wrapped in colored cellophane or tissue paper, makes a very traditional addition to a dessert buffet or cookie platter.
The celebratory season begins with the feast day of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the country’s patron and the object of thousands of pilgrimages to her Basilica in Mexico City. On December 12, and for several days before, pilgrims and their children gather in the church’s atrium, where more than 150 food vendors are busy nourishing the crowd. Although many little Juan Diegos, with their painted-on, pencil-thin moustaches, go for cotton candy, others enjoy the “hotcakes” made from corn instead of wheat flour and covered with sweet fruit syrups.
Another popular snack at this time of year is the large fritter known as a buñuelo. The tradition of eating buñuelos is most famous in Oaxaca, where bunuelo vendors line the zócalo in the days preceeding Christmas. On December 24, the parade known as Las Calendas fills the streets with floats from the different neighborhoods of the city, along with giant papier maché figures with people dancing inside them, and other marchers holding marmotas, translucent paper spheres lit from within and carried on poles. All of them converge in the zócalo to eat buñuelos with syrup, served on clay plates that are hurled to the ground and broken after the sweets have been eaten. This is said to bring good luck for another year.
Fried foods are also important for those Mexicans who celebrate Hanukkah. Just as in other countries, the miracle of the long-burning oil in the temple lamps is commemorated not only with potato latkes, but with a variety of sweet fried foods. Especially in Mexico City, Monterrey and Tijuana, fruit-filled doughnuts and fritters play a starring role on menus.
Though most Mexicans celebrate Christmas with a big family dinner at home on the night of December 24, the season itself is at its most festive during the posadas, from December 16 to 24. These neighborhood celebrations gather friends to reenact the journey to Bethlehem of San José and La Virgen. Tamales, especially sweet ones, are usually served, along with ponche navideño, the winter fruit punch, as well as cookies, plus the candy, fruit and nuts that fall from the piñata when it is broken.
New Year’s Day, like Christmas, is celebrated the night before with a big family dinner. The traditional twelve grapes, to be eaten within a minute at midnight to make wishes come true, are only a small part of the multi-course meal. Nueces garapiñadas, the candied nuts sold from stalls at all the regional fairs, are likely to be part of the many trays of fruit, nuts, olives and other munchies that seem to accompany everything from drinks to dessert. The eggnog-like beverage rompope is also likely to be served. (For more on rompope, along with rompope recipes, see Rompope: Mexico’s Holiday Season Beverage .)
After the nightlong feasting, it is no wonder that New Year’s Day is possibly the quietest day of the year in most Mexican towns and cities, with businesses closed and everyone at home recovering from the huge meal. In several indigenous villages, this is the day new tribal leaders are inaugurated, and in the Zapotec rug-weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, people gather at the sacred caves called Cuevita del Pedimento to picnic. Many set up portable grills and bring a variety of sweets for the children, including nicoatole, a jellied corn confection flavored with sugar and cinnamon.
The final holiday of this month-long fiesta is the Día de Los Reyes, which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings who bore gifts for the Christ child. This is traditionally the day when children receive presents, though some also get gifts at Christmas. In many Mexican towns, the patios and front rooms of houses become impromptu toy stores, usually filled with an assortment of tricycles, toy trucks of all sizes, and just about any toy on wheels. People walk through the streets doing last minute shopping and carrying rosca de reyes, the traditional Three Kings sweet yeast bread, to one another’s houses. A small doll, representing the Niño Dios, is baked into the bread ring, and the person who is served the slice with the doll in it has to pay for the tamales party on Candelaria, or Candlemass, February 2, considered the end of the Christmas season in many Latin American countries.
The following recipes are perfect for the holidays, and the cookies and candies make great gifts. When making candy, always stir with a wooden spoon, preferably the paddle style spoons. Many of these recipes, especially Mexican seed and nut candies, are fun to make with children, always with adult supervision. The candies can be frozen for 7 to10 days. For those who want to make cookies ahead of time, it is better to freeze raw dough rather than cookies. The dough can be frozen for up to six weeks, then used to bake cookies as needed. This produces much fresher tasting results.
- Fritters with brown sugar syrup: Buñuelos con miel de piloncillo y canela
- Apple fritters: Frituras de manzana
- Mexican Christmas cookies: Galletas de navidad
- Orange sugar cookies: Polvorones de naranja
- Piggy cookies: Cochinitos
- Amaranth candy: Dulce de alegría
- Pumpkin seed and sesame candy: Pepitoria
- Candied walnuts: Nueces garapiñadas
- Soft nougat candy: Turrón blando
- Three kings’ sweet yeast bread: Rosca de reyes
- Puebla style eggnog: Rompope
- Holiday fruit punch: Ponche navideño