December 8, 2000

Mexico Celebrates Christmas With Posadas, Piñatas, and Lots of Ponche

Mexico City — In a city where feast days of even minor saints merit a religious procession and fireworks, it is only to be expected that Christmas would be celebrated with great zeal. Families barely wait for November to turn to December to set up their nativity scenes and Christmas tree. Throughout Mexico street decorations and lights capture the holiday spirit and the public markets are a glory to behold, overflowing with an abundance of fruits, sweets and Christmas ornaments. Flower stalls are filled with crimson Noche Buena flowers, known outside Mexico as poinsettias, and during the entire month of December, friends, families and offices gather for Christmas cheer.

December 16 officially heralds the approach of Christmas with the first posada (the word means "shelter"), a reenactment of the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem seeking lodging at an inn just before the birth of Jesus. Each evening, for the nine days from December 16 to 24, "pilgrims" —usually groups of friends and neighbors— carry a creche, going from door to door. At each stop they sing a traditional song asking for shelter, and are turned away, again in song. At the last stop, they are "given posada" and are invited inside to sing villancicos (Christmas carols) and for a supper of pozole (pork and hominy stew) and tamales, hot ponche (punch), buñuelos (crisp fried dought served with syrup), and atole (best described as hot liquid pudding). The hot ponche is key to the success of the posada. Made with fruits, brown sugar, and sticks of sugar cane and cinnamon, this tasty brew is served in earthenware mugs — plain for children and spiked (con piquete) with firewater (aguardiente) for the adults.

The high point of the evening is the breaking of the piñata, decorated with crepe paper to form the traditional star, or in more modern homes, a favorite cartoon character, their contents are always a treat: peanuts, candies, sugar cane and fruit.

Pastorelas, or traditional Christmas pageant, are performed throughout December in theaters, churches and schools. These reenactments of the Nativity, in which modern characters interact —with lots of double entendre and satirical references to current events— always have the same plot: a band of shepherds (pastores) wanders in search of the newborn Infant. The Devil, who tries all ruses to stop them, is finally driven off, and the shepherds joyfully adore the Christ child.

Christmas Eve is a time for feasting and opening presents. The Cena de Noche Buena, the traditional Christmas dinner, is a family affair held on the night of the 24th. The romeritos (baked rosemary), bacalao (cod-fish), Turkey and Christmas salad eaten at this meal require elaborate preparation and no thought to calories.

The celebrations continue on January 6, the Día de los Santos Reyes (Day of the Three Kings, or Epiphany). This is still be considered the traditional day of gift giving, especially for children, who leave their shoes outside to be filled with presents. Families and friends get together to share a rosca de reyes, a yeast cake baked in the form of a ring, decorated with candied fruits, and with a doll, symbolizing the infant Jesus, baked inside. Days before, Alameda Park, in downtown Mexico City, fills with live representations of the Three Kings and children line up to share their wish list and have their picture taken with them.

February 2, Día de la Candelaria, or Caldelmas Day, officially marks the last of the Christmas festivities. It is the custom to take candles, seeds, and elaborately dressed figures of the Christ Child to church to be blessed. This tradition is especially colorful in the La Candelaria neighborhood in the Coyoacan district, and in the towns of San Lorenzo Acopilco and Cuajimalpa, in the western part of the city. This is also the date on which the "lucky" person who found the little doll in his slice of cake on January 6 is expected to provide food and drink (traditionally tamales and hot chocolate) for his or her guests.

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