Studying Traditional Christmas Customs in Mexico: From Posadas to Pinatas

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A Time For Religion and Festivities

When people think of Christmas in Mexico, they invariably think of piñatas and there is no reason they should not. The piñata is as Mexican as the Eiffel Tower is French or Big Ben is English. But they are just the beginning of the story.

To explore the ways in which native and Spanish cultural forms syncretized or fused to form a new culture involves a long story, beginning with the conquest of Mexico and the gradual religious conversion of the native nations, along with the introduction of the Spanish language. It is important to remember that the conversion did not happen quickly. After so many centuries such long processes can appear to be points or short periods on a timeline, but there are still millions of people living in Mexico who do not speak Spanish, but rather an indigenous language.

What emerged from the mixing of cultures and art forms is Mexico as we know it and experience it today. The Roman Catholic faith supplies the content and the calendar for all religious celebrations.

Each region and even town in Mexico has its own peculiar customs or traditions about Christmas, but in general, the Christmas season for Mexicans begins on December 16 when the nine-day period of the posadas begins. The posadas are processions that culminate in the midnight Mass or Misa de Noche Buena.

Christmas Day is a noisy affair, complete with firecrackers and other forms of noisemakers! One visible feature of the nine-day period of the posadas are nativity scenes, called nacimientos, a custom introduced during the colonial period in the 1700s. Often in a neighborhood, there is no baby Jesus in any nativity scene except in the home of the person where there will be feasting. The posadas are an outgrowth of the missionary work of the Spanish in which religious dramas were presented to teach Christian morals in an entertaining way.

It should come as no surprise that over time, the people began to introduce their own ideas into the plays and thus many native-inspired, often raucous elements began to insert themselves in the posadas. The same phenomenon happened in Spain, although there, the non-religious customs of daily life would often introduce scenes that the priests disapproved of.

The season comes to an end at Epiphany, on January 6, when tradition says the Three Wise Men came to give their gifts to the Christ Child. This day is known in Spanish-speaking countries and the Philippines as Three Kings Day - el Día de los Reyes Magos.

Mexican Christmas is a time for pastries, chocolate (a product native to Mexico, believe it or not!), tamales, and yes, piñatas for the kids, filled with candies and small presents. If you’ve never seen a Mexican piñata, it is usually made of a baked, hollow clay figure of an animal which is quite fragile, filled with the goodies and decorated with colorful streams of crepe paper.