Around the World: This Year, Enjoy a Colorful Mexican Christmas
If you’re looking for a white Christmas, Mexico is not the place to be. Christmas celebrations south of the border are a blaze of colorful long-lasting fiestas known a ‘pastores’ and pastorelas.’ They combine spectacular religious processions and observances with secular satire – all of which adds up to a lot of fun.
Because Mexico is so large and has so many different regional cultures, Christmas posadas and pastorelas vary significantly from one end of the country to another. The State of Guanajuato (pronounced Gwa-na-HWAH-toe), in the mountains northwest of Mexico City, has a distinctive Spanish colonial tradition that influences its Christmas pastores.
The state’s capital city -- also named Guanajuato -- is an urban gem, a warren of old colonial buildings and twisting little mountain streets that provide a glorious backdrop for the celebratory Christmas processions.
Guanajuato’s particular Christmas spectacle is the traditional ‘pastorela or ‘pastore,’ a somewhat modernized version of the medieval miracle plays and pageants brought to Mexico from Spain at the time of the conquistadores.
These plays and pageants also tell the story of the Nativity, often through song and with many satirical elements that contribute to the town’s seasonal ambient cheer. For example, the devil is an integral part of the procession, weaving his way through the participating ‘pilgrims’ and always trying through various plots and clever subterfuge to distract the celebrants and to prevent the shepherds from reaching the Christ Child.
Pastorelas, played in larger towns throughout the State of Guanajuato, are usually more sophisticated, with young actors in decorative costumes performing classic slapstick choreography. Pastores held in the ’zocalos’ (town squares) of smaller communities are really folk performances, traditionally acted by local folk or by performers who tour the region from town to town.
The cities of Celaya and Yuriria, both in Guanajuato State, are most famous for their pastorelas and pastores,that are always presented with beautifully decorated floats, serenading and folk dancing.
Queretaro, a town located near the City of Guanajuato and famous for its opal mines, has Christmas pastorelas and pastores that are noted especially for their profusion of clowns, folk dancers, marching bands and elaborate floats.
The glorious colors of Christmas in Mexico aren’t restricted to pastoress and pastorelas. Did you know that the poinsettia, that bright red flower we associate with our own U.S. Christmas celebrations (it’s almost as ubiquitous as the mistletoe), is an import from Mexico? The Aztecs used to use this colorful bloom to make red and purple dyes, and the poinsettia was first used as a Christmas decoration in Taxco (pronounced TAS-ko), a charming colonial flower-bedecked town southeast of Mexico City.
Poinsettias, which were introduced to the United States in 1828 by Joel R. Poinsett (then U.S. ambassador to Mexico) are still used as decorations in Taxco’s celebrations, centered around the square outside the beautiful Santa Prisa Church, with its priceless gilded interior. Taxco, famous for its silverware and jewelry, is pretty much blanketed with poinsettias during December, and is known as one of Mexico’s most colorful cities at Christmas time.
But for Christmas color, Mexico City itself offers a lush display of decorations. Along major avenues like Reforma and Insurgentes, trees and light posts are festooned with colored lights, Christmas tree ornaments and piñatas.
One of the centers of Christmas activity in Mexico City is the Alemeda Park, a lovely tree-lined and peaceful haven in the heart of the city’s bustling downtown business area, very near the ‘zocalo’ (principal town square). Strolling through this park is always a delight, but at Christmas time, Avenida Juarez, which borders the park, is lined with small Christmas ‘casitas’ or little houses.
Each of these casitas is inhabited by a man costumed as one of the three kings who visited Jesus in the manger, or as Santa Claus, who is actually a fairly recent import to Mexico. It is as though the kings and Santas are in competition to attract your attention.
Each casita is cleverly decorated with toys, paper flowers, ceramic statues of religious and Christmas figures and animals, paper and straw knickknacks, candles and colored lights.
Mexican families and tourists who come to the park for an evening stroll choose their favorite king or Santa for a photo, street vendors sell commemorative souvenirs and refreshments. Colored banners flutter gaily overhead.
On the other side of Avenida Juarez, across the street from Alemeda Park, are many of Mexico City’s fine handcraft shops. During the Christmas season, their windows display charming gifts, dolls large and small and tree decorations in the shape of birds and angels cut from sheets of tin and painted brightly in hot pink, blue, gold and green. There are piñatas of all shapes and sizes, too.
But best of all are the ’nacimientos,’ the Nativity scenes. These are elaborate and lovely stagings with miniature clay figures, hand sculpted and painted, of the shepherds and their flocks, the three kings and Mary and Joseph contemplating a tiny empty cradle that waits to receive the infant Jesus on Christmas Eve. The Nativity scene is usually set on a mountain top with miniature trees, rivers and surrounding valleys. The angels are usually suspended from above.
These nacimientos of Mexico are famous. They are found in most Mexican homes and are also put on display in the windows of most large shops and banks.
Although staged widely in other parts of Mexico, traditional pastorelas and pastores seem to be on the decline in Mexico City. Some are presented in private clubs or in selected inns. But in the nearby town of Tepotzotlan, about an hour’s drive from Mexico City, the pastorela tradition is still in full swing. Each year, there are pastorelas staged in the beautiful old Convent of Tepotzotlan, a castle-like retreat with a wonderful courtyard that’s ideal for fiestas. Many people who live in Mexico City drive to Tepotzotlan each year for the old-fashioned flavor of the posada held there during the Christmas season.
Christmas in Mexico isn’t over even when Christmas Day has passed. The Mexicans also celebrate epiphany on January 6, with another round of colorful fiestas. In the countryside there are pageants and processions, and throughout the country ‘Reyes’ or Three Kings Day is the day for gift-giving.
A special cake, the ‘rosca,’ is served in celebration. Inside this cake is a miniature doll baby, and tradition has it that whomever finds this doll inside their piece of cake will have good luck. But that person is also obliged to throw a big fiesta on February 28, Candelaria Day -- and so begins another cycle on Mexico’s colorful fiesta calendar that will come full circle with the next year’s pastorelas and pastores.