Greetings: “Feliz Navidad” for Merry Christmas and “Felices Fiestas” for Happy Holidays!
The world has Mexico to thank for one of the most famous plants associated with the Christmas season; the poinsettia. The original poinsettia was introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, which is where this beautiful plant gets its name.
Mr. Poinsett had an interest in botany and while in Mexico in the 1800′s he looked for new species of plants in the Mexican countryside. In 1828 he discovered a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road and brought cuttings back to his North Carolina home. The discovery of the plant was written about by a historian and botanist and first sold under its botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima.
The Ecke family in California started growing the plants in the early 1900′s for landscaping and eventually grew them in greenhouses. Today this family is considered the largest manufacturer of poinsettias in the United States.
In traditional homes and in rural areas Christmas is a religious holiday in Mexico. The season is a celebration of the Nativity commemorating the birth of Christ. Nine days before Christmas Eve, or “Holy Night,” the prominent ritual of Posadas begins. From December 16th to December 24th, children and adults reenact in a procession the journey of Joseph and the young Virgin Mary to Bethlehem.
The Posadas begins with nine days of the weary travelers walking by candlelight at night through cities and towns going door to door seeking lodging. They are accompanied by angels, the Three Kings, shepards and livestock. At each home they are turned away until they reach the third home where they are told there is no room at the inn but they are welcome to stay in the stable. At this time, the doors open wide and the guests are welcomed enthusiastically and everyone kneels to pray the Rosary around a Nativity scene.
After the Posada, it’s time for a Pinata party. Children are blindfolded and spun around before given their chance to try breaking the pinata open with a stick. When it finally does break, candy and toys spill to the ground and the children rush to gather as many goodies as they can.
Many Mexican families have a Christmas tree but nacimientos (nativity scenes) are more common as decorations at homes, in yards and in public settings. They are traditionally set up the first day of the Posadas, December 16th, with the baby Jesus being added the night of December 24th. The Three Kings are added on January 5th on the eve of the Epiphany.
You can find many light hearted pastorelas (plays) about the shepards on their way to visit the Baby Jesus. The shepards encounter obstacles on their journey with many good and evil influences trying to convince them of the way they should go.
On Christmas Eve at midnight the birth of Christ is proclaimed in celebration with fire works, church bells ringing and whistles blowing. This is the night the Baby Jesus is placed in the manger in the Nativity Scene to commemorate his birth. It’s also the night of the final posada. Many families attend midnight Mass before returning home for a festive dinner with friends and family. When families return home, they gather around the completed nativity scene and pay homage to the miraculous birth. The final event is the opening of gifts and another Pinata for the kids.
Today on la Navidad (Christmas), children often receive presents because of the growing tradition of Santa Claus. Gifts are traditionally exchanged on Epiphany or Three Kings Day on January 6th. Since the Magi brought presents for the Baby Jesus, boys and girls write to them asking for gifts. On the eve of the holiday children place their shoes by the window with an offering of straw in them for the Three King’s camels . Early in the morning, the children run to see if their shoes are filled with presents. Good children will receive gifts and naughty children will receive coal.
February 2nd is officially the end of the Christmas season in Mexico with the celebration of Candlemas commemorating the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Traditions are changing in Mexico. Posadas is often nine parties celebrated in different homes before Christmas. In many places traditional celebrations have given way to Santa Claus, Christmas trees and ornaments, presents and vacations. Towns and homes are decorated in bright lights and lanterns and children receive gifts on Christmas Day and Three King Day.
A traditional Mexican dinner feast might include fruits, salad, tamales, rice, chilies rellenos (stuffed peppers), menudo (spicy tripe soup), roast pig or turkey along with hot fruit or cider punches and other spirits such as rompope (eggnog). Pudding and flour tortillas sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon might be on the menu for dessert.