If you happen to be honeymooning in Mexico anytime during the months of December and January, you couldn’t have picked a more festive time to be there.
For anyone looking for a uniquely cultural experience, this is the ideal time to partake in several of Mexico’s richest customs.
Christmas celebrations in Mexico are marked by diverse traditions and attractions, which combined with the sunny weather, drive thousands of tourists "South of the Border" during the winter months of December January.
No Mexican holiday decoration is complete without the traditional nacimiento, or nativity scene. Often made of clay, the delicately crafted scenes are extremely ornate and elaborate and are usually passed on from generation to generation. More unusual ones are crafted from dried cornhusks or decorated carved wood.
Sparklers are among the favorite party favors for children and adults as they represent Las Luces de Belen or the lights of Bethlehem. According to Christian lore, a star guided the Three Wise Men to the manager where Christ was supposedly born.
Traditional food also has a place on the Mexican menu this time of year. Some of the most popular include ponche con piquete, a warm punch with rum; buñuelos, thin, fried pastries; tamales, cornbread filled with meat or jam and wrapped in cornhusks; and pozole, a hardy, pork and hominy-based soup.
Posadas and Pastorellas
One of the most impressive Mexican holiday customs are the Posadas, a longstanding tradition carried out nightly from Dec. 16 through the 24. A religious and social celebration, they pay homage to the biblical journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Before becoming an annual tradition, the nine days of processions were created to teach the story of the birth of Jesus and to coincide with the nine day Fiestas of the Sun, which celebrated the virgin birth of the Aztec Sun God, Huitzilopochtli.
Nowadays, during the nine nights before Christmas, a party is held in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the home to watch a procession of children and musicians dressed in colorful robes and bathed in the glow of candlelight. Once the singing procession reaches the house, one half enters the home while the other half remains outside to sing a plea for shelter inspired by Mary and Joseph’s plea to the innkeeper. The doors are then opened, and the celebration begins with plenty of food and drink for all. The last posada, held on December 24, is followed by Midnight Mass.
Pastorelas (or shepherds’ plays) are another key aspect of the Mexican Christmas tradition. They are theatrical productions representing various historical scenarios, including the trip of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary to register themselves in the Roman census, the hardships they suffered while searching in vain for shelter or one of the most common, the shepherd’s adoration of Baby Jesus.
The plays date back to Mexico’s Colonial period when Catholic missionaries used them as a way of converting natives to Christianity. The first-known pastorela to have been performed was "Los Reyes" (the three kings) acted out by missionaries in 1527 in Cuernavaca. Today, they are staged throughout the country -- often as a "dinner-theater" type experience in ancient churches with one of the most popular tourist venues taking place at the Convent of Tepoztlan, north of Mexico City.
New Year’s Eve
Mexico typically welcomes the New Year with an abundance of music, dancing and fireworks. Streets are filled with revelers, friends and families congregating for parties, which often last till dawn. One of the strongest traditions calls for eating 12 grapes, one with each stroke of the chiming bell, at midnight for luck in the coming 12 months. New Year’s Day is usually a quiet time of rest and reflection -- and recovery.
Three Kings Day
While modern Mexicans have embraced Santa Claus and the tradition of exchanging gifts on December 25th, residents of rural areas adhere to the custom of having their children receive gifts on the feast of Los Reyes Magos or the Three Wise Men, on Jan. 6. Sleepy-eyed boys and girls awake to find small gifts in their shoes, rather than in their stockings.
On the eve of January 6th, families and friends gather to share a traditional "Rosca de Reyes," a ring-shaped cake with a small doll baked inside. The person who receives a slice of the cake with the doll in it must host a party on Candlemas Day, February 2. In more traditional communities, some cakes contain a ring and a thimble, the recipient of the former being assured of marriage within the year, while the receiver of the thimble can look forward to a year of single "bliss."
Should you visit the region during this time of year, you will be exposed not only to the beauty and spirituality of the Mexican culture but also to customs dating back thousands of years.