By Cyndee Montoy
Navidad, or Christmas, is a religious holiday and, one that does not just occur on one day, but contains a whole season of festivities. It all began about four centuries ago when Hernan Cortes set out from Spain to conquer the Aztecs. And conquer he did, right down to the appropriation of the celebrations reserved for the Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli, that occurred at the same time of year that Christmas does. Later, when Mexico became a colony of Spain and the missionaries from the Catholic Church followed the conquistadors, Christmas celebrations began and continue to this day.
The Christmas season in Mexico begins on December 16th with the setting up of nacimientos, or nativity scenes. Households, churches, businesses, and whole communities display these scenes. The baby Jesus figure, however, does not arrive in the scene until December 24th, and the three kings arrive on January 5th. The rest of the scene is usually bright and colorful and can vary greatly from one to the next, often containing a distinct Mexican flavor. Whole landscapes are often created as well as buildings and even miniature villages upon hilltops. Since this is something that everyone is involved in, either with their family or the whole community, many of the local markets selling seasonal necessities and treats have stalls that cater to people wishing to add to their scenes and carry all manner of figures that can be bought.
Not only are nacimientos displayed on December 16th, but this also begins the first of the nine posadas (place to stay). Posadas are processions that re-enact the travels of Mary and Joseph and their search for a room in which to stay. The nine days symbolize the nine months of pregnancy that Mary endured and the posadas are truly a community effort. The procession winds it's way through the streets, headed by Joseph leading Mary on a burro (donkey) from house to house, followed by many villagers carrying candles, sometimes dressed as shepherds or angels. As they pass through the village, the procession sings songs asking for shelter to which the households sing back that they have no room. Finally, at a house chosen before hand by the community, the answer to their plea changes and they are admitted. The festivities begin at once, starting with a piñata and great fanfare.
Though piñatas have been traditionally linked to Mexico for centuries, they originally came from China. Made from paper mache, clay, crepe paper, cardboard, and tissue paper, they come in all manner of designs, though the traditional one is a star with seven points, one for each of the seven deadly sins. The piñata symbolizes good overcoming evil and, because the person attempting to break it apart is blindfolded, he or she needs the help of the community giving hints to break it open, showering good down for all in the manner of sweets, fruit, and nuts.
While the posadas are a procession through the community, there are also theatrical productions called pastorelas put on throughout the last weeks of December. The devil is often included in these comedies doing his best to set obstacles between the shepherds looking for the Christ Child and their final objective in Bethlehem. Each community adds it's own flavor to the story and these productions last anywhere from an hour to a few days. All tell essentially the same story and are, for the most part, a portrayal of the conflict between good and evil. It is in the dialogue, sometimes handed down verbally from generation to generation, and in the obstacles that the shepherds must surpass that the vast differences are evident.
The posadas continue until Christmas Eve when, after a family dinner of traditional foods and an exchange of presents between adults, a midnight mass is celebrated. Called Miso de Gallo, or Mass of the chicken, it is named after the cock that crowed the arrival of Baby Jesus. One would think the next day would continue the celebrations, but Christmas day is surprisingly quiet. Some families do have Santa Claus come and the children open some presents in the morning. But, for the most part, people are recuperating from the late night before.
The next day of celebration is El Dia De Los Reyes Magos, Day of the Three Kings. This celebration takes place on Epiphany, January 6th. It is on this day that presents are given to children. A few days before hand, children make their lists of wishes and tie them to colorful balloons that they then let rise into the air. Shoes are set out filled with straw for the Kings' camels, and the children then anxiously await the morning to see what the kings brought them. After the morning activities, the night is filled with yet another celebration at the home of the house chosen to accept Mary and Joseph on the final posada. Served at this feast is La Rosca de Reyes, a wreath shaped bread. Hidden inside the bread are toys and figurines, one of which is of the Baby Jesus. It is the person who has the Baby hidden in his or her piece of bread that will host the final party of the season on February 2nd.
Candlemas marks the end of a very long Christmas season. Hosted by the person that received the figure of the Baby Jesus on Epiphany, it is the day that the nacimientos will be taken down and the figures of the Baby Jesus blessed.
From December 16th through February 2nd lies the entire season of Navidad (Christmas) steeped in deep religious tradition, community parties, and family time. Though the church dictated the contents of the celebrations, communities and families have truly made them their own. They have kept the religious meaning while keeping the whole of community togetherness and the true spirit of celebration present in everything that is done.
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