What’s different about Christmas in Mexico – everything! Here, Christmas has two basic elements – family and church. These elements in the States also exist, but they are being swallowed up by new and less valued elements.
Christmas day is not the big day here, but there is a long season leading to and following this day. The season opens nine days before Christmas with the big three “P’s” –Posadas, Pastorelas and Piňatas. Christmas will last until the Magi come on January sixth.
The gringo ways of Christmas are beginning to take a foot hold with gifts, Santa, reindeer, snowmen, season greetings, etc., but a Mexican Christmas is so different. Family is usually involved in most events, and the children get the highlights. A lot of Mexicans working NOB return home for Christmas just to be with family.
Becky and I, along with our entire church, were invited to a Posada at the home of Octavio and Carrmen Robles. The posadas last for nine days, and we went twice. The posadas are everywhere and differ slightly. Basically, a posada is eight days of Mary and Joseph (children) searching for a room to stay. Of course the ninth day the inn opens its doors and parties began. On the eight days the children normally gather at the church and go to three homes where they are rejected. Some posadas carry a small manger scene and other the children dress up as Mary, Joseph, and shepherds and sometimes even ride donkeys. In a procession they sing Christmas songs, especially the posada song (a plead for a room at the inn (prearranged houses). At two of the houses they are rejected, but at the third house they are recognized and invited in. Here the children have special party with Christmas drinks, food, songs, piñatas, and candy. On the ninth day the first house opens its doors – to everyone – to songs, mariachi, piñatas and aguinaldo (candy gift packages for the children). All are invited, and the poor come in droves. They are given clothes, blankets, food packages and other gifts.
I know I criticized the rich Guadalarjarians for their greed earlier, but now I must eat my words. The Robles are rich Mexicans and have a very nice home in one of the better areas of Ajijic. Each year, as her family has done for over a hundred years, they open their home to a posada for the poor Mexicans. Some of the gringos at church helped them, but remember this is mostly Mexicans helping Mexicans. Over six thousand were in attendance over the nine days. Becky and I were invited and chose to go to one of the earlier nights and the last night.
We left early on the second night for the posada so that we could get a parking spot in walking distance of the Robles house. No problem. I think there were about two other cars. About three hundred Mexicans had already gathered in the yard. I had failed to realize that the poor don’t have cars. We parked in front and went in to join them.
Everyone that came received a Cinnamon flavored hot drink (ponche). They began by saying the rosary (yes, in Spanish), and with each decade they sang a joyous Christmas song. Most of the Mexicans had lawn chairs, and it was fun watching the adults trying to control the playing children while the prayer service took place. Children are the same everywhere – they are not good prayers. After the rosary the children were given their aguinaldo and dismissed so they could begin their parade searching for the inn. They had welcomed us (only a few gringos present) and Becky got an aguinaldo which consisted of roasted peanuts, crackers and hard candy. The traditional aguinaldo would have been peanuts, candy, a small candle, and a tangerine. Why a candle, you ask. Because here most of the poor have no electricity and little children need lights at night to go to the bathroom, for scorpions roam.
I planned to return for the big posada night on Christmas Eve, but as I pulled into the Robles neighborhood, I changed my mind. There were hundreds of poor people gathering an hour early. It appeared that we would be the only gringos. It was not the lack of welcome that changed my mind, for everyone would welcome us, but we were so out of place. This was Mexicans welcoming Mexicans. They came in multitudes – whole families -- from babies to elderly – most in work clothes or old garments. Some carried away bundles of clothes or food they received while children waited for the piñatas, and yes, they again prayed the rosary. These were the Mexicans the gringos seldom see. These were the ones that lived under their very noses while they retired to a different life of luxury. Ajijic is a very nice retirement community, but its foundation is the people – third world Mexico.
Becky and I were dressed up, for we were going to a Christmas party at the home of some friends after the posada. This was a Mexican thing. The rich Mexicans were giving to their poor. Our gifts (our car, our clothes, our affluence, and our daily blessings) were not relevant here – we just did not belong here, for God has always smiled on us. We drove to the Christmas party, but our thoughts stayed on the posada.
The bible says that the poor will always be with us, but it also says feed my sheep, clothe the naked, and hold the hand of the dieing. The Robles had done this for over six thousand people and they have done it for over a hundred years. They helped me understand the reason for Christmas. God bless the people who care.
The pastorelas are the live nativity scenes at the church on Christmas Eve. Now you are going to see the difference in our Christmases – the Mexicans are more accurate during their Christmas traditions. This year’s theme in Ajijic at St. Andres, portrayed nativity scenes from around the world. They had live nativity scenes representing different cultures and countries. People in costumes represented Alaska, Canada, France, Mexico, Peru, the Aztec, and the Huichols.
In some scenes there were live babies representing Jesus, yet in other scenes there were no babies. The reason for this is that Jesus was born on Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve. Yes, the Huichols had a real baby Jesus, and yes, the mother nursed her infant in public. There were no Magi. The Magi were in travel and did not arrive until January 6th. They bore gifts, so the Mexicans exchange gifts on January 6th (Dia de los Tres Reyes). Yes, it was the Magi that brought gifts, not Santa. Our Canadian deacon was dressed as Joseph in fur trader clothes at the Canadian manger. I kidded him that he had worn no costume for the fur trader clothes were the same as he had worn when he came down here. There were no live animal in any of the manger scenes. I don’t know why, for they were used at the posada scenes. Then again, a live animal (horse, donkey, cow, etc.) goes unnoticed on these cobblestone streets.
The Mexicans had their main Christmas mass on Christmas Eve, followed by the gringo mass on Christmas morning. The Church is always beautiful with flowers. But, on Christmas Eve it was loaded with pink and white flowers and the huge backdrops (column and alters) were covered with dark red and green tin foil poinsettia and leaves. They really added to the Christmas spirit, but poinsettias are as common as weeds here in Mexico. The one in my back yard has been in full bloom the whole time we have lived here. The poinsettia in Mexico is a holy flower (La Flor de la Nochebuena – Flower of the Holy Night) that goes back to pre-Columbian times. A forty foot piñata with streamers hung from the ceiling in the center of the church. Mexico is still a Christian country with mass as the highlight of Christmas. They believe this is the day that their Savior was born.
The only other differences in our Christmases are the family relations. I can not cite examples, but I suspect at Christmas, family bonds are stronger here. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors of Mexican homes, but you can see it in their faces -- from the cry of the new born babies to the moan of the elderly, Christmas time in Mexico is for families.
Via ya con dias, amigo.