Like most religious occasions, Christmas is celebrated in a much more devout and elaborate way in Mexico than here in North America. For many in the United States, Christmas has become somewhat secular, symbolized by Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and celebrated by exchanging gifts with friends and family.
In Mexico, Christmas traditions are centered on the biblical stories of the events surrounding the birth of Christ and include some historical traditions dating back to the indigenous cultures as well. Due to the diversity of those cultures, celebrations vary from region to region. The celebrations stretch from December 16th through January 6th. Here are some of the special traditions:
December 16th until the 24th, children parade from door to door in their town, singing a song that asks if there’s room at the “Inn”, signifying Mary and Joseph’s search to find lodging for the birth of Jesus. They are turned away until the last house (different each night), where they’re welcomed and a party ensues.
Known as Nacimientos, nativity scenes crop up all over the towns, including some that are life-sized. Many families display one in their home as well, and the figurines are passed down through the generations. The baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings on the Epiphany.
Noche Buena, translated literally as Good night, is the most important family day. After the final posada, the whole family gathers for the main Christmas meal. There is great attention to detail from the place settings to the specific candles and flowers on the table, to the traditional foods that are served. Many finish the evening by attending a midnight mass with their loved ones.
Giving gifts is not the main focus of the season, though depending on their family’s particular traditions, some children will receive presents on Noche Buena, while others must wait until the Epiphany to receive theirs.
El Dia de los Reyes, The Day of the Kings, happens on January 6th. This is when the Three Kings, or Magi, visited Jesus and presented him with gifts. If the children have already opened presents on Noche Buena, they may get candy on this day. A special Three Kings Cake, Rosca de Reyes, is baked on this day, with a tiny Jesus figure somewhere inside. The tradition is that whoever finds the figure in their piece of cake is required to host the celebration the following year.