Christmas in Mexico is made special by the wide variety of religious and non-religious festivities that take place during this time. Here, there is a range of festivities and celebrations that take place exclusively in a specific area of the country and those that are country-wide.
Most Mexican Christmas traditions that are celebrated in Mexican society today are a result of the mixing of the Spanish and the Indigenous Mexican cultures and the influence they had on each other. Following the Spanish conquest of pre-Colombian Mexico, one of the outcomes of this clash between the two cultures was the manifestation of unique events.
The country enjoyed celebrations that used elements of Indigenous cultures and adapted them into European Catholic festivities. To this day, the native roots of a lot of these traditions are still at the core of Christmas in Mexico, along with their deep religious significance.
Religion plays a crucial role in Mexican Christmas traditions and most Mexicans are devout Catholics. Most of the festivities that take place across the country in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas day and those that take place after it have a religious background.
Christmas in Mexico
During the Christmas season, the streets of Mexico are adorned with colorful piñatas and bright red nochebuena flowers. Houses are decorated for the season and families prepare for the upcoming festivities by proudly displaying their Nacimiento in their homes.
The following list features a few of the best-known Christmas traditions in Mexico
Las Posadas takes place during the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve. It runs from December 16th to 24th.
The celebration name is derived from the Spanish word posada, meaning “lodging”, “inn”, or “accommodation”. Las posadas refer to these nine celebratory and devotional nights.
This means they fall within the definition of a Catholic novena. This refers to an extended devotional prayer that takes place for nine consecutive days.
The tradition seeks to remember and re-enact the biblical story of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem in expectation of Jesus’ birth. Along their journey, Mary and Joseph asked for posada (or shelter).
A modern posada celebration begins with a procession by foot during which people hold candles and sing Christmas carols. A posada may involve certain people playing the parts of Mary and Joseph and leading the procession.
Processions take place throughout various Mexican towns and cities on a large scale. However, Mexican families and groups of friends also often enact their own.
Participants will sing the traditional posada song, “La Canción Para Pedir Posada”. The celebration includes music, the singing of a variety of other Christmas songs and carols, as well as the breaking of the piñata.
At the same time, they will be enjoying a variety of traditional food and Mexican drinks. The history of las posadas goes back to pre-Hispanic Mexico and the years following the Spanish conquest.
Historic background of Las Posadas
It is known that the ancient Aztecs held two important celebrations during the month of December. The first one honored the goddess Tonantzin, mother of the gods, while the second celebrated the birth of Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun.
It seems that the lucky temporal closeness of these native festivities and the celebration of Christmas brought by the Spaniards resulted in the seamless merging of the two holidays. Spanish missionaries took this opportunity to turn the religious pageant into a means of evangelization. They used it to teach the story of Jesus’ birth to the native population.
Christmas markets and fairs around the country
Throughout December, festive Christmas markets and fairs start to pop up in parks across the country. They are free to enter and offer fun for all the family.
Some Christmas fairs, such as the Fantasilandia fair in Merida, Yucatan, feature live shows and performances where children can see Santa and his elves sing Spanish Christmas songs. There are usually fairground games such as hook-a-duck, and coconut shy.
You will find various rides such as dodgems, rollercoasters, and Ferris wheels here, and even adults can enjoy stopping by (perhaps for a festive date night!) Better still, you will find an abundance of street food vendors selling all of your favorite Mexican street food eats such as elotes, esquites, marquesitas, micheladas, etc.
The Breaking of the Piñata
The breaking of a piñata is not a tradition exclusive to Christmas in Mexico. Indeed, virtually every Mexican celebration is an excuse to smash a piñata!
However, the piñata takes on an important role during the festivities surrounding Christmas. Piñatas are the protagonists of las posadas and an important piece of Mexican history.
The exact origin of the piñata tradition is unknown. However, these are one of the main things that Mexico is famous for. It is likely that these colorful items were brought to America by the Spaniards.
You’ve probably seen images of the traditional seven-point star piñatas. This shape is not insignificant.
The tradition states that each point represents one of the seven deadly sins. The act of breaking the piñata symbolizes purifying the body and freeing people from sin.
Piñatas are traditionally filled with Mexican fruits of the season, such as mandarin and orange. You can also find yam, beans, tejocote, sugar cane, peanuts, and candy inside a traditional piñata.
The treats that are held inside of the piñata and released once it’s broken represent generosity and giving. They are considered the reward that comes from breaking away from sin through the embrace of faith.
Mexican pastorelas are folk plays/dramatic representations of the shepherds’ procession in which they followed the star of Bethlehem that lead them to the birthplace of Christ. The performance showcases the shepherds’ journey and the obstacles they faced on their journey toward Bethlehem.
Similar to the posadas, pastorelas were utilized by the Spaniards to teach the Indigenous population of Mexico about the Bible. They used dances and theatrical performances as tools to overcome language barriers and breach the cultural divide.
In pre-Hispanic Mexico, devotional traditions and celebrations involving music, dance, and theatrical performance were common occurrences. So, Spanish colonizers took advantage of the cultural significance of this art form, adopting it for evangelization purposes.
Pastorelas today are frequently performed by school children, as well as professional actors. They also take place in casual family Christmas gatherings across Mexico.
The Display of the Nacimiento
Almost as iconic as putting up a Christmas tree, displaying a Nacimiento (nativity scene) is a Christmas staple in many Mexican homes. These displays vary in size and style. However, they traditionally include figurines that represent Mary and Joseph and the shepherds at the nativity scene in Bethlehem.
The tradition dictates that the figurine of baby Jesus is to be added to the display on the night of Christmas Eve. The Three Kings are then added on Epiphany day (January 5th).
The figurines that adorn Nacimientos are generally made of wood, ceramic, wax, or tinplate. The display can be decorated with flowers and certain other figurines.
Today, you can find a wide variety of creative styles and modern adaptations of the traditional Nacimiento in markets all over Mexico. These make great souvenirs from your trip to Mexico.
Nochebuena and the Traditional Christmas Eve Dinner
Cultures around the world celebrate Christmas and Christmas Eve in many different ways. Specific traditions may be carried out on each day of the season.
Mexico is no exception in this regard. Christmas Eve in Mexico is referred to as Nochebuena (or “good night”). It acquired its name because of the belief that the hours between midnight and dawn bring luck and good fortune.
Nochebuena, the night of December 24th) is the night that families gather to have a traditional Mexican feast and exchange gifts. Some of the foods you’re likely to find on Mexican tables for Christmas Eve dinner include prepared bacalao (cod fish).
Romeritos and pozole are also popular. Romeritos are springs of seepweed plants that are boiled and served with a delicious mole sauce and other various complementary ingredients.
Meanwhile, pozole is spicy pork or chicken broth flavored with chilies and lime. It is then topped with hominy, shredded lettuce, radishes, and other vegetables and spices.
When it comes to traditional Nochebuena drinks and treats, ponche and buñuelos stand out from the bunch. Mexican ponche is a warm fruit punch that has a very specific, comforting, and warm taste of Christmas.
Meanwhile, buñuelos are a staple at the dessert table. These mouthwatering little treats are made from fried dough and topped with sugar. Then, they are usually flattened into a dish-like shape.
All in all, a Mexican Nochebuena dinner is a night of family fun, tasty traditional and non-traditional dishes. There is also lively Christmas music, gift-giving, and colorful decorations.
Playing Jokes on Holy Innocent’s Day
The April Fool’s Day custom of the United States probably springs to mind when reading about Día de Los Santos Inocentes in Mexico. The Holy Innocent’s Day is commemorated on December 28th each year.
It remembers the biblical story of the Roman Jewish King, Herod of Judea, who ordered the execution of all male babies (the innocents) in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth. This was done in an attempt to rid himself of the prophesied “future king of the Jews”.
The massacre of the innocents is an important day of remembrance in churches around the world. It commemorates the first Christian martyrs.
However, the day has evolved in Mexico to include a light-hearted tradition of playing jokes on friends and loved ones. As time goes on and the origins of this day get more blurry.
The word “innocent” has evolved to be used in Mexican culture with the definition “naïve” in mind, rather than the original connotation of “innocent” or “free from blame”. The tradition involves playing practical jokes or pulling pranks on others.
If the person naively falls for your joke, they are met with a traditional saying. “Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar, hoy por ser dia 28, en nadie debes confiar.
This roughly translates to mean “Innocent little dove who let yourself be fooled. On this day, the 28th, you should trust no man”. Holy Innocent’s Day is a perfect example of how traditions in Mexico have changed and evolved throughout the years.
However, at their root, they still hold significant religious and/or cultural importance. Traditions have been adopted, adapted, and merged in many directions. That is whether it’s the somber nature of the Christmas mass, the happy occasion that is a posada, or the light-hearted expression of humor that is the modern celebration of Holy Innocent’s Day.
As Christmas in Mexico approaches, people start to decorate their homes, storefronts, and gardens with bright red flowers. These are known locally as ¨nochebuenas¨ (meaning Christmas Eve).
To English speakers, these flowers are known as poinsettias and are the symbol of Mexican Christmas. They only bloom during the winter months and have an interesting history behind them.
The Aztecs referred to this plant as ¨cuetlaxochitl¨ in Nahatual. They cultivated the plant in the tropical climate of Cuernavaca and brought it to their Aztec highlands where they used its milk for medicinal purposes and its red flowers as a clothing dye.
After the Spanish colonization of Mexico, the Spaniards used nochebuenas to decorate their Christmas nativity scenes. However, it was actually an American, Joel Roberto Poinsett, that is largely credited wth the flower’s popularity today.
During the 19th century, Poinsett worked as the US ambassador to Mexico. He fell completely in love with Mexico and its culture.
In particular, the blood-red nochebuenas caught his eye. Poinsett dedicated the final years of his life to making the poinsettia a Mexican symbol of Christmas throughout the world.
Three Kings Day
Three Kings Day marks the end of Christmas in Mexico and closes off the string of celebrations. The celebration of Three Kings Day, also known as Epiphany day, commemorates the journey made by the Magi as they followed the star of Bethlehem and paid a visit to the newborn Christ.
On the night of January 5th, people add the figurines of The Three Kings to their Nacimiento. Children all over the country leave their shoes out of their rooms overnight, waiting for a visit from the three wise men.
The Magi are said to leave gifts and treats for the children in and near their shoes. This emulates their visit to baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The reason for the tradition involving the shoes may seem odd at first. However, if you look at it with Christmas stockings in mind, the two traditions don’t seem so different at all!
Similar to Santa Claus’s visit, the visit of The Three Kings has children eagerly expecting bedtime on the night of January 5th. Treats are left out for the Magi to enjoy before continuing their journey.
Instead of Santa’s milk and cookies, the Magi usually get traditional Mexican treats and candies. They are also left with food and water for the camel, elephant, and horse that are said to accompany them on their journey!
The Traditional Rosca de Reyes and Dia de la Candelaria
The celebration of Three King’s Day includes big get-togethers with friends and family, where people feast on traditional food and bid farewell to Christmas in Mexico. The main event of the night is the carving of the delicious rosca de reyes.
This is a traditional oval-shaped cake/sweet bread that is decorated with a colorful assortment of dried fruits, guava paste, and candied cherries. The classic look of the rosca de reyes resembles a king’s crown. It boasts an oval shape and jewel-like toppings.
One or several small plastic figurines representing baby Jesus are placed inside of the rosca. Tradition dictates that whoever has the luck of cutting a piece of rosca with a baby Jesus figurine in it has to host and provide tamales for everyone on the upcoming Día de la Candelaria.
The day of Lady of the Candelaria is directly linked to Epiphany day. It is yet another day of celebration and feasting in Mexico. However, since it takes place well into the new year, it does not technically fall under the umbrella of festivities for Christmas in Mexico.
The Oaxacan Night of the Radishes
Certain states in Mexico hold Mexican Christmas celebrations that are specific to their particular history and context. These are celebrated in addition to the traditional festivities that are carried out nationwide.
In the southwestern state of Oaxaca, the Night of the Radishes is a very important part of the season’s celebrations. Unlike many of the other traditions on this list, the Night of the Radishes is not a religious celebration.
It is held every year on December 23rd. The origins of this festivity go back to the time of colonial Mexico.
At this time, the Spanish colonizers brought certain types of flowers and vegetables over to America. Among these new and exciting vegetables was the radish.
Over time, the radish went from being a staple dish at the dinner table and simply a small part of the Mexican diet to being the main character of many handmade decorations in Oaxaca. Today, artisans and craftspeople in Oaxaca make beautiful art pieces and intricate carvings out of radishes!
The festivity brings together the work of talented artisans and farmers who work with radishes in their day-to-day life. They engage in a friendly contest where they show their work, and a big celebratory event is held in addition to the contest.
The radishes are carved into all manner of weird and wonderful shapes. Some represent aspects of Oaxacan and Mexican traditions and culture, while others represent movie stars and popular cartoons.
Takari Fiesta in Michoacán
Another noteworthy state-specific festivity takes place in the state of Michoacán. In Michoacán, the coming together of the indigenous Purepecha culture and the Spanish culture resulted in what is known today as the Takari Fiesta.
This celebration involves a lot of dancing and traditional Purepecha clothing. This all takes place while gathering hay that will be used to make the bed of the expected Christ child.
The Tradition of La Rama in Veracruz
La Rama is another Mexican Christmas tradition that takes place in Veracruz. This tradition has roots and precedents in the entire Yucatán Peninsula, as well as in the Caribbean. However, it has gained particular popularity in the Mexican state of Veracruz.
La Rama is commonly carried out during the posada season (December 16th to 24th). It consists of taking a large branch (or a few branches) from a variety of different tree species.
The branches are then assembled to resemble a Christmas tree. Then, they are decorated with colorful decorative paper, orange peels, balloons, etc.
Tradition is huge in Mexico all year round, and Christmas in Mexico is specially packed with opportunities for celebration. There is a lot of importance given to family and community within Mexican society.
So, it is no surprise that the holiday season has evolved into a series of celebratory events that bring family and friends together during a special time of year. Christmas in Mexico is so much more than a couple of days of gathering and gift-giving.
It is centuries-old traditions that have survived and evolved. It is color, light, flavor, music, and dance. This is the result of the specific history of Mexico as a country and as a culture, from its origins to the present day.
Have you celebrated Christmas in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America? What did you think?
If you are planning a trip to Mexico for the first time, you may enjoy browsing this list of Mexico travel tips. Buen Viaje! xo