The holidays in Mexico are an interesting mix of indigenous, colonial, and modern somewhat international customs and traditions. I am told that the evening of December 24 is more important than the 25th here and that certainly seems to be the case.
Between December 12 (the Festival of Guadalupe, the Mexican virgin) and December 24, people are busy visiting neighbors delivering gifts of flowers and food, enacting las posadas, and feasting with family. There are solemn candlelight processions, raucous parades, wandering bands, pealing church bells, airworks (fireworks with just the boom), and, of course, children battering pinatas until treats shower down upon them.
Being a stranger to these traditions, I watch with curiosity.
I was puzzled by a group of people that gathered before the “la purisima virgen” (the purest virgin) shrine one night. Usually people gather before the shrines to pray to the virgin or ask blessings, but this group set up a TV for video and blasted American style country western music while a mass of human bodies, jumped , writhed, and shouted to the beat and the direction of a microphoned emcee. I wondered if the shrine was just a good landmark at which to meet because any religious significance escaped me.
Though there are signs of North American Christmas traditions, colored lights, Christmas carols (en espanol of course), and even decorated trees mostly in more well-to-do houses, the pinata is the traditional Mexican decoration and hangs everywhere.
They are very different from the cartoon character type pinatas sold in the States. These have seven pointed cones that, in the Mexican Catholic tradition represent man’s struggle against the seven deadly sins; the beating with the stick represents the struggle against temptation and evil, and when it breaks the rewards of keeping the faith. As with many traditions, this one had its roots in the Mayan celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, which was celebrated in mid-December, and was adapted into the Catholic traditions in this area by Augustinian monks in the late 1500s.
Several nights, a group of children gathered in the alley behind my house to sing, shout, and take a whack at a pinata dangled above them by one of their parents. Their faith kept for another year.
Poinsettias are also prevalent. The Aztecs called them “Cuetlaxochitl;” the sap was used to control fevers (Mexican willow bark?) and the bracts were used to make a reddish dye. The first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, is credited with introducing the plant to America and since “Cuetlaxochitl” was so hard to say, as it became a popular Christmas decoration, the name was changed to honor him. Thousands of potted poinsettias, creating one giant poinsettia blossom, fills much of the street at the zocolo (the park/plaza at the center of town.) Though beautiful to look at, it hampers traffic (both foot and vehicle) even more than usual. With thousands of “vacaciones” in town, that is not necessarily a good thing; the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets are often filled, but the past couple weeks, the mob of bodies and cars often brings all movement to a standstill. Just the normal act of going to the market is nearly impossible due to the crowded conditions.
The zocolo is also the center of culture and entertainment. It is where everything important happens and where everyone gathers — to sit and feed the birds, play chess, see and greet friends, and watch the mariachi band serenade a special girl or teenagers posturing and giggling. This is also the center of entertainment both formal and informal — political presentations, musical performances, dancing troupes, and other activities.
Saturday afternoon, the local Rotary Club sponsored a fund-raising campaign that may or may not have been related to a pile of blankets, the Red Cross, and a shiny new car. There was a dance contest, some local kids performing traditional dances, minstrels, masked harlequins on 6 foot stilts, balloons, racing cars with nowhere to go so they just revved their engines, and more. I really felt for the clown, on stage in the direct and very hot sun, keeping up non-stop banter and dancing the gorilla song (whoot, whoot, whoot, whoot) with contestants, while readjusting his red nose every 30 seconds to keep it from sliding off. His partner was doing much better; she painted her red nose on.
As promised on December 12th, all the celebration came to a head last night, with many parties, much music, singing, and laughter floating through the air. There was also much shouting (pinatas?), cherry bombs, airworks, agitated dogs barking, church bells ringing, and generally noisy festivities into the wee hours of the morning. Today all is quiet. At least until Three Kings Day on January 6th.