Tepotzolán and the Pastorelas

Photo: IJG JPEG Library


It’s an ideal setting for a Christmas pageant: the little colonial town of Tepotzotlán, just an hour northwest of Mexico City.

Sometimes referred to as the capital of the uniquely Mexican Churrigueresque style of architecture, the 17th and early 18th century buildings of Tepotzotlán, with their gilded, flourished, curlicued and cherub-topped buildings, indeed offer a perfect backdrop for the annual reenactment of the birth-of-Christ plays that have come to be synonymous with the Christmas holiday season in Mexico.

Although almost every small town in Mexico hosts some sort of Christmas pageant, or pastorela, during December, the pastorelas de Tepotzotlán have, over the course of the last five decades, become a nationally recognized piece of cultural heritage, full of Christmas pomp and circumstance, as well as longstanding local traditions.

The pastorelas are essentially an elaborate Christmas play, depicting the birth of Jesus Christ, the arrival of the Three Wise Men and the continuous fight between good and evil.

A cultural amalgamation between New World Christianity and pre-Columbian ceremonial traditions rooted in the times of Spain’s early evangelical expansion into Mexico, the exact origins of the pastorelas have been lost over the centuries.

In fact, no one is quite certain as to how the pastorela tradition began in Mexico, but some sources attribute the custom to a 16th century Augustine order in the city of Puebla, that allegedly asked Pope Sixto V to grant them permission to host a nine-day Christmas celebration.

The Augustinians, who frequently used theater, drama and song in their conversion process, wanted to tell the story leading to Christ’s birth with a spectacular, hands-on ceremony that would convince the local Aztecs to accept Jesus as their savior.

By allowing the natives to reenact the procession of Mary and Joseph, the Augustinians hoped to personalize the story and capture the souls of the participants.

The nine-day procession also coincided with a pre-Columbian December festival dedicated to the war god Huitzilopochtli, and the plan was that a lively ceremony that culminated with song and food would be far more attractive to potential converts than a bloody ritual involving death and sacrifice.

Whether the Augustinian story of the birth of the pastorela tradition is true is a matter for historians to debate, but regardless of its roots, the pastorela is today a vital part of Mexican life.

Although modern society has sometimes morphed the pastorela into a less ritualistic fiesta, the idea that each community should present an annual Christmas pageant is still very much ingrained in Mexican culture.

In Tepotzotlán, the pastorelas are traditionally held at the Hostería del Convento restaurant, across from the Museo Nacional del Virreinato (Viceregal Period National Museum), housed inside a former Jesuit seminary built in the 17th century.

The pastorelas are performed in the early evening from Dec. 16 through Dec. 23, and the venue comfortably holds 500 people.

Tickets to the event – which can be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster  or at the Hostería – include a sampling of spiked punch, traditional Mexican food, a fireworks display and a mariachi performance.

Although traditional pastorelas in Mexico often use members of the clergy as the actors, the Tepotzotlán rendition incorporates members of the local community in the performance.

Most pastorelas typically include the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and panoply of saints, demons, archangels, ranchers, nuns and indigenous people.

In some versions, the seven sins are represented by seven devils. The overall tone of the pastorelas is light-hearted and jovial, not somber.

The “Adoration of the Wise Men,” written in 1550 by Friar Andrés de Olmos, is widely considered the first written pastorela script, and it was completed in Náhuatl.

However, two decades earlier, in 1530, Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico, issued an ordinance to put on a play of a “Farsa de la Navidad Gozosa de Nuestro Salvador” (“Joyful Christmas Farce of our Savior”).

In Tepotzotlán, while the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus are on stage during the pastorelas – played by actors – they’re not speaking characters. The world interacts around them, and then they become part of the procession that occurs after the play.

The pastorelas themselves last for roughly 40 to 45 minutes, concluding with the actors inviting the audience to join in a procession through Tepotzotlán to the town’s main plaza, around 15 minutes away.

Because the festivities often last into the wee hours of the night, many people who attend the Tepotzotlán pastorelas plan on staying the night at one of the town’s various tourist hotels.

More information

Pastorelas in Tepotzotlán

The pastorelas in Tepotzotlán are held each year from Dec. 16 to Dec. 23 at the Hosteria del Convento de Tepotzotlán restaurant.

The Hosteria is located at Plaza Del Virreinato 1, in Colonia Centro de Tepotzotlán (tel: 5876-0243 or 5876-1646), http://www.hosteriadelconvento.com.mx.

Tickets can be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster or at the Hosteria.

Weekend shows generally sell out in advance, so it is a good idea to book in advance if you are planning to attend these presentations.

Museo Nacional del Virreinato

While in Tepotzotlán, be sure to check out the Museo Nacional del Virreinato, one of the most important historical museums in the country.

Run by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the museum contains an astonishing collection of relics, artifacts, paintings, statuary, vestments, silver and gold objects and some of the most opulent gold leaf retablos in Mexico.

The museum’s collections also include alleged pieces of bone from St. Peter and St. Paul, an Italian chalice with coral inlays and a stirring portrait of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.

The museum is located at Plaza Hidalgo 99 in San Martín, Tepotzotlán. (tel: 5876-2770). It is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.

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