By JUAN DE JESÚS BREENE
Are “the holidays” a time of heightened depression? Maybe for some, but it does not seem that way in Mexico.
In Mexico, we have the magical mix of events called Guadalupe Reyes. Translation: everything that happens from the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 to the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, the Three Kings Day, is part of the Christmas season.
Three weeks is a pretty lengthy party.
It all starts with the Guadalupe apparition, the well-known story of the Virgin Mary appearing to indigenous Mexican and now-canonized Catholic Saint Juan Diego, on a northern Mexico City hill called Tepeyac. You know it is December in Mexico because thousands of people start a yearly pilgrimage, by foot, from all parts of the country to the Guadalupe shrine in northern Mexico City. Entire lanes of long stretches of highway are blocked off for devotees who arrive to give thanks for blessings received.
That is where things start.
Next is Christmas. It is not just a single celebration in Mexico, but a multifaceted event.
In Catholic tradition, a novena, nine days, proceed many single celebrations to get ready, to purify, to prepare. Christmas is no exception. For each of the nine nights before Christmas, families take turns hosting posadas where the entire town shows up outside the selected home to sing a series of traditional songs, asking to come in, marking the traditional route of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, looking for a place to rest,
Half of those gathered for a posada sing from the outside and the other half from the inside. Those outside are asking to come in. Those inside sing to them that there is no room and to move to the “next” house, symbolically celebrated the following evening.
After the interchange of songs, everyone is invited in for some hot fruit punch, both laced and unlaced versions, as well as light foods, depending upon the region and income level.
While originally religious in nature, posadas are not church-based, but family-based. In fact, in olden times, it was an honor for a family to be selected to host a posada. A coveted religious image or town’s patron saint would pass from house to house, marking it as the official gathering place.
In small towns, the celebration is pretty much the same today. But in cities, the practice has basically died. In cities, the get-togethers are still called posadas, but are entirely social in nature.
“Remember accounting is having its posada on Thursday so marketing can have its on Tuesday.” “Tell Aunt Lupe we can’t come to her posada this year because the kids’ school is having theirs on the same night.” Posadas have essentially become office Christmas parties and school holiday festivals.
These posadas mark the official start of Christmas. The tree can officially go up, while most have it in place by Guadalupe day.
Posadas also mark the time when government offices begin to be closed. The official government closures are decreed, but government workers patiently wait, predicting the extra-official holidays as nothing is ever put into writing. At some point, a high-level cabinet secretary will make a decision and verbally pass it down through the chain of command until it reaches government office workers and clerks, who are still paid, but do not have to come to work.
So basically, all of Mexico starts closing down.
Another interesting phenomenon is that, by law, the 45 percent or so of the Mexican population who have formal employment must receive their Christmas payroll bonus by Dec. 20. This bonus, called an aguinaldo, must be at least two week’s salary. And after that date, the country is happy with people selling and purchasing.
Christmas Day is not the big event in Mexico. The last posada would have taken place the day prior to Christmas Eve, when the last part of the song is changed to “come on in, holy pilgrims, we have a place for you to rest.”
Christmas Eve is the big day in Mexico, with large family suppers planned that easily go into the early morning. To keep the peace, some families participate in two dinners, trekking back and forth between the in-laws’ and the blood family’s celebration.
Some families also now do children’s Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. Families often do a lottery in which names are exchanged for secret-Santa gifts.
Christmas Day, everyone is asleep from the night before. But Christmas Day, which is basically dead, begins another Mexican holiday phenomenon. Since school and universities are closed for an even longer recess, high school and university students in middle-class families are now “released” from family obligations and allowed to travel to beach resorts with friends.
International tourists will already be there, but children from “good” Mexican families do not arrive until the afternoon of Dec. 25.
Then, New Year’s Eve hits, another family supper, followed by government parades the next day. Some families call their children back from the beach.
The country continues to be pretty much closed, as schools still are.
On Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany is the time selected to remember the biblical Magi, also referred to as the Wise Men or Kings. The Three Magi were distinguished
foreigners in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition. They are said to have visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Wise Men were three Middle Eastern kings — Gaspar, Melchor and Balthazar — who felt compelled by God and a new star in the sky to go to Bethlehem and bring gifts to the son of God, who was to be born.
Since the Three Kings brought gifts to Jesus, this is when Mexican families usually give gifts to children. It has become the coveted day for Mexican children to get their Christmas gifts. The whole concept of gift giving on the Dec. 25 is relatively new, and mostly celebrated in middle-class families lucky enough to be able to give gifts twice.
Of course special food marks special celebrations. In Mexico, the Rosca de Reyes is a ring-shaped, colorful, somewhat-sweet cake or bread that is decorated with caramelized or candied fruits. The dough is made from yeast and other traditional ingredients of flour, sugar, eggs and flavored with an orange zest. This seasonal treat is only available in Mexico. A plastic baby Jesus is hidden inside, and the goal is to get a slice where Jesus is not “hidden.”
The slicing of this bread is the official end to the season.
But wait … like everything else in Mexico, there is always more. As part of Jewish custom, Jesus was presented in thanksgiving to God in the temple by his parents, Mary and Joseph, celebrated today 40 days after Christmas, on Feb. 2, the Candelaria, since a candle was involved. The custom is that the person who did get the plastic baby Jesus inside their King’s Day bread must bring tamales for everyone to share on Candelaria day.
While this custom is only alive in rural communities, parents still bring their child to church to be “presented” by their parents and godparents when the child is two years old.
How did all these Mexican holiday customs develop? While some elements of Catholic doctrine may still exist, for hundreds of years, communities across the country only had a priest visit once a year, so to keep the faith alive, communities celebrated on their own and these traditions and customs, rooted in Spanish Catholicism, morphed into processions along highways and hiding plastic Jesuses inside cakes.