Christmas Traditions in Mexico

by Dani Knod

The Riviera Maya is a melting pot of cultures and customs, but when it comes to the holiday season, there are a few traditions that are deeply rooted in the Mexican and Maya people. With a predominately Catholic population, many customs parallel the practices of Catholics worldwide; however, there are other traditions that are entirely unique to Mexico. Sac-Be thought our holiday crowd might be interested in learning about the practices of the local community of the Riviera Maya.

On the eve of December 11 the Christmas season begins, with the return of the Antorchistas Guadalupaños (Torch Bearers for the Virgin of Guadalupe). This nationwide custom involves residents from each town charting a course and running with a torch from a distant location back to their hometown to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe. The object is to arrive on December 11 at midnight just in time for the celebration of el Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe on December 12. A nightly mass will be performed from this day forward until Christmas Eve mass. Since this practice is honored up and down the coastline, please take care while driving during the first few weeks of December.

Another popular Christmas preparation practice involving the entire community is Las Posadas, which starts on December 16 and continues nightly until the 24th of December. Based on when Mary and Joseph were traveling to Bethlehem looking for a place to sleep, this Catholic tradition was brought to Mexico by the Spanish priests during the conquest. Members of the town sing carols at every door and when they reach the last one—as Mary and Joseph finally found a vacancy in a barn—the celebration begins. A special punch is served while a piñata is hung for all to take a swing at. The breaking of the piñata signifies the destruction of all the evils of the past year, leaving you ready for a new year!

A more mischievous day, el Día de los Santos Inocentes (the Day of the Innocent Saints), falls on the 28th of December. On this day, friends attempt to borrow something from each other, a rake, a bike, a car, money … you name it. Upon receiving the item, the borrower will say to the lender, “Innocent little dove, you have allowed yourself to be fooled, for on this day you should lend nothing.” The borrower will take the item and not return it until another celebration, el Día de la Calendaria (the Day of the Calendar) on February 2. Though one could say that this custom is somewhat reminiscent of the American April Fools’ Day, it remains completely unique to Mexico.

Conversely, the concept of Santa Claus is entirely reminiscent of the American idea. Only in non-traditional households is Santa Claus responsible for the arrival of presents on Christmas night. Most believe that El Niño Dios (the Baby Jesus) is responsible for the gifts. Oftentimes though, the gifts given on Christmas are more on the “need” side of the wish list, much like receiving Grandma's hand-knit sweater instead of a race car.

The “cool” gifts are left for el Día de los Santos Reyes (The Day of the Three Wise Men or Epiphany) on January 6. On this day, the Three Wise Men brought their gifts to the Baby Jesus, so the children of the towns receive their gifts as well. Also as a part of the festivities on the 6th, Rosca de Reyes (a twisted roll of bread with a small plastic doll baked into the middle of it somewhere) is shared at a party. The person whose piece contains this doll is customarily responsible for throwing a party on el Día de la Calendaria on February 2 for all those involved in the breaking of the bread.

This Día de la Calendaria is not practiced as consistently as the other celebrations, but traditionally the day is a last gathering of the holiday season. Tamales are served and the items borrowed from the Día de los Santos Inocentes are returned to their rightful owners. However, as you can imagine, since the day is losing much following, the borrowed items get returned less and less.

The celebration of New Year's also brings a few kooky traditions as well. During the New Year's Eve party, it is good luck to wear red or yellow underwear. However, this underwear MUST be a gift; you cannot buy your own good luck bloomers. The red ones are fabled to bring good luck in love throughout the next year, and the yellow, money. Then, upon each of the 12 strokes of midnight on the clock, 12 grapes must be eaten, each representing a wish for the New Year. Another good luck belief consists of setting suitcases outside your door so your next year will be full of journeys. Also, performed to bring money into the home during the next year, bills are dropped outside and swept with a broom into the house.

With so many different cultures combined in one area, vacationing in a foreign country can open your eyes to traditions that exist beyond the realms of what you know and with what you surround yourself. If you find yourself at the beach bar next to a family with an accent, ask them about the customs in their country. Just as this was interesting for you to read, it is just as interesting to share. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!