Mexican Christmas is a festive celebration of Christ's birth that lasts over a month. While American commercialism has influenced the way that many celebrate the holiday, the majority of Mexicans still honor most, if not all, of the centuries-old traditions surrounding the Mexican Christmas.
In order to understand the lengthy holiday season in Mexico and the significance of all the Mexican Christmas customs, it is necessary to point out the intense religious faith of much of the Mexican population. Almost 90 percent of Mexicans identify themselves as Roman Catholic, many of them devoutly so. This long standing, cohesive religious identity of most Mexicans is the backbone of Mexican Christmas celebrations.
The Mexican Christmas season begins with the first of the Posadas on December 16 and ends on February 2 with the celebration of Candelaria. The highlight of the Mexican Christmas occurs on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve.
Las Posadas are processions of children dressed as Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings, and shepherds that take place each of the nine days before Christmas in neighborhoods throughout Mexico. The children reenact Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. At the first and second houses the children stop at in this Mexican Christmas tradition they are turned away, while at the third house they are told they can stay in the stable. Here the children enter, pray the rosary and then have a party with a piñata filled with fruits and candies.
An elaborate nativity scene is the primary decoration in each family's home during the Mexican Christmas. Some families have nativity scenes that take up an entire room, with dozens of figures, lights, houses, and trees. On Christmas Eve Baby Jesus is placed in the manger of the nativity scene, where he will remain until the scene is taken down on February 2.
On the Mexican Christmas Eve families attend midnight mass and then return home for a traditional Christmas Eve meal. Different food items are present at this Mexican Christmas meal depending on region and affluence, but popular items include tamales, Biscayan cod, greens in mole, turkey, or ham. After the Mexican Christmas meal the children open gifts, play with sparklers, and have another piñata.
On Mexican Christmas Day most families rest and celebrate Christ's birth at home with family.
Epiphany, El Dia de los Reyes, on January 6 is an important day in the Mexican Christmas season, as this is the day that children wake up to find gifts left for them by the Three Magi. On this day the traditional Rosca de Reyes, or Three Kings Cake, is served with a figure of Baby Jesus hidden inside. Whoever finds the Baby Jesus figure in their piece will host a party on the Candelaria and provide a christening gown for Jesus.
Candelaria occurs on February 2 and is considered the last day of the Mexican Christmas. Most Mexicans attend dinner parties on this day and close out the holiday season by celebrating Christ as the "Light of the World."
Most children receive their Mexican Christmas gifts on Epiphany to symbolize the gifts brought to Baby Jesus by the Wise Men. While some Mexicans have adopted the more commercialized Santa Claus tradition, many still commemorate Epiphany as the day for children to receive their gifts, just as Jesus received his gifts from the Three Kings on this day.
The poinsettia is highly present during the Mexican Christmas season and has deep roots in Mexican culture. A Mexican legend dating from the 1500s helps to explain how poinsettias became so closely associated with the Christmas holiday. According to the legend, a poor young girl had no gift to lay before the manger of baby Jesus at her local church. An angel appeared to the girl and told her to pick some weeds and take them to the church as her gift. When the girl laid the weeds in front of the altar, they turned into poinsettias, filling the church with their color and beauty. From then on poinsettias were used in Christmas celebrations around the country, and eventually beyond.