Our upcoming program A Mexican Christmas is a celebration of the unique sights and sounds of Christmas traditions in Mexico.
To learn about the history of Christmas celebrations in Mexico, we spoke to Lucia Mier y Terán Romero, who grew up in Mexico and is one of the featured singers in A Mexican Christmas.
First, a short history lesson: The Spanish conquistadors first arrived in Mexico in 1517 closely followed by Catholic missionaries, who first arrived in 1524. In order to convert the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples to Catholicism, missionaries found ways to incorporate existing native traditions into Catholic customs and holiday celebrations. Missionaries noticed the Aztecs celebrated the birth of the sun god, Huitzlipochtli, in an extended holiday from Dec. 7 through Dec. 26. During this period, people decorated their homes and trees with paper flags, had special processions, dances, and songs, and held human sacrifices. This Aztec holiday called Panquetzaliztli was ultimately subsumed into the Christian celebration of Advent and Christmas.
Because of the interactions between indigenous customs and the Catholic missionaries, the celebration of Christmas in Mexico is totally unique. Here are some of the traditions that make it so special:
The Aguinaldo Masses — In Mexico and other Catholic countries with Spanish or Portuguese origins, Christmas isn’t just celebrated on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Instead, the religious ceremonies begin a full nine days before Christmas, when people come to church every morning for additional masses. In Mexico, they’re called the Misa de Aguinaldo (meaning “gift” or “bonus”), because they are extra masses in addition to the Christmas Eve mass, although some say they are called Aguinaldo masses because originally attendees would also receive food.
In other countries, these masses are referred to as the Misa de Gallo (“Rooster’s Mass”) or Misa de los Pastores (“Shepherd’s Mass”) because they are usually held very early in the morning, around 4 a.m., originally as a way of accommodating those who had to get up early to work in the fields.
The first aguinaldo masses are believed to have been held in Mexico in 1586, when Friar Diego de Soria, the prior of the Augustinian friars of San Agustin de Acolman, near Mexico City, petitioned the pope to hold “bonus” masses between Dec. 16 and 24.
According to MexConnect, an online magazine about Mexico, after these masses, people sang villancicos (popular folk songs), broke piñatas and watched pastorelas, dramatic representations of the birth of Christ.
Although aguinaldo masses are still held today in many Catholic countries (especially in the Philippines), they are no longer common in Mexico.
Posadas — Each evening after the Aguinaldo masses, the church would organize posadas, which are recreations of the journey that Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem. Today, posadas are usually done in people’s homes. A procession, led by two people dressed as Mary and Joseph, travel to someone’s house and then they sing a song asking for shelter until the “innkeeper” agrees to let them inside. Once in the home, there is usually a Bible reading and prayer, followed by food and breaking of piñatas.
Pastorelas — Another popular part of the Mexican Christmas tradition are pastorelas, which are plays that recreate the part of the Christmas story where the shepherds follow the Star of Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. However, in these plays, the shepherds have to confront the Devil on their journey and are defended by the Archangel Michael. According to Inside-Mexico.com, the tradition was started by the Franciscan monks around 1528, who employed professional singers, dancers and actors from the indigenous community to put on elaborately staged productions.
Piñatas — Piñatas had a religious significance, as well. Traditionally, piñatas had seven points on them, signifying the seven deadly sins. Hitting the piñata symbolized fighting off the devil. Instead of candy, piñatas would be filled with seasonal fruits, sugar cane, peanuts and mandarins.
Poinsettias — Instead of evergreen trees, holly, and ivy, the quintessential Mexican Christmas decoration is the bright red poinsettia, which are native to Mexico. During colonial times, the friars in Mexico noticed that these flowers, which bloom in December, resemble the Star of David, and used them to decorate the churches at Christmastime.
To hear the music of the grand 17th-century Mexican convents and beautiful villancicos played by a big band and lots of singers, come to A Mexican Christmas, Dec. 14 to 16. We can’t wait to share this unique program with you!