Perhaps because Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico are so unique, intriguing and colorful, the celebrations around Christmas tend to get less attention. But the marathon of Christmas holidays is also extraordinary.
What is Guadalupe – Reyes?
The Christmas holiday season is familiarly called “Guadalupe – Reyes.” It refers to the opening celebration of the season with the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th, the patron saint of Mexico and runs through Three King’s Day, or Los Reyes Magos on January 6th. Inside those dates, las Posadas are organized, elaborate nativity scenes are built, and special Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day festivities take place.
La Virgen de Juquila in Oaxaca
In Oaxaca, the celebrations start a few days earlier on December 8th which is the Virgen de Juquila, the patron saint of the state. There are pilgrimages to Juquila, about 4 hours from Puerto Escondido up the mountains. Around this time, be careful on the roads along the coast and in the mountains. Pilgrimages take the shape of runners carrying a flame, cyclists and large groups of walkers sometimes led by a decorated vehicle with the group and usually followed by the pick-up car with the rest of the “team.” On December 8th, someone will set off cohetes early and the local band or mariachis will play Las Mañanitas (Happy Birthday).
Get involved in your town!
Getting involved in your neighborhood’s festivities will give you the opportunity to learn more about Mexican culture and meet new friends. Of course, trying typical Mexican Christmas dishes and drinks is all bonus! You’ll want to try the ponche and rompope. Ponche is basically a warm wine with fruit and rompope might be compared to egg nog with quite a bit of rum. And Ensalada de Noche Buena is a typical Christmas Eve salad with fresh pomegranates, oranges, pineapple, jicama and beets in a citrusy dressing. Provecho!
Here is a small guide to the holidays (or when you will hear the cohetes, the giant Mexican bottle rockets.)
Virgen de Guadalupe, December 12th
The Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe is a religious feast day honoring the patron saint of Mexico. Celebrated on December 12th, Catholics believe the day marks the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatz in 1531. The Basilica of Santa Maria de Guadalupe is visited every year by over 20 million people and huge pilgrimages arrive at the Basilica on this day.
In practice, the day is celebrated throughout Mexico in small villages, towns and cities, and they usually go all out. Cohetes begin the day anywhere between 4 and 5 am. Mariachis sing Las Mañanitas before mass at 5 am. After the mass, there are often Aztec dancers or whatever local dancers are available. A town parade is on after that with at minimum, the local band making some music as they make their way down the street. Eating and dancing follow. The mariachis can go all day long and flowers and candles decorate any altars in town.
Las Posadas begin on December 16th and run through the 24th. The tradition symbolizes Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to sleep or an inn, posada in Spanish. Posadas are also a tradition in Spain, but more elaborate in Mexico. Begun in 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, the director of the San Agustín de Acolman monastery in Mexico state, got permission from the Pope to hold mass during nine days in December.
Like many holidays and religious events in Mexico, the tradition of posadas integrates deeper meanings from indigenous culture. The Aztecs believed Huitzilopochtil, or the god of war was born on the winter solstice on December 21st. This god was celebrated by 20 days of ceremonies culminating on December 25th. The posadas last for 9 days ending on December 24th.
Again, cohetes announce the beginning of the procession. People gather, led by a Mary and Joseph played by children. The procession has candles and sparklers. Usually at the gathering place, there is food and drink and a piñata for children. The group leaves asking for permission to enter at homes, chapels or a church. The group is denied entrance, like Mary and Joseph’s journey until the last stop when they are finally allowed to enter. There is a fiesta with traditional food and drink. This continues until the last night where the final stop is the church and a midnight mass.
Nativity scenes, like Day of the Dead altars, can be elaborate. People visit the markets to get supplies like moss, pine boughs and pine needles. The nativity scene is the representation of the birth of Jesus and as Mexico is still quite religious, the scenes still hold a lot of importance.
Christmas Eve, or Noche Buena & Christmas Day
Noche Buena is celebrated by the last procession, Calendas de Noche Buena. Depending on the size of the town, the procession may feature floats and bands. In any case, there will be a party. Christmas Day is usually spent relaxing with family since there was a good amount of partying the evening before.
New Year’s Eve or Nochevieja (Old Night) or Año Nuevo (New Year) & New Year’s Day
Much like in other places, New Year’s Eve is spent counting down to midnight with friends and family. New Year’s Day is spent relaxing.
Three King’s Day, or Los Reyes Magos, January 6th
It is believed that the three wise men visited Jesus after his birth on this day. They each brought a gift. Today, children in Mexico leave their shoes by the door of their house so that the three kings can come and leave them gifts.
On the evening of Los Reyes Magos, families share a rosca, a typical braided or wreath-shaped egg bread with a tiny doll or dolls inside representing the Baby Jesus. Whoever finds the doll in their slice of bread must prepare the tamales for Candelmas celebrated on February 2nd.
The marathon ends on January 6th, but the Christmas season really ends with Candelmas or Candelaria on February 2nd. Those who found the Baby Jesus doll in the rosca on January 6th will make tamales or contribute to a meal with the same group. During the mass of the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, people will present their Niño Dios dolls to be blessed.
The Guadalupe-Reyes Christmas marathon of celebrations in Mexico is a mix of religious traditions, underlying indigenous meaning and modern festivities. It is a friendly and social holiday season that is worth experiencing. You’ll find activities organized by local groups and churches, expat groups and organizations and likely your neighborhood. Get involved, it’s a great way to learn about Mexican culture and meet new friends!