5 Fun Mexican Holiday Traditions - Nacimientos, Nochebunea, and Others
Have you ever wondered how people in Mexico celebrate the holidays? With moderate weather and deep rooted Catholic traditions, Mexican celebrations during the holidays differ quite a bit from the Christmas most of us know in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Homes are decorated with fresh lilies, evergreens, and poinsettias. Bright colored ornaments can be found in the local town market called puestos. And children delight in making intricately designed farolitos or paper bags, lit with candles at night to display unique designs and illuminate paths or sidewalks throughout the center of town. As interesting as these different traditions are, the main difference is that all the holiday celebrations are centered around the Nativity. Mexico’s several weeks of holiday festivities highlight special mini holidays as a way to commemorate specific aspects of the nativity story that are especially significant to Catholic believers.
Posada refers to the nine days of celebrations preceding Nochebuena or Christmas Eve. Posada, which means lodging in Spanish, commemorates the journey Mary and Joseph took to get to Bethlehem and their search for lodging in Bethlehem once they arrived there. Celebrations start on December 16th when families reenact the nine day journey to Bethlehem. They do this by traveling through the town going from door to door searching for shelter. Often, they will have two children dress up as Mary and Joseph lead a candlelight procession of friends and family as they sing songs and search for shelter. When they finally find someone from the community to let them in, the children will say a prayer of thanks and place figurines of Mary and Joseph in the family’s Nacimiento. The procession will then go to one of their member’s homes for a feist and a pinata party. This is repeated for the first eight nights of Posada, with the last night leading to the Nochebuena festivities.
The center of the home during the holiday season is the family Nacimiento or Nativity. They are typically colorful, elaborate, and often reflect the local folk art. Tradition follows that the nativity is set up on December 16th, the beginning of Posada. However, the baby Jesus can only be added to the nativity scene on December 24th, which is their Nochebuena (good night) or Christmas Eve. It doesn’t stop there, the three wise men are only to be added to the scene on January 5th, known as Dia de Reyes or the Day of the Kings. Families may have Christmas trees as well, but Nacimientos are more common and definitely the focal point of their Christmas celebrations.
Nochebuena takes place on December 24th and is the last night of the Posada. Often families get together for dinner, dancing, and games. They also all attend midnight mass together at their local Catholic church. At this special mass, everyone sings traditional carols together, known as villancicos. There is a special message by the priest and then everyone lights candles for a special holiday blessing. After the mass, church bells ring out and fireworks shoot across the sky. Although presents were not traditionally part of nochebuena, due to the influence of Santa Claus, many families have started exchanging presents as part of a modern nochebuena/Christmas Eve celebration. December 25th is not significant in the Mexican culture and many usually attend church with their families. However, it is becoming more and more popular to have a large Christmas Day dinner with family after church, usually a meal of oxtail soup, beans, and a special salad.
Dia de Reyes
Holiday celebrations in Mexico continue into the new year with Dia de Reyes on January 5th. This day is also known as the Epiphany. It celebrates the arrival of the three wise men that traveled from a far away land to see the Christ Child, as told in the Biblical nativity story. Just as these wise men brought gifts for Jesus, children in Mexico leave their shoes out by the window for the the Reyes Magos or wise men, to fill with candies and small gifts. Friends and families get together to share a meal of tamales, pozole, or pavo con roz, and of course, the centerpiece of the holiday, the Rosca de Reyes. The Rosca is a sweet bread that is baked in the shape of a wreath and is often decorated with candied fruit. Inside the Rosca is a tiny surprise, a plastic figurine of baby Jesus that is baked into the bread, hidden somewhere in the wreath. When the rosca is cut and served, the person who finds the baby Jesus figurine in their piece of bread has the honor of hosting the fiesta for the Dia de la Candelaria.
Dia de la Candelaria
February 2nd is known as the Dia de la Candelaria. As the final day of the holiday celebrations, everyone in the community attends the Candelaria or the Candlemas together. At this special mass, children bring their Christ dolls known as Ninos Dios to be blessed by the priests as a way to start off the new year with God’s favor. After the mass, there is a big party hosted by the person who found the Jesus figurine in the rosca with lots of traditional food, games, and dancing.