Christmas In Mexico Is A Hoot

We cultures share a lot, seems like more all the time, but at holiday time, our traditions are quite diferent

As we all know, Mexican Christmas is a little different from the standard North American celebration, there is a whole tradition in the way we Mexicans do it up, and the biggest proof of this is the nativity scene.

It is confirmed that the idea came from Saint Francis of Assisi, a missionary who, from a cave near Greccio, Italy in 1223 was trying to get people to understand the meaning of the birth of Jesus. The first nacimiento as we called it, was staged with real people and real animals, a stand in for the Virgin Mary, Joseph, a baby, cows, mules, sheep and pretty much any animal they could find. This quickly became a tradition, popular in all Catholic countries, making it a family tradition for parents who wished to explain Christmas’ origins to their children in a visual way. Mexico shows signs of this tradition from the end of the XVI century, and at the beginning it was just a few essential characters: Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus. Of course being as creative as we are, Mexicans started adding the Three Wise men, the shepherds, animals, and all kinds of religious images as well as vegetation.

Although technically the nativity scene took place in Israel, Mexican families have a very special way to set up their nacimiento. It is usually erected in a corner of the living room, with tables and boxes making different levels, but it can take up to a whole room when the builder gets carried away.

 First, you must find the correct manger, it should be the correct size to fit at least the main characters, but we’ll get to size in a minute; according to Catholic Mexican tradition, the manger represents humility and simplicity. You must put in the structure star printed paper, rocks, paper, and moss, as well as tiny trees, palm trees, cacti, and whatever you can find to create the Nazareth feel. We make valleys and hills, with sand and pebble pathways, tiny houses and villages. Some people put fake snow over everything, making no sense at all but adding to the magic of it. The bigger ones include scenes from the bible, from the devil to the Annunciation. Part of the nacimiento often has a river flowing at the middle, made of tin foil with a mirror symbolizing a lagoon, for the purity of it all, and how else were they supposed to shower? Yeah, we really get into our nacimientos.

Then come Joseph, Mary, and of course Baby Jesus’ bed made out of hay, and the angel. The meaning is obvious, but the angel must go at the top of the manger, because he announces the coming of Jesus. The Star of Belem hangs above the angel, it is the symbol for everyone to come see the baby, usually big and shiny, preferably lights up so no one gets lost on their way to find the family. Especially the three wise men with those valuable gifts.

Then, very close to where baby J will be, there is an ox, who with his warm breath will keep the baby nice and cozy, a sheep for its wool symbolizing abundance, and a donkey, which was chosen because donkeys are the most humble animal in creation, besides it was a donkey who carried Mary while she ran away from Caesar Augustus’ orders of killing the Messiah. It is very normal to have a huge sheep and a tiny family, or to have porcelain figurines with missing legs or ears; because the nativity scene is set up every year and these items are sometimes passed down through generations. They have far too much emotional significance to throw away if they get frayed or broken.

The three wise men are the Mexican Santa. They bring gifts to children. These guys are a big part of the scene as well, and sometimes they don’t even match. Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar are three men who came bearing gifts for the baby: gold, incense and myrrh (kind of perfume goo); pretty sweet gifts for a new born promise for the entire world. These three shall be placed one after the other. Such sweet and thoughtful presents. Of course, there should be an elephant, a camel and a horse, because that’s how they got to Belem. With them there should be some shepherds and herdsmen, because they saw the star and knew the baby was born, they had to come see him and make sure he was OK being born in a barn. They symbolize the human connection with this event, the humble people at the service of their king.

We traditionally set up the scene on December 16th with the first posada. Before dinner, the oldest person in the family is in charge of cooing baby Jesus in a scarf. Typically, the scarf if silk, and then the whole family has to sing to it, from generation to generation and he is finally placed in his hay bed.

Many of these figurines are made artisanally in wood, porcelain and clay, but way back they were made of wax with fine silk dresses which were embroidered by nuns or the single women of the family. It was prepared with great anticipation and is to this day, the biggest tradition in the Mexican household. Nowadays almost every city in Mexico has a community life size nativity scene, usually placed in the main downtown gardens and those do tell the whole nativity story, complete with bible passages and live representations.