I slip out of bed carefully, so as not to wake my sleeping husband. Heading down to our orange and fuchsia Mexican sala, I cozy into the armchair under the lamplight. It’s still dark at 5 a.m., my favorite time of the day. In two weeks, Barry and I will celebrate our 16th Christmas in Guanajuato, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Mexico where we own a home and live part of the year. Silent night, holy night. Noche de paz, Noche de amor.
The Christmas season in Mexico lasts almost a month, from December 12, el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe), to January 6, el Día de Los Reyes (Three Kings Day, or Epiphany). Schools are closed, and many businesses are, too. In Mexico, the Christmas season is more about religious celebration and family life than travel and gift buying. No crowded airports or Black Fridays here.
December 12 is a religious holiday celebrating Guadalupe, Mexico’s Virgin Mary, who was first seen in 1531 by a poor indígena (Native Indian) in Mexico City. At Guanajuato’s Santuario de Guadalupe church, the day is filled with prayer, mass, dancing, music, food vendors, and riotous celebration. We go early, before the crowds, to watch the faithful carrying ofrendas, baskets of fruit, bread, and flowers. Some arrive on their knees, crawling across the tiled floor of the church. While I am not a traditional believer, I am deeply moved by their expression of faith.
During the month of December, families create nacimientos, or creches, out of wood materials. The city also builds a huge replica of the manger, surrounded by animals, the Three Kings, and shepherds.
The night of December 24, Noche Buena is the equivalent of Christmas Day in the U.S. The evening starts with church at 11 p.m. People go to the altar, take Communion, and kiss the Niño Jesús icon, held in the arms of the priest. After mass, families return home to enjoy a festive, extravagant banquet at 1 or 2 a.m., with turkey, tamales, and desserts — cooked by mama, of course. The night won’t end there. All night long, people light cohetes, incendiary devices that make a loud, shattering bang. A long-standing (and to the expat, somewhat baffling) Mexican tradition, cohetes are lit any time there’s cause for celebration.
After all that merriment, it’s no surprise that everyone sleeps in on Christmas morning. That night, families get back together for the recalentamiento (warmed up leftovers), but to a norteamericana, the heavy-lifting of Christmas is over, before it even starts in the States. December 25 in Mexico feels more like the day after Christmas in the U.S., or Boxing Day in other parts of the English-speaking world. The pressure is off, and the day feels calm, unhurried, and quiet.
After many years of spending the Christmas season in Mexico, I can see my own culture more clearly, and I pick and choose which parts of it I want to include. Every year, we take our Christmas tree out of its box, place it in a corner of the sala, and hang our ornaments. Some are Mexican, bought from a local street vendor; others are faded and worn, dating back to childhood. I sing Christmas carols in Spanish, like La Primera Navidad (The First Noel). Lidia, our house cleaner, often brings us a gift of Mexico’s Christmas flower, the poinsettia, or nochebuena, from her rancho. On Christmas morning, Barry and I enjoy a potluck brunch with a small group of friends, either at our neighbor’s house or our own and later we go on an easy hike.
In honor of Barry’s British roots, we celebrate Boxing Day by hosting a gathering at our home. Our goal is to invite an equal number of Mexican and expats, and most years we come pretty close. Some guests ask what Boxing Day is. The origins are still debated, but most people agree that December 26 was the day in Victorian Britain when the manor servants would collect their yearly bonuses, gifts, and leftover foods, delivered in boxes.
I prepare a Mediterranean orzo salad and homemade wassail that tastes similar to the hot spiced cider that Mexicans call ponche. But the delicacy that disappears the fastest is the sherry trifle, a recipe I inherited from my Welsh mother-in-law. Neither the expats nor the Mexicans have a clue what a treat they’re in for. I admit yellow cake mix and packaged custard doesn’t sound especially inspired. The longer it sits around, the better trifle is supposed to taste, but mine has never lasted long enough for me to know.
On New Year’s Eve, there’s usually an outdoor musical performance in el centro, and of course, more cohetes, but the day pales in comparison with el Día de Los Reyes, or Epiphany, the day Mexican children get most of their gifts. Families eat the holiday cake called Rosca de Reyes, which hides a small figurine of baby Jesus. The person who finds the figurine in their slice of rosca is in charge of hosting and providing the tamales on el Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, on February 2.
Although Christmas concerts and expat parties abound all month, for me the season has a quiet, reflective hue. I always remember that this time of the year is Advent, my Presbyterian sister Arabella’s favorite liturgical season. She died 12 years ago in December. Although I was by her side in New York City at her death, Barry and I were in Mexico before and after, and in my memory, that whole period is suffused with tenderness. I have never forgotten the kindness people showed me, one street musician in particular. A man with a leathery, time-worn face, Javier was a well-known character around town who would sit on the sidewalk of the pedestrian street below our house, strumming his guitar and singing John Lennon ballads. He once told me he lived in a cinder-block structure somewhere on the edge of town, reading Kant in bed until it was too dark to see. When I returned from New York and told him tearfully that Arabella had died, he gave me a long gentle look with his soulful eyes, and I felt cradled by his kindness.
About a year later, Javier disappeared. I kept expecting him to show up again on the street, singing and playing his guitar, but he never did. I still miss him.
There are two things that stand out for me about Christmas in Mexico. The first is the deep faith of the people. That grown men and women will humbly kiss the Niño Jesús, cross themselves every time they pass a church, or crawl across a church floor to express their love, never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
The second is that spending Christmas in a culture that is not our own, has encouraged Barry and me to let go of any latent Christmas scripts still hanging around. We can’t do Christmas “right” in Mexico, because the script doesn’t work here. We call our families on Christmas Day, and then eat tamales, walk in the hills, and sing Oh Little Town in Bethlehem in Spanish. While we will never be Mexican, we are accepted and welcomed here, and so is our Christmas.
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