This last Christmas I went to Mexico to spend the holidays with distant relatives. Last time I saw my relatives was five years ago, and the last time I spent a Christmas in Mexico was twenty-one years ago. I am originally from San Luis Potosi, a city located in central Mexico, where I spend this last Christmas. I wanted my family to experience Christmas in Mexico for the first time.
Christmas in Mexico is very different than in the United States. In Mexico, las Posadas is an integral part of the Christmas celebrations. The tradition of Las Posadas comes from Spain and it was brought to Mexico and other Latin American countries by the Catholic Church. For 400 years, starting in 1586, Mexicans have celebrated las Posadas in December. Other countries in Latin America and in the U.S., in communities where Spanish cultural influence remains strong, las Posadas is also part of their cultural Christmas tradition. Most of these celebrations take place in the Southwest; in states like New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and California.
Las Posadas celebrations in Mexico vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city. Cities, which tend to be more populated and where people are more influenced by American culture, tend to have their own variations of las Posadas. Their celebrations may include prayers and a piñata, followed by dinner. The Mexican state of San Luis Potosi is divided into Municipios or municipalities. Some of the municipios, specifically those located in more rural areas, celebrate las Posadas in a more traditional way. Their prayers are longer and more involved. A traditional Posada includes a reenactment of the Nativity story, followed by a dinner, and breaking a piñata.
During our visit this year, my relatives and I organized a simple celebration for the children on Christmas Day. The day before Christmas, my aunt and I went to Mercado República, a very famous food market close to the Historic Downtown of San Luis Potosi, to buy food and other things for the celebration. Most people go there to purchase food and gifts for las Posadas, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve celebrations.
It was really nice to be back to this market as it reminded me of my childhood days, back when I lived in Mexico. I took my daughter with me and we walked around the many long isles of decorative, festive piñatas, hand-made art crafts, fresh fruit and vegetables, food stands selling freshly made tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, pozole, menudo, and other popular Mexican dishes.
This food market is so big that it would take a whole day to see every isle. It is usually visited with friends or family members who plan to go shopping and eat at the food stands available there. The food is delicious and there are usually more than two food stands selling the same dish, but each with their own flavor twist.
This mercado or food market has been around for decades. Despite the fast growth of commercial businesses opening in this city, including many American franchises such as Walmart, Mercado República continues being part of San Luis Potosi’s cultural tradition. Although the majority of people who visit and shop at Mercado República are working class, many people from different social status come here to purchase the items such as hand-made art crafts and hard to find ingredients that cannot be found anywhere else such as certain spices or fresh herbs needed for some Mexican dishes.
We walked around the mercado and I spotted a ceiling full of colorful piñatas –some with five, seven and even nine points. I chose a seven-pointed star piñata for our night’s festivities. My aunt tries to find pinguica or pointleaf manzanita, a type of shrub needed for her nacimiento or nativity scene. Many households set up nativity scenes on Christmas in addition to the popular Christmas tree. Homes decorate their nativity scene in different ways; some like to set up a small nativity scene right next to their Christmas tree, while others like to set up a large one in their living room or a part of the house where it can be seen.
We also bought velitas or small candles for the children as part of las Posada celebrations. The candles are used to pray during the novenas, a series of prayers and songs performed at las Posadas.
After praying the novenas and singing villancicos or traditional Christmas songs we were ready to break the piñata. According to Catholic tradition, the seven-pointed star represents the seven capital sins in Catholic religion while the nine-pointed star piñata represents the nine months the Virgin Mary was pregnant. Spanish priests used the breaking of the piñata as a method to teach indigenous people in Mexico biblical concepts, such as the seven deadly sins during their evangelization.
Children take turns hitting the piñata at the end of a traditional song, which includes this lyrics, “dale, dale, dale no pierdas el tino porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino” – “go, go, go don’t lose sight of it, if you do you will lose the path!”
Each child has a turn until someone breaks the piñata and all the candy and fruit falls to the ground! Many years ago, piñatas were made of decorated clay jars. Today, they have evolved: the inside or the main body of the piñata is made of cardboard and newspaper. I do miss the old piñatas made of clay jars because they were harder to break and allowed more people to take a turn. However, the new ones are lighter and therefore less likely to hurt the children when the pieces fall to the ground.
After breaking the piñata, a delicious dinner follows with tamales, ponche, atole, and other favorite Christmas dishes.
All the children present enjoyed la Posada, and I enjoyed it along with them. It reminded me of las Posadas from my childhood. It’s been twenty-one years since I spent a Christmas in Mexico. I had forgotten what it was like to look forward to Christmas as little kids do. I feel grateful to be able to relieve this part of my childhood with my own children. This Christmas was very special and I will treasure it for years to come.