Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: Christmas: Las Posadas and Christmas Eve

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 06/01/2013

DSC_0224In Mexico Christmas festivities begin with Las Posadas (16–24 Dec) and end with Candelaria (2 Feb). While everyone can participate in Las Posadas in bigger towns, such as Oaxaca (I witnessed the first posada of the Baslilica de la Soledad), in smaller towns they tend to be by an invitation only. I was lucky to have been invited to the 4th posada by the family of my Spanish teacher José in Tlacolula (a small town in the Oaxaca Valley), as his brother was chosen to host the posada for the night.DSC_0194

We arrived just before the night. The preparations for los posada have been going on for some days if not weeks! While most of the decoration was already swinging in the air projecting beautifully against the sky with a nearly full moon, I was lucky to able to see the making of the last, most vital, decoration – the construction of the wreath – for the front courtyard. Almost the entire family was engaged in the making of the wreath, which was incredibly entertaining and, for me, enriching at the same time. DSC_0201 DSC_0248 DSC_0247 DSC_0236DSC_0254

On the other hand, the rest of the family was busy in the kitchen preparing food and drinks as described below. José’s brother and sister-in-law run a family bakery (Panadería Columba), so many nice goodies were baked in a beautifully build adobe oven during the day for the party of at least 250 pilgrims.

Origin and Meaning of Las Posadas

Las Posadas (Eng. lodging) are a 9-day celebration of candlelight processions with a series of parties in a local neighbourhood representing 9 months of pregnancy of Virgin Mary. The procession re-enacts the Nativity (Navidad), that is, Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus Christ.DSC_0231

The procession has been a tradition in Mexico since 16th century, when the Mexican Catholic church combined its tradition with the December celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli by the Aztecs.

Re-enactment of Las Posadas

The procession of pilgrims signs Para pedir posada often accompanied by musicians. DSC_0269

Pilgrims carry candles and are often dressed taking up the role of Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the angels. Four children, dressed up as angels, carry the Nativity scene. The procession sometimes brings along a donkey (burro) to represent the donkey that brought Mary into Bethlehem. The first posada starts from a church of the local neighbourhood. For the first 8 consecutive nights, a different family – chosen by the lay committee of the local church that rotates every year responsible for yearly religious festivities and feast days – would host a posada. The owner first responds by a song refusing lodging until the procession is finally let in, symbolising the place where Joseph and Mary were allowed to enter. The children thanks to the owner. DSC_0283 DSC_0288 DSC_0290

The participants kneel in front of the elaborately constructed Nativity scene (usually made in clay and handed down from generation to generation), pray the Rosary and sing Christmas carols. DSC_0301 DSC_0297 DSC_0306 DSC_0305

Afterwards, depending on the budget of the host, the pilgrims are indulged by the party FOOD (tortas o media tortas con pasta de frijol y queso, tamales de dulce, buñuelos, pan dulce) and DRINKS (ponche, atole con leche). DSC_0262 DSC_0259 DSC_0267

Children break a piñata (usually in the shape of a star) to obtain treats. For the making of my piñatas as a Mexican Christmas symbol click here. DSC_0313 DSC_0323 DSC_0336

Adults occasionally have a party, but in most cases they leave for home with a plate like mine below. DSC_0339

The Final Posada on Christmas Eve

The last – the 9th – posada culminates on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), when a manger, along with figures of shepherds, is placed into the crib. Once the Posada house is found, baby Jesus is put into the manger after which the families go to midnight mass (Misa de Gallo). Fireworks follow the church service to mark the beginning of Christmas. Afterwards, families go home to have Christmas dinner. Adults open their presents, while children break their piñatas. If a family is not too religious, it feasts first, then go to the Misa de Gallo.

A Mexican Christmas dinner is abundant and varied, with foods that range from tamales to turkey and Mexican hawthorn (tejocote). Traditionally, a stuffed turkey with fruits, roasted and served with mole poblano, is popular. For a full list of dishes for Christmas dinner including Ensalada de Buena Noche and recipes click here.

The Three Kings and Rosca de Reyes

Traditionally Mexican children receive presents on 6 January, i.e. on the Feast of Epiphany, when gifts are given by the Three Kings (Dia de los Santos Reyes). It is a tradition to eat a sweet cake (pan dulce) on Epiphany called Rosca de Reyes. For more information on Dia de los Santos Reyes, click my other post.

Candelaria

Candelaria (2nd February) marks the end of Christmas celebrations in Mexico. It is believed that on this day, Jesus was taken to the temple as a baby and was officially named. Mexicans engage in parties on Candelaria.

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Explanations of Food and Drinks

• Tortas o media tortas con pasta de frijol y queso – Round or half-round buns (bolillos) or elongated buns (teleras) with refried bean paste and cheese.

Tamales de dulce – A paste made from corn flour, lard of pork, carmine (red colour powder), nicuatole (a gelatinous dessert made from ground maize and sugar, traditional in Oaxaca) and raisins (pasas). It is wrapped in a corn husk (totomozle) and then steam-cooked.

Buñuelos – A buñuelo is a kind of large flat tortilla or fritter, prepared with wheat flour and deep-fried in oil. It is sprinkled with icing sugar and served with honey, sugar cane syrup, cinnamon or vanilla. It is a traditional Christmas dessert. In Oaxaca, it is a tradition that you break the clay plate making a wish after you finish eating the buñuelo. This tradition is said to spring from a Prehispanic festivity in which all the dishes were broken at the end of a calendar cycle.

Pan dulcePan dulce is a sweet bread. Recipe. On history, and different varieties, of pan dulce, see my article.

• PoncheA non-alcoholic punch. You boil fruits in water and sugar and serve very hot. Fruits are Mexican hawthorn (tejacotes), sugar cane (caña), apples (manzanas), apricots (chabacanos), guavas (guayabas), raisins (pasas), sugar (azucar), cinnamon (canela).

• Atole con leche – A non-alcoholic corn drink with milk and cinnamon. You first cook hard corn for a while, then take it to the mill, then sieve the paste through muslin, and finally cook it with milk and cinnamon. Delicious!

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MEXICO Project: Christmas Symbol: Poinsettia

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 26/12/2012

DSC_0438In Mexico, in addition to piñatas, another important Christmas symbol is a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). My mother has been buying the flower grown in a pot ever since I remember in order to decorate our dinner table for Christmas. As she calls it a ‘Christmas Star’, as it is officially known in Slovenia, I thought it was just a pretty red flower that grew around Christmas in some European greenhouse in the middle of winter and was part of the modern capitalist money-spinning world to make our Christmas dinner table prettier! But until my research on Mexico, I had no idea that the flower has, in fact, a very long Christmas tradition that goes back to the 16th century and that its origin brings me to Mexico!

My fascination with the poinsettia actually begun before my research in early November when I saw it for the first time in the garden (below) of a lovely woman called Eulalia Florina Morales from Teotitlan del Valle, a town in the Valley of Oaxaca famous for a pedal-loom weaving. I went to see her workshop, where she showed me the process of preparing a raw wool for hand-spinning and eventually for weaving.

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Origins and description

The poinsettia is native to Mexico and central America. It can be found in the wild in the deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from the southern part of the State of Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to the State of Chiapas and, across the border, to Guatemala. Also, it grows in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of the States of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

To my surprise, the poinsettia is actually not a flower but rather a small tree or a shrub, typically reaching a height of 0.6–4 m (2–16 ft).

DSC_0622 DSC_0623The coloured bracts – which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled – are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colours, but are actually leaves. The colours of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row) to change colour. At the same time, the plant requires abundant light during the day for the brightest colour.

DSC_0319 DSC_0321DSC_0615There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia. While the main public squares (zócalos and plazas) and those in front of the churches, as above in Ocotlán and Teotitlan del Valle in the Oaxaca Valley, may carefully be planted with the commercially grown red poinsettias each year during December leading up to Christmas, the poinsettia is actually a pride of almost every Mexican house, such as the gardens below at San Filipe del Agua and in Forestal near Oaxaca. The other three flowers are frangipani, bougainvillaea and dahlia.

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The flower seems to be also a popular choice to be carried in processions on feast days during this time of the year in Oaxaca, as in the procession of children for the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico (12 Dec) (Peregrinacíon infantil al santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe).

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Christmas association

The flower had already been in use in Mexico before the Conquest. In Nahuatl, the language of the AZTECS, the plant is called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl meaning ‘residue’, and xochitl meaning ‘flower’) meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.” The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication (i.e modern-day ibuprofen and aspirin).

The plant’s association with Christmas began in the 16th century in Mexico. I found two versions of the legend of how the poinsettia was discovered. In the FIRST, a little boy named Pablo was walking to a shrine in his village to see baby Jesus and had nothing to offer to the child. Having seen greenish branches that grew everywhere, he collected them and laid them on the mantel though other children teased him. But to the surprise of others, red-shaped flowers soon appeared on each branch. In the SECOND, a young girl was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The tale says that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson ‘blossoms’ sprouted from the weed and became beautiful poinsettias.

From the 17th century, Franciscan friars included it in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, and the red colour represents the sacrifice of blood through the crucifixion of Jesus. In Spain, it is known as ‘Flor de Pascua’ meaning ‘Easter flower’. In both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as ‘Crown of the Andes’. In Mexico and Guatemala, it is now known as Noche Buena meaning ‘Christmas Eve’. It is, therefore, extensively used in Christmas celebrations in these two countries, from where it eventually spread as a Christmas flower to other parts of the world.

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