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. 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 re-fried 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 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 suger 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 the history, and different varities, 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’ (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 that was part of 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-spining 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 deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa State down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and 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 to 4 m (2 to 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 colors, but are actually leaves. The colors 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 color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.

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 the month of 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, bougainvillea 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, residue, and xochitl, 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 how the poinsettia was found. 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 manter 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 weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.

From the 17th century, Franciscan friars included it in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color 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 Guatamala 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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MEXICO Project: Christmas Symbols: Piñatas

Posted in Craft, MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 25/12/2012

In Mexico one of the most recognisable Christmas symbols is a piñata (pin-yah-ta).

DSC_0521I made three piñatas for the piñata page as part of the ‘celebrations and festivals’ section of my kids book on Mexico. First, a 7-cone star (estrella) representing the Star of Bethlehem; second, a donkey (burro) representing the animal on which Mary rode pregnant to Bethlehem; and third, a Christmas tree (árbol de Navidad) – all of which are traditional shapes used for the 9 days of Las Posadas, Christmas and the Three Kings in Mexico. At other times, piñatas are usually shaped as different animals or cartoon characters, but can be other shapes too.

Description

A piñata is a hollow shape made out of paper, cardboard and glue. It is decorated with coloured crepe and tissue paper as well as other items using a papier-mache technique. Traditionally, it had been made from adobe (olla de barro roja). Each piñata is filled with sweets, small toys, fruits and yam beans.DSC_0532

DSC_0376Origin

Breaking of the piñata as a popular party game is traditionally associated with Mexico used for special celebrations and festivities. It is an essential form of entertainment for kids at Las Posadas, Christmas, the Three Kings and birthday parties. However, the piñata probably originally comes from China. The Chinese version was in the form of cows, oxen or buffaloes, covered with coloured paper. It was filled with seeds and then broken with a stick during the New Year celebrations. The remains were burnt and ashes served for good luck throughout the year.

The piñatas were introduced from China to Europe in the 14th century by the explorer Marco Polo. They were adopted for the first Sunday of the Lent (Piñata Sunday). In Spain, this festival was called the Dance of the Piñata. The Spanish made them out of clay in the form of a pot (olla de barro roja). Later on, ribbons and colour paper were added. The word piñata probably comes from the Italian word pignatta meaning a ‘fragile pot’. It is also linked to the Spanish word piña meaning a pineapple.

Introduction of piñatas to Mexico and their religious significance

The Spanish missionaries brought the European tradition of piñatas to Mexico in the 16-century. They used them to attract the indigenous people to the Christian ceremonies. However, there had already been similar traditions before the Spanish Conquest. The AZTEC tradition was to celebrate the birth of their supreme god, Huitzilopochtli, in mid-December. Priests would attach a clay pot decorated with colourful feathers on a pole in the temple of the deity and when hit with a club, the hidden treasure would fall at the feet of the idol as an offering. Similarly, the MAYA, who were great lovers of sport, played the game in which a player was blindfolded while hitting the clay pot suspended by a string.

The Augustinian monks modified their European tradition by incorporating aspects of these games for their religious instruction (catechism). They also created Las Posadas tradition to co-opt the commemoration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli. A small town just north of Mexico City, Acolman (State of Mexico), claims, according to the local sources, to be the origin of the Las Posadas tradition as well as the birthplace of piñatas in Mexico. It helds an annual national Piñata and Las Posadas Fair (Feria de la Posada y la Piñata) in early December.

Traditionally, the piñatas therefore had a religious significance. The Mexican Catholic interpretation of the piñata was based on the struggle of man against temptation. The decorated CLAY pot (cantero) represents SATAN, who wears a variety of masks to attract people. As the traditional style of the piñatas is in the shape of a seven-pointed star, the CONES represent the SEVEN DEADLY SINS, known as the cardinal vices or capital sins (pecados) – greed, gluttony, sloth, pride, envy, wrath and lust. The seasonal FRUITS and SWEETS inside the piñata symbolise the TEMPTATIONS OF EVIL (of wealth and earthly pleasures). The piñata, therefore, reflects 3 THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES – faith, hope and charity. First, the BLINDFOLDED PERSON with a stick – the main force in defying evil – stands for FAITH (Fe). The spinning of the blindfolded person and singing by the other participants represent the disorientation caused by the temptation. The person is turned thirty times, one spin for each year of Christ’s life. Second, the piñata is a symbol of HOPE (Esperanza). As the piñata is hang from the above, participants look towards the sky/heaven (los cielos) waiting for the award. While hitting the piñata signifies the struggle against temptation of evil, the stick itself symbolises virtue as only good can overcome evil. Once the piñata is broken, the TREATS inside represent the AWARD for keeping the faith. And third, the piñata symbolises CHARITY (Caridad) as every participant shares in the divine blessings and gifts!

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How to make a piñata

For the star, I used a papier-mache technique though I think that it is unnecessary if you are using a clay pot. It is however essential if a balloon is used to make the body of your star or any other round shapes. In this case, the two websites are useful: first and second. I would recommend not to use the shiny metal based paper as it is difficult to shape around the round shaped pot.

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For the other two shapes I decided to use useful DIY instructions on Oh Happy Day blog, which uses a glue technique rather than the complications of a papier-mache technique using a flower-water mixture, which takes ages for a piñata to dry. I used crepe, China and hand-made amate papers. The Christmas tree was decorated with snow flakes using crochet.

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The game

While the piñata has now lost the religious significance, the ceremony remains the same. To play the game, the piñata is hung up from a string suspended from a tree or a ceiling. Each child has a turn at hitting the piñata with a wooden stick. Before hitting the piñata, the child puts on a blindfold. The other players spin him or her round, while an adult is moving the piñata away from the blindfolded child. The player can try to hit the piñata in the time it takes for the other players to sing a traditional song. The game is finished when the piñata breaks and everything inside falls on the ground. P.S: The photos below are from one of Las Posadas in Tlacolula (Oaxaca Valley) where children where not blindfolded, nor where they span around, but the piñatas were being pulled up and away from children making it harder to hit.

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