Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: Christmas: The Three Kings and Rosca de Reyes

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 06/01/2013

DSC_0401Traditionally Mexican children do not receive presents at Christmas but on 6 January – on the Feast of the Three Magi/Kings (Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, or short, Día de los Reyes), which commemorates the visit of the Three Kings (Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar) to the Christ Jesus on the 12-day after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. During the days preceding the Kings, children write letters to them requesting their present. On the eve of 5 January, the figures of the Magi are placed in the Nativity scene. In some parts of Mexico, children traditionally leave their letter in their shoes by the doorway stuffed with a bit of hay to feed the animals (camels) on which the Kings arrive – when children wake up the following morning, their gifts appear in place of the hay. In other parts, children send the note in a helium balloon into the sky, in which they explain why they have been good or bad that year and the gifts they would like to receive if deemed worthy. Nowadays, like Santa Claus in the States (or Father Christmas in Europe) – a recent importation as some Mexican children receive presents from Santa Claus too – the Kings tend to leave their gifts under the Christmas tree. Also, for the Three King’s day, it is a tradition to eat a sweet cake (pan dulce) called Rosca de reyes.

Rosca de reyes

The cake is decorated with pineapple (piña) and figs (higo) (for recipe click here). Inside the cake a tiny plastic figure (el muñeco) of baby Jesus is hidden. The tradition of placing a trinket into the cake is very old. The baby Jesus, when hidden in the bread, represents the flight of Jesus from King Herod’s evil plan to kill all the babies that could be the prophesied Messiah. The person who gets the baby Jesus is considered as the godparent of Jesus for that particular year! He or she must take the figurine to the nearest church on 2 Feb, Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria). In Mexican culture, this person also has to organise a party and provide tamales and atole de leche or milk chocolate (chocolate de leche) for the guests.


I found my Rosca being made in one of the houses on the Calle de Porfirio Diáz in Oaxaca – I could not resist the lovely cinnamon and orange smell that came out of the house onto the street, fruit or not! I ‘must’ have it! I was especially amazed by the large Rosca the women of the house had made for the party that was seemingly about to take place. The courtyard smelt delicious. I cannot wait to share mine with my Mexican friends this afternoon – I only hope that I do not get the baby Jesus in my piece as it will cost me too much to stage the party in London!


Sharing the Rosca

Sharing the Rosca with your family, friends, neighbours or colleagues is really a fun and exciting way of socialising.

Everyone ‘fears’ to cut a piece from the cake containing el muñeco, except very young kids who are happy to have a toy to play! We all had a go after la comida, the main meal in Mexico that normally takes place around 3 pm. I was honoured to have the first go – of course, my hands were shaking! But, phew, I was lucky on my first go but only for a centimeter as the next piece contained ‘the thing’.DSC_0554 DSC_0555DSC_0571

It turned out, as I was told, that a commercially made Rosca (in the box, above) contains more figures that the traditionally homemade one. Also, the larger the Rosca the more figures it contains. The homemade Rosca I bought did not excel in the supply of figures as there were none but it surely did outdo the commercial one on the smell and taste.

Of course, after a few muñecos found in the pieces shared by my friends, it was bound to be my next turn to get one! And sure it was!


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 piñatas page as part of the ‘celebrations and festivals’ section of my children’s 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 representing different animals or cartoon characters, but can also be of other shapes too.


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


Breaking the piñata as a popular party game is traditionally associated with Mexico used for special celebrations and festivities. It is a necessary 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 [Eng. transl. ‘fragile pot’]. It is also linked to the Spanish word piña [Eng. transl. ‘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 culture 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 holds 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 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 hung from the above, the participants look towards the sky/heaven (los cielos) waiting for the award. While hitting the piñata signifies the struggle against the temptation of evil, the stick itself symbolises the 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!


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, I find the two websites very 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 glueing 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 snowflakes using crochet.


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 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 the Las Posadas in Tlacolula (Oaxaca Valley), where children were neither blindfolded nor span around, but the piñatas were being pulled up and down and away from children making it harder to hit.


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