Every year that I live in Mexico I learn more and more about the traditions of the Mexican Christmas or “Navidad”. There are three main themes including the Posada, the Piñata, and the Pastorela that climax on December 24th which is called “Nochebuena” or the “Good Night”. First I will address the “Posada” which means “lodging”. It relates the story of Saint Joseph leading a donkey bearing the very pregnant Virgin Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem where Joseph frantically searched for a place where Mary could give birth to the Baby Jesus. Beginning on December 16th and continuing up to and including December 24th the posadas are held each night in turn by different people of the same neighborhood or family. This is a nine day period called a “novena” and some say that it commemorates the nine months that Mary was pregnant and others say that it commemorates the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which supposedly took nine days. In the time of Jesus many societies followed the custom of gathering together for nine days following a burial and in the new testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” (Acts 1:14), we find the apostles, along with some of the close disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus gathered in the upper room and praying for nine consecutive days which culminated in the Pentecost or decent of the Holy Spirit upon them. In any case, nine seems to be a significant number in ancient histories.
How the posadas got started in Mexico is an interesting story. In the year 1587 a priest named Fray Diego de Soria, who was the rector of a monastery called San Augustín de Alcoman (just to the northeast Mexico City), asked permission to celebrate a mass called the “Misa de Aguinaldos” (Mass of Gifts) each day from December 16th to December 24th. In this mass there would be passages related to the story of the nativity and in order to draw the people to the mass the priests would include entertainment in the form of fireworks and songs and little gifts in the form of sweets. Now it just so happens that the people were already accustomed to celebrating during this period of winter solstice which they called “Panquetzaliztli” in their native tongue. It was a time when they celebrated their native war god whom they called “Huitzilopochtli”. The feast of Huitzilpochtli lasted twenty days from the 6th of December until the 26th and it also had an element of pilgrimage in that people would travel long distances to come join the celebration. They would also receive gifts of sweetened seedcakes of amaranth or in Spanish “amaranto” and these sweets are still around today and are called “dulce de alegria” or “candy of joy”. Also note that even to the present day, the little bags of sweets given to children at Navidad are called “aguinaldo” and the same word is used for the end of the year bonus pay that is traditionally given to workers just before Navidad.
The earliest posadas were held in the open courtyards of the monasteries and began with a recitation of the rosary accompanied by songs and stories based upon the biblical account of the birth of Christ. Later on, the posadas were carried over by the people to their own houses and neighborhoods and evolved into what they are today. The posada entails two groups, one representing the innkeepers and the other representing the “peregrinos” or “pilgrims” meaning Joseph and Mary. All of the people in the pilgrim group carry candles and usually four of them carry a litter instead, upon which rest statues of Joseph and Mary and a donkey. Sometimes this is actually substituted by people dressed as Joseph and Mary and Mary is seated on a real donkey! There is generally someone walking in front of the group with a paper lantern lit by a candle. As is the custom they go to three houses and at each they knock on the door and sing their request for lodging. At the first two houses the group who answers the door listens to their request and sings a refusal. At the third house they sing their request to enter and the participants in the house give their acceptance in song and all of the people including the people from the other two houses are let in. Then they recite a rosary and sing a litany to the Virgin Mary and after this the fun begins. One of the things that they do which really surprised me is that everyone lights “sparklers” which in the United States people traditionally light on the 4th of July. The ones that they use in Mexico for the posadas, however, are much smaller. They are called either “Luces de Belén” (Lights of Bethlehem) or “Luces de Bengala” (Lights of India). Even the small children get into the act and I am always worried that one of them will get burned but thank God I haven’t ever seen that happen and I hope I never will.
Now it is time to talk about the Piñata. The origin of the piñata can be traced back to China and it was part of the Chinese Spring Festival or what people in the west call “Chinese New Year”. The custom came to Italy by means of Marco Polo or perhaps some other adventurous soul and in Italy it took on a religious aspect and was called a “pignatta. It was used during the Lenten period and when the custom of breaking piñatas during Lent eventually arrived in Spain the Spanish introduced a feast every first Sunday of Lent called "The Dance of the Piñata." Breaking the piñata at the beginning of Lent symbolized the desire to end the evil in one's life, to convert the heart to return to God and receive an eternal reward. In the early sixteenth century, the piñata tradition was unknown in the New World but in Mexico, the Mayan Indians had a tradition of trying to break a clay pot that was filled with sweets and balanced on a pole. This practice was part of the traditional December “Panquetzaliztli” celebrations in honor of their war god “Huitzilopochtli”. The Spanish missionary priests were always looking for ways to convert the native traditions to Christian traditions and so they gave a religious sense to the game of breaking the pot and so they converted the “pot” into the form of the Spanish/Italian “piñata” and moved it from Lent to Advent. It quickly became a popular compliment to the festivities of the Posadas.
The traditional piñata of Navidad is made from a clay pot called an “olla piñatera” or “cantero” that is covered with bright colored paper and represents the Devil who tempts us with the bright colors. The classic piñata of Navidad is round with seven peaks or spikes, representing the seven cardinal sins: Sloth, Lust, Greed, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Pride. Hitting the piñata while blindfolded represents faith that allows us to believe without seeing. The stick with which to beat the piñata represents the force of the grace of God with which we combat evil. With God's help, we destroy the evil, and then we receive the fruits of God’s reward which are the sweets that are contained in the piñata. The shouts of the people who guide the blindfolded person with the stick represent the faithful of the church who collectively help us combat the Devil and who also share in God’s reward when the Devil is overcome.
The breaking of the piñata is always the highlight of any celebration. There are some very traditional songs that are sung in the process of breaking the piñata and during Navidad there are some extra phrases that are sung back and forth by the participants prior to the actual attempts to break the piñata:
“Ándale Roberto, no te dilates con la canasta de los cacahuates”. (Hurry up Robert, don’t dilly dally with the basket of peanuts.)
“Ándale Gina, sal del rincón con la canasta de colación.” (Hurry up Gina, come out of the corner with the basket of sweets.)
“No quiero oro ni quiero plata, yo lo que quiero romper la piñata”. (I don’t want gold nor do I want silver, I just want to break the piñata.)
“En esta posada salimos de apuro porque Luis nos dio solo ponte duro.” (We are leaving this posada early because Luis only gave us ponte duro.) Note: “ponte duro” are hardened little balls of corn flour mixed with unrefined sugar…a poor substitute for candy.
“Ándale José, mueve los pies con los copitas de vino jerez.” (Hurry up Joseph, move your feet, and bring us cups of sherry wine.)
“Esta piñata es de muchas mañas, solo contiene naranjas y cañas.” (This piñata is a trick; it only contains oranges and sugar cane.)
“Quiero mi canasta de papel de china, si no me la das me voy a la esquina.” (I want my tissue paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I will go out to the street corner.) Note: the basket referred to is the “aguinaldo” or gift basket of goodies which is given to everyone who attends the posada to make sure that no one is left out. The baskets are commonly made from or lined with either tissue paper, crepe paper, or white butcher paper.
“Quiero mi canasta de papel crepe, si no me la das me voy con José.” (I want my crepe paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I am going over to José’s house.
“Quiero mi canasta de papel estraza, si me no la das me voy a mi casa.” (I want my butcher paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I am going home.)
“En esta posada nos hemos chasqueado porque Teresita nada nos ha dado.” (We are very upset with this posada because little Teresa didn’t give us anything.)
“Echen confites y canelones a los muchachos que son muy tragones”. (Throw hard candies at the boys who grab for too much.) Note: “Confites and Canelones” are two types of hard candy.
“Todos los muchachos rezaron con devoción, de chochos y confites les dan ya su ración.” (All of the boys prayed with devotion so let’s give them their share of lupin beans and hard candies.”) Note: “Chochos” or “Lupin Beans” are like salted nuts and in Spain they are called “altramuz”.
“Castaña asada, piña cubierta; ¡Echen a palos a los de la puerta!” (Roasted chestnuts and candied pineapple; poke the people who are blocking our way!)
“Ándale Juan, sal de la hornilla, con la botella de la manzanilla.” (Hurry up Juan from the corner by the oven with the bottle of manzanilla wine.)
“De los cerritos y los cerrotes, saltan y brincan los tejocotes.” ( From the little hills and big hills the tejocotes jump and skip.) Note: “Tejocotes” are a yellow fruit about the size of a plum that grow wild and are used for fruit punch especially at Navidad.
“Ándale niña, sal otra vez, con la botella de vino jerez.” (Hurry up little girl, bring the bottle of sherry wine once again.)
“Esta posada le toca a Carmela, si no da nada le saca una muela.” (This posada is Carmen’s turn, if she doesn’t give anything she forfeits a tooth.)
“Ándale Mari no peles los dientes, yo lo que quiero son ponches calientes.” (Hurry up Mary, don’t give a silly grin, what I want is hot fruit punch.)
“Todaditos muy contentos a rezar la posadita, no es tanta devoción si no por la canasta.” (Everyone is content to participate in the posada, not so much for devotion as for the basket of goodies.)
“Ahora si muchachos ya se puede ir, para que mañana los dejen venir.” ( Okay boys, you can go home now because tomorrow you can come again.)
After the above calls back and forth the children line up stating with the smallest on to the biggest and the first person is given the stick (usually a sawed off broom stick or mop handle). Many times the first person is actually a baby who is held in the arms of his mother and this is the baby’s first ritual introduction to the piñata. The first person who is old enough to act on their own is blind folded and then spun in a circle while the people sing:
“Ya se va el curo Ponciano con su bastón en su mano a ver si vuelta u vuelta se quita lo panzón”. (There goes the priest Ponciano with his stick in his hand to see if by turning and turning around he can lose his belly.)
Then the blindfolded person is left under the piñata to try and find it and hit it with the stick. Some people pull on the rope that supports the piñata to make it jump about and harder to hit. Other people shout directions and encouragement while some of the people sing the following ditty to set a time limit:
“Dale, dale, dale,
No pierdas el tino
Porque si lo pierdes
Pierdes el camino.
Dale, dale, dale
Dale y no le dio
Quítenle la venda
¡Porque sigo yo!
(Hit it, hit it, hit it!
Don't lose your aim
Because if you lose your aim
You will lose the path.
Hit it, hit it, hit it!
He hit it, and it didn't give
Take away his blindfold
Because it's now my turn!
The people take turns until the piñata is broken and the treats come showering down and everyone scrambles to retrieve what the can. Often as not the piñata is finally broken by some twelve or thirteen year old girl who by now is a veteran of many attempts and knows exactly what strategies are needed to outsmart the jumping target. It is always interesting how exited the people get at the sight of the piñata. You can actually see grown people, especially young women, trembling with excitement as if wishing that they could take a turn. The piñata, however, is mostly reserved for children. After the scramble for goodies is over everyone receives a little bag of treats (aguinaldo) to make sure that no one is left out.
Now we come to the Pastorela or “Shepherd’s Play”. A pastorela is a simple morality play that usually involves shepherds who in some way or another are being tempted or tormented by the Devil. They began in twelfth century Europe and appeared in Mexico in the middle of the sixteenth century. They were used initially for the purpose of the evangelization of the native people but they eventually became part of the tradition of Navidad especially among school children. Many pastorelas are performed in schools or in community cultural centers. Almost every town of any size in Mexico has a “Casa de la Cultura” and putting on a pastorela performance is one of their traditions at Navidad. Pastorelas are homey, involve many children, and are at the same time quite predictable and very often amusing. The cast of characters has parts for everyone including simple shepherds, various Devils, Angels, Archangels, oriental Kings, and the Holy Family. Navidad just wouldn’t be the same without a pastorela. It is part of the fabric of Mexican culture.
One final note: The translations from Spanish to English above are my own. I have done the best that I can to convey the meaning but the translations are by no means literal. Some of the Spanish words are archaic and are not normally used in common speech and many of the phrases are linked to cultural practices which are no longer in use. When I asked some of my Mexican friends to help me with the translations they gave only a vague meaning for some of the words. I had to do bit of research to ferret out the details and even then when translated literally and out of cultural context the words didn’t make much sense in English without much additional explanation. What I provided above is what I consider to be a good compromise. Please forgive me if you don't agree and let me hear from you.