21 December 2009

Hey! What's that green stuff?

Most gringos who have been in Mexico over the Christmas holidays and have been privy to viewing a private manger scene or "nacimiento" have noticed that Mexican people utilize a lot of greenery in their nacimientos and use it in a way that is not familiar to many of us. They are also very particular about this material and when you go to the market you will find them picking over the various offerings with a critical eye. They feel it and smell it to see how fresh it is and they question the vendor interminably and haggle over little bits and pieces. They have special traditional names for the different types of plants and they seem to know exactly how much and what type that they want. Grandmothers are the most astute and they pass their expertise in the matter to their daughters who pass it on down to the granddaughters. This seems to be a very important transaction and while my mother-in-law Carmelita and my wife Gina poke and feel and smell and haggle I stand to one side and try to get an inkling about what is going on. I thought I would pass on what I have learned to those of my readers who may be interested but with the warning that this is serious business and not something to be made light of.

There are several types of "musgo" (MOOS-goh) or moss that you can see in the pictures below. There is another plant called "Dorardilla" (doh-rahr-DEE-yu) which in English is called "Rose of Jericho" or "Resurrection plant" . There is also a Spanish Moss called "Heno" (EIGH-noh) or "Paiste" (PIE-stay). There are little trees made of a piece of wood topped with moss that are called "Arbol de Musgo". There is something that they call a "rio" or "river" that is nothing more than a piece of cholla cactus skeleton (as in my photo) or a piece of bark formed like a channel and covered with bits of moss. This is to simulate a river or stream. Sometimes they use a piece of aluminum foil with bits of moss along the edges and the shiny aluminum represents the water. This is reminiscent of the Spanish "Villancico" (Christmas carol) called "Los Peces en El Río. Usually the "rio" has someone fishing in it or "patos" (ducks) or "gansos" (geese) swimming in it. In fact all around the nacimiento you will generally find little figures of shepherds tending their flock and other figures representing village life. Some of these nacimientos get really involved with the acting out of Bible stories, etcetera, and they can actually take over a whole house. I have been to a house where every Navidad the people move out and set up a huge and very detailed nacimiento display in their home for their friends and neighbors to visit and enjoy.

The "musgo" (moss) and other materials are collected in the mountains by people who bring it to the markets. Our local musgo comes from the nearby Sierra de Santa Rosa. Some of the collecting is done legally, with permits, but a lot is done illegally without regard to the damage that it may cause the environment. Therefore, there is a movement afoot to limit or eliminate entirely the use of musgo in the nacimientos. I think that this may be accomplished with the next generation but for the present generation the custom is just too deep rooted to pass away quickly. If I was a psychologist I think I would like to study how some of these nacimiento customs came to be and why they are so ingrained in "la gente" (the people).

The final picture below is of a very common figurine called a "pastor". It is a man standing over a pig that he just killed and is getting ready to cook it in a big pot to make "carnitas" for the "posada" gathering. Some of these figures show the "pastor" standing over the pig with a bloody knife and the pig cut wide open. Hmm, that does not bode very well for pigs does it? I guess it's just part of being a pig that you are probably going to die at Christmas. That's too bad but then I really do like carnitas so all I can say to the pig is "Adios Mr. Pig"...and thank you!"

¡ Feliz Navidad !

(Click on photos to enlarge)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Resurrecion plant is sold in herbal shops in the ,market as a "kidney healer". I found one that had been laying on the shelf in the garage for over a year..all brown and looking dead... I put it on the window ledge of the back patio thinking to throw it away later & forgot it . A week later we had a rain and "Voila"! it was all green and rejuvenated.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.