While Americans "Christmas/Holiday Season" centers on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New years Eve, our friends South of the Border observe a more lengthy holiday season, influenced more by biblical historical events than the commerce of the season. Mexico celebrates the joy of the season from about mid-December to Jan. 6  with a related observance taking place as late as Feb.  It's charming that many of these observances have not changed for centuries and the modern notion of Christmas has not dulled the true spirit of the season.

Americans would do well to note the Christmas observances of our amigos South of the Border. It might even be nice to adopt a Mexican Christmas tradition this year, making the season last just a little longer and perhaps open our eyes and hearts to other celebrations of the season.

The first major event of the season is known as "Las Posadas", which literally translates to "The Inns", and refers to the journey of Mary and Joseph as they traveled from inn to inn looking for a place for Mary to give birth to Christ. Las Posadas celebrations take place all across Mexico, Central and South America as well as many cities throughout the United States. Though the celebrations are related to Catholic observances there are many that are celebrated strictly as a cultural festivity. All celebrations begin Dec.16th and run every night up to Christmas Eve night.

As the sun sets each evening a troupe of actors gather to play their parts in the holy pilgrimage. Mary and Joseph are led by a procession of believers who hold lighted candles to light the way for the holy couple, the group sings the "Litany of the Virgin".  At the head of the procession are two children who carry a small pine-decorated platform bearing replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro. Each night of the Posadas the troupe will go to a different house hold where the owner of the household is to reenact the refusal of Mary and Joseph to stay at the Inn. The group begins to plead for Mary and Joseph and after the owner recognizes who they are the entire group is invited in to stay. Then an impromptu worship is enacted at the site of the manger scene or "Nacimiento" and  the group offers songs of welcome, Ave Marias and a prayer.

Afterwards a great party ensues with refreshments, dancing and a Pinata which is filled with candies and goodies for the children. For those of you unfamiliar with the Pinata it is a brightly colored paper maiche figure which the children must try to break open blindfolded with a stick. At this time of year the pinata is traditionally made in the shape of a star, to recall the one that so mysteriously guided the Three Kings to the newborn Jesus. Once the pinata breaks open candy and small toys fly to the ground and the children hustle to gather as much of the goodies as they can.

On Christmas Eve an additional verse is added to the Ava Marias, announcing to Mary that the time has come for the saviors birth. At midnight the birth of the Christ child is announced with fireworks, ringing bells, and blowing whistles. Immediately following the fireworks a traditional mass called,"The Mass of the Rooster" is  held and then families return home for a feast of traditional Christmas foods which includes tamales, arroz dulce (sweet rice), atole (a sweet masa drink often flavored with chocolate), rellenos and menudo. Traditionally they do not share presents at this time though some have adopted the practice especially here in the U.S.

The next major event in the Christmas season is known as Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, also known as the 12th day of Christmas. It is at this time that children receive  their presents. Historically the Mexican people look upon this day as the day the Three Kings arrived to give the baby Jesus his gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Similar to our children leaving cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve it is common practice for many children to leave an empty shoe filled with hay out on Jan. 5th for the Three Kings horses in hopes that the Three Kings will leave them a present. It is also traditional for family and friends to gather and share  Rosca de Reyes  (a special sweet bread) and hot chocolate. Baked within the bread is a small doll which represents the Christ child, the figure symbolizes the hiding of the child from Herod's army and to receive the piece of bread that contains the doll is an honor.  Whoever finds the figure in their slice of sweet bread on Three King's Day is obliged to give the final Christmas season party in February.

The final major event of the Christmas season is on February 2nd, Candlemas Day, or Día de la Candelaria whose origins are based in Christianity, it marks forty days, more or less, after the birth of Christ, when he would have been presented at the Temple. It is on this day that the person who received the piece of bread with the Christ child on Three Kings Day holds a celebration offering tamales and atole to the guests. Rounding out the holiday season with another lovely gathering of friends and family.

Within the United States be sure to check your local newspapers and catholic churches for many of these events. Even if you are not Catholic and wish to respectfully observe the festivities they are happy to share in the joy of the season. Many people travel to Mexico this time of year to enjoy these historical and beautiful observances of the Christmas season. One of the most spectacular cities in Mexico to enjoy these festivities is San Miguel de Allende. Right here in the United States the deep Southwest is filled with such holiday traditions, Santa Fe, NM and Albuquerque are just a few places to check out. The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is yet another mecca of Mexican Holiday traditions.

Enjoy the season this year and take a tip from our friends south of the border and keep it alive a little longer.

La Posadas Celebration Recipes (Dec. 16th-24)

Champurrado (Chocolate Atole)
6 cups whole milk
1 cup masa harina--corn flour
2 cups water
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, grated
1 cinnamon stick

Heat the mild and chocolate in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the chocolate. When chocolate is completely dissolved, remove from the heat and set aside to keep warm. Mix the masa harina with the water in another saucepan; place over low heat, add the cinnamon stick, and cook until the mixture has thickened and the masa becomes translucent. Add the chocolate milk and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar and simmer for a few minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve the champurrado hot in cups or mugs.

Arroz Dulce (Rice Sweet)
¾ cup rice
2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
4 cups milk
1 cup rich cream
¼ tsp. salt

Scald milk. Put the rice into a deep baking dish, cover with the hot milk, and bake in a moderate oven for 3 hours, or until the rice is soft. Stir occasionally during first hour to prevent sticking. If necessary, add more hot milk. When almost done, add vanilla, sugar, and cream, and finish baking

Three Kings Day Recipe (Rosca de Reyes) (Jan. 6)

Three Kings Day Bread
3 1/2 cups flour
1 packet yeast
3/4 cups of sugar
7 eggs
125 grams butter
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
Dash of salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp aniseed
100 grams raisins
1 tsp vanilla
50 grams candied figs
50 grams candied orange
50 grams candied lemon
50 grams candied cherries
50 grams candied citron
1 beaten egg

Dissolve the yeast in five tablespoons lukewarm milk. Mix the flour, yeast, sugar, eggs, melted butter, milk, salt, cinnamon, aniseed, raisins, and vanilla. Knead into a ball; grease it with some butter and place near a warm stove until the dough doubles in size. (About 2 1/2 hours) Meanwhile cut into strips the candied fruit.
Knead, banging it down on the floured tabletop, to make it soft and pliable. Form the dough into a ring or rosca. Insert the baby figurine. Place the rosca on a greased backing tray. Decorate it with the strips of candied fruit. Leave the rosca once more to fluff up again. Brush the rosca with the beaten egg and sprinkle over granulated sugar.
Bake for 40 minutes at 360° F ( 180°C) in preheated oven.
Enjoy! And don't forget whomever gets the Baby figurine will have to host a new merienda come February 2!

While the next party on Candlemas day (Feb. 2) calls for tamales as the main course we would not have enough room in this article to go into the process of making tamales. If you have never made them before it would be best to order them from a local tamale maker or order online from the many fine tamale companies that now ship tamales to any locale in the world!

Feliz Navidad!

Recipes courtesy of Californiamall.com

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