Travel Tips

Fiestas de Navidad: Celebrating Christmas in Mexico

Locations in this article:  Mexico City, Mexico

PoinsettiaThinking of traveling for the holidays this year? It’s a great way to discover the culture, customs, and traditions of another country. While many associate Christmas with snow, mistletoe, and European history, you can find truly unique experiences in Mexico. Contributing writer Michelle da Silva Richmond explains what you can experience while celebrating Christmas in Mexico.

People throughout the world are gearing up to celebrate Christmas, but perhaps nowhere is this holiday welcomed with more pageantry and ritual than in Mexico, where the strong fibers of heritage and tradition can be found throughout the year.

Fiestas de Navidad are marked by diverse traditions and attractions—which combined with the sunny weather—drive thousands of tourists south of the border during the winter months of December and January.

It’s during this time that you’ll experience unique traditions and warm hospitality at its best as Mexicans countrywide celebrate the ultimate fiesta with regional holiday cuisine, colorful and ornate decorations, and traditional festivities.

The Poinsettia Connection

Long before they became a symbol of the Christmas holidays, the Aztecs cultivated the red and green plants that they called cuetlaxochitl, meaning “mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure.”

What we now know as the poinsettia was a favorite of Aztec Emperors Moctezuma and Netzahualcoyotl. The red leaves represented blood sacrifices (which they practiced fervently) and were used to make red dye. The plant, which also had medicinal uses, was believed to stimulate circulation, help heal skin infections, and cure high fevers.

In the 17th century, Franciscan priests noticed that the scarlet flowers bloomed during Christmas and they began using the flowers to decorate the church and altar during the Fiesta del Santo Pesebre, or the Holy Manger procession. Since the poinsettia was a reminder of blood sacrifices to the Aztec, the Christian church adopted the plant to symbolize the death of Christ. Nowadays, these flowers are known in Spanish as Nochebuenas, meaning literally, “good nights” and also “Christmas Eve.”

More recently, when Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico (1825 – 1829) saw the fiery flower, he was so taken with it that he sent several to his home state of South Carolina so that they could be raised in his greenhouse. Initially dubbed the “Mexican Fire Plant,” it was later officially named poinsettia in honor of its “discoverer,” who died on December 12, 1851. By the early 20th century, poinsettia was already popular throughout the U.S. and was being sold as a potted plant. The rest, as they say, is history.

Holiday Décor and Fanfare

No Mexican holiday décor is complete without the traditional nacimiento, or nativity scene. Often made of clay, the delicately crafted scenes are extremely ornate and intricate and are usually passed from generation to generation. More elaborate nacimientos can also be found made of dried cornhusks or decorated carved wood.

Sparklers are among the favorite party favors for children and adults as they represent Las Luces de Belén or the lights of Bethlehem. According to Christian lore, a star guided the Three Wise Men to the manger where Christ is said to have been born. In modern-day Mexico, the search for that birthplace is re-enacted in a tradition known as posadas.

No Mexican fiesta would be complete without traditional dishes. Some of the most popular Christmas recipes include ponche con piquete, a warm punch with rum; buñuelos, thin, fried pastries; tamales, corn bread filled with meat or jam, wrapped in cornhusks; and pozole, a hearty, pork and hominy-based soup.

Posadas and Pastorelas

One of the most impressive Mexican holiday customs are the posadas, a longstanding tradition carried out nightly December 16 through 24. A religious and social celebration, it pays homage to the Biblical journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Before becoming an annual tradition, the nine days of processions were created to teach the story of the birth of Jesus and to coincide with the nine-day Fiestas del Sol, which celebrated the virgin birth of the Aztec Sun God, Huitzilopochtli.

Today, during the nine nights before Christmas, a party is held in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the home to watch a procession of children and musicians dressed in colorful robes in the candlelight glow. Once the singing procession reaches the house, half of them enter the home while the others remain outside to sing and ask for shelter, inspired by Mary and Joseph’s plea to the innkeeper. The doors are then opened, and the celebration begins with plenty of food and drink for all. The last posada, held on December 24, is followed by midnight mass.

Pastorelas (or shepherds’ plays) are another key aspect of the Mexican Christmas tradition. These theatrical productions represent various historical scenarios, including the trip of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary to register with the Roman census and the hardships they suffered while searching in vain for shelter.

These date back to Mexico’s colonial period when Catholic missionaries used them to convert natives to Christianity. The first-known pastorela was “Los Reyes” (the Three Kings) acted out by missionaries in 1527 in Cuernavaca. Today, they are staged throughout the country, often as “dinner-theater” in historic churches, such as the Convento de Tepoztlán, north of Mexico City.

New Year’s Eve

Año Nuevo is typically welcomed with an abundance of music, dancing, rompope (eggnog), and fireworks. Friends and family congregate at parties lasting until dawn. To ensure good luck in the upcoming year, tradition dictates that you wear red underwear and eat 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. New Year’s Day is usually a quiet time of rest and reflection—and recovery.

Three Kings Day

While modern Mexicans have embraced Santa Claus and the tradition of exchanging gifts on December 25, many residents—especially in rural areas—adhere to the time-honored custom of having children receive gifts on the feast of Los Reyes Magos or the Three Wise Men, on January 6. Sleepy-eyed boys and girls awake to find small gifts in their shoes, rather than in their stockings.

On the eve of January 6, families and friends gather to share a traditional “Rosca de Reyes,” a ring-shaped cake with a small baby baked inside. The person who finds the baby must host a party on Candlemas Day, February 2. In more traditional communities, some cakes contain a ring and a thimble, the recipient of the former being assured of marriage within the year, while the receiver of the thimble can look forward to a year of single “bliss.”

Radish Festival

One of the most unusual celebrations in Mexico takes place in Oaxaca on December 23, and is known as the Fiesta de los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes). Artisans set up booths around the zócalo (main square) to display the elaborately carved radishes, which often feature nativity scenes.

Want to discover more Christmas celebrations around the world? Check out:

By Michelle da Silva Richmond for Michelle da Silva Richmond is an award-winning travel editor and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Her articles have appeared in in-flight magazines, consumer publications, and newspapers throughout the U.S. and Mexico.