Christmas in Mexico

Christmas in Mexico is stuffed full of family, tradition and spirit.

My three children bathed and clean in their pajamas, in my hand a precious book from Tere’s collection of children’s picture books.
Now, that the children have grown up the books are carefully boxed up and put away.

The sweet smell of their clean skin and hair, cuddled up, and I open a book and we read about Christmases around the world. Then we come to the pages about Mexico and see pictures of children singing about posadas and breaking piñatas.

My job then was to sing English Christmas carols to them, which Tere loves. She says I have a good voice. She has the carols printed out and ready. Tere and I sing all the English carols we like and, after a few years, the children know the songs quite well and can join in.

The Holly and the Ivy

The holly and the ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

O, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flow’r
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our dear Saviour

O, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good

O, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn

O, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all

O, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in
Sweet singing in
In the choir

At school there are Christmas parties and the children dress up for nativity plays, ‘Pastorelas’. Of course the parents are invited. It’s the prelude to three weeks of festivities.

My first Christmas in Mexico was in 1984. I had barely any money, but decided to see Mexico City all the same. I bought a third class train ticket into the City. All the seats in third class were benches made out of slats of seasoned, varnished wood. There were no cushions.

The train moved slowly and traveled through Xalapa’s coffee country and the more arid land that came after it. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Mexico City, where the train slowed down some more.

The aftermath of the San Juanico explosions

Funereally, we travelled past the black cinder-scape of San Juanico; a few months previously a huge gas storage tank exploded, killing many of the people who were living close to it.

We trundled on. On the outskirts of the city, people’s houses came right up to the railway line. You could see into their backyards. One house had a little courtyard made from grey breeze blocks. It was set with Christmas lights. Another house had a plastic Christmas tree. Yet another had a window decorated with the lit up, smiling plastic figure of Father Christmas. House after house.

Even in the bleakest, greyest outer suburbs of Mexico City, people were still full of cheer; alive and kicking, celebrating Christmas.

Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural at the Palacio Nacional, Hidalgo and the Guadalupana

It’s the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the 12th of December, the first day of Christmas. We are walking to our church in Vallarta, Guadalajara, walking along tree-lined avenues.

Out from the church, coming to meet us are a dancing circle of parishioners. They are celebrating the day of the Virgin. The circle opens to include us. Spontaneously, Tere grabs the hand of a woman and my hand. Reading Tere’s gestures, I hold the hand of my daughter Carmen to the right, and she holds the hand of her sister Eve, in turn, who holds the hand of her brother Juan Antonio. We join in.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and of the whole of the Americas. She is Mother America. She was emblazoned on the first Mexican flag.

Humble Juan Diego went up to Tepeyac to collect firewood and the Virgin descended. Her skin was Aztec bronze, her eyes were dark. She looked at Juan Diego, who fell to his knees in shock and her image was imprinted, as if by magic, on his poncho. There are no brushstrokes on the poncho and, in a reflection of one eye of the virgin, miraculously, is the image of Jan Diego kneeling.

Juan Diego’s poncho, hanging in the Basilica,

That poncho hangs encased in the Basilica of Guadalupe, an imposing, green domed, concrete structure. And, as we circle and leap in time to the music  I understand something about the meaning of what we are doing.

Mary is the mother of Mexico and that makes all of us her children, holding hands, singing, we are wishing our mother a happy, happy birthday. Teresa and I and the children become part of an equal fraternity – we all share a common mother.

We’ve been to the Tonala and Tlaquepaque to buy pieces for a ‘nacimiento.’ Well, we have a little tree too, but it’s the nacimiento we want; clay figurines painted in cream, brown and gold: Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the kings, the shepherds, the animals.

In the market we buy moss, and decorated paper, and a stable and a few other things: birds, palm trees, Christmas decorations. Lights. As usual the market smells are both intolerably delicious and slightly disgusting. The stewing goat’s meat birria and the fatty taco meat chopped up under bright light bulbs smell appetising, but there is also the smell of the rubbish.

At home the children and Tere lay out the nacimiento on a card table. The finishing touch to the nativity scene is a circle of flashing lights. The whole affair is set to one side of the entrance, near a large slab of dark window overlooking the garden. The lights reflect on the shiny surface.

In every school and government office people set out their public nacimientos. The municipalities set theirs out in the town squares. The figures are much larger. The lights are much brighter. But the general scheme is the same. There are competitions for the best one.

Flor de Nochebuena, or cuetlaxochitl

The markets are full. Mexican markets are overwhelming even when it isn’t Christmas. They are vast. Bright red Flor de Nochebuena, or cuetlaxochitl, is on sale everywhere. The US ambassador to Mexico, Mr. Poinsett, was impressed and took some Noche buena plants back to the USA where they renamed the plant after him.

Piñatas hang from hooks everywhere. The most traditional are made from heavy baked clay, easy to shatter, and they contain cheap sweets, like Duvalin, pulparindo, pelon rico and mazapan. They are also full of nuts and fruits. The piñatas are covered in coloured, decorated raffia paper. The traditional piñatas have seven shining silver cones attached, each with tassels.

The piñata, in Mexican tradition, represents the devil and, when you beat the devil, out come prizes, spilling onto the ground. It’s winter so they are selling ponchos of all sizes. The traders also sell handicrafts, birds, plastic toys, kitchenware, clothes, piles of fruit, seafood cocktails, spells.

The clay pots for making piñatas photo by Adalberto Ríos Szalay y Gerardo Gama.

Christmas really begins when we drive to Uruapan, Tere’s home town. She is very eager to go and so are the children because their grandmother is there and because they will see their cousins and beloved uncles and aunts.

Uruapan used to be a small town in the west of Mexico, now it’s a big town, about the size of Brighton, Hove and Worthing put together. When we were living in Toluca it would take me six hours to drive to Uruapan, which was over 600 kilometres away and when we lived in Guadalajara it would take me just over three, because Guadalajara was over 300 kilometres from Uruapan.

We got to know the route pretty well, but Tere is always in such a hurry to get to her Mom’s that sometimes I find myself driving at speeds of 160kph  to 180kph, which I would never do now. I tell  her I need a rest and she sighs and says:

‘We’ve lost so much time as it is. We’ll get there late.’

But when I feel my eyes closing then I insist on stopping to drink a strong cup of instant coffee at a Pemex station from a polystyrene cup. It’s so strong it’s disgusting – with lots of sugar and some milk.

The hills around Uruapan, photo Phil Hall

Tere’s brothers can do the drive much faster than me in their Ford and Chevy pick up trucks. Where I take six hours they take five and where I take three they take two and a half hours.

We know we are almost there when the landscape fills with pines and gets hilly; some of the hills are as big as mountains – in fact many of the hills are dormant or extinct volcanoes.

The road moves through the villages, and some of the villages are very poor. Some of the roads aren’t even tarred, they have cobble stones or gravel. A few people still use donkeys and carts and many are wearing traditional clothes, rebozos.

Paracho is where they make guitars, and that is one of the last towns on the road before the avocado orchards.

Then there are miles and miles of green avocado orchards on both sides of the road. Uruapan is the avocado growing centre of the world.

Uruapan comes into view. We are almost there, at the house, when we drive past the national park and turn left at the entrance, just by a beautiful old church on the right.

Down and up the hill and a little twist and we are on the road, just off from the centre of town. The road is called 5th of February – after Carmen’s birthday, of course.

There is usually a big welcome. We toot the car horn and quickly the gates open. But if it is very late we wait until someone comes down to the big iron gates of the house in pajamas to swing them open for us.

I sleep in the back room, in Pilo’s room. Putting my things in the closet I notice Don Raphael’s collection of guns. Old irons really. They probably don’t work. There are gun belts and small automatics; one has a pearl handle. The best ones, the rifles, were filched by untrustworthy funeral parlour staff after the death of Don Raphael, my wife’s father.

It is odd for me. In England no one has guns, let alone the guns of the old west. It feels strange to hold them.

In the courtyard next to Pilo’s room there is a big Chaya tree and sometimes someone asks for Chaya leaves to make tea with. In the early days we would also sleep in the front of the house, but then, when they built the extension at the back Pilo would move out for us and I stay at the back.

If we get there a day or two before Christmas, Pilo, Jose and Jorge organise a piñata for the little cousins. For everyone, in fact. The house at the front, facing the street is a big ‘L’ shape and so one of us, often me, goes to one end of the ‘L’ on the second floor, and the other, maybe Pilo, or Jose, goes to the other end of the ‘L.’

The piñata is suspended by a thick rope. The piñata weighs three or four kilos so it could hurt someone easily if it fell on top of them and one of the main jobs of the people holding the piñata is to avoid accidents.

When the little kids are blindfolded and given a broom handle the piñata is lowered and they take whacks at it. Usually, nothing happens.

But when the older children take swings we have to make the piñata swoop and fly around them to avoid getting broken. When adults have a go the piñata travels at high speeds in the air above the courtyard.

The catch up conversations start in earnest almost as soon as we arrive and nothing makes me happier than to see how happy Tere is chatting to her Mum and Angeles and Carmen and Juan. She is so happy to be in the company of her family.

I could feel left out, but I don’t because they make a real effort to include me.

‘Phil makes wonderful salads’, they say. And so I make the salad, though there is also a Christmas salad – a Waldorf salad.

Judith’s incomparable Christmas carrot cake, before the cake maker was Carmen

Judith or Carmen make the Christmas cake, it is delicious, and there is always – rather oddly – a dried cod-fish pie. It’s a Spanish tradition. The Quesada side of the family held on to its Spanish roots.

Teresa Senior makes her leg of pork. The impressive thing about the leg of pork is the amount of garlic that goes into dressing it and the amount of time it takes to cook. I think Teresa mashes up 50 cloves in fat to cover the leg roast. Then she bastes it and bastes it. It takes the whole day to make.

Uruapan on a Christmas morning, photograph Felipe Elvira

Early on Christmas eve come the carol singers. This is mainly for the children. They sing a special song. In the song Mary and Joseph ask for a place to stay the night and are rejected and then finally they are let in. The song is rather jolly, if tuneless. The pilgrimmes do get hot fruit punch if they wait around. sometimes atole and tamales. The hot fruit punch tastes of cinnamon and crab apples – tejocotes.

En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada,
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.

Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante.
Yo no puedo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.

No seas inhumano,
tennos caridad,
que el Dios de los cielos
te los premiará.

Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar,
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.

Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret,
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.

No me importa el nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues yo ya les digo
que no hemos de abrir.

Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por solo una noche
la reina del cielo.

Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?

Mi esposa es María,
es reina del cielo,
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.

¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren peregrinos,
no los conocía.

Dios pague, señores,
vuestra caridad,
y que os colme el cielo
de felicidad.

¡Dichosa la casa
que abriga este día
a la Virgen pura,
la hermosa María!

La puerta abre

¡Entren santos peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón!
¡Cantemos con alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vienen a visitar!

Then everyone dresses up to go to the midnight mass. I must always wear a suit and tie. Perfectly dressed, the whole Elvira family, and the orbiting families attached to it, like ours, walk up the hill to midnight mass at the Immaculate Heart.

The church is full and everyone who is anyone in town is there. Teresa Senior is deeply involved in the church’s activities so she leaves the house early to help the priest get ready for the ceremony. It’s hard work that she does every Sunday, not just on special occasions.

When we came back from the mass we eat the wonderful meal laid out in the living room, which is a room people almost never use. We talk, but after some time, after the brandy and the cake, the talk runs out and the Elviras take out guitars and start singing.

They always start with Beatle’s songs, but, as the night wears on there are more and more Mexican folksongs, songs of the revolution, many different songs that they know by heart and I don’t.

La Valentina

Una pasión me domina
Y es la que me hizo venir
Valentina, Valentina
Yo te quisiera decir

Dicen que por tus amores
Un mal me van a seguir
No le hace que sean el diablo
Yo también me sé morir

Si porque tomo tequila
Mañana tomo jerez
Si porque me ven borracho
Mañana ya no me ven

Valentina, Valentina
Rendido estoy a tus pies
Si me han de matar mañana
Que me maten de una vez

A little afterwards the children get tired, I start to fade too. It’s around two am, but the Elviras go on singing until four am in the morning.

The next day everyone is quite relaxed. They get up late and if you are hungry you can eat pork rolls for lunch made with a smear of beans and fresh chili sauce. The conversations start again.

Li and Conrado drive up from Mexico City and breathe a second life into the gathering. Sometimes Gary joins them.

On New Years Eve everyone gathers into one of the bedrooms for safety. Uruapan is a wild town, an agricultural centre, and lots of people have guns and pick up trucks.

At 12 o’clock the fireworks start and the farmers and other Uruapenses drive around firing guns into the air. Sometimes even automatic weapons. In the morning some of the cars parked in the streets have holes in them made by falling bullets.

We leave on the second of January, rested, well fed and Tere has caught up with all the doings of her family and her town.

Back at our house in Guadalajara, my children really believe in the three kings: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. We tell them that Santa Claus is a bit of an American fake, but that the kings are real,

Melchior has a camel and comes from the Middle East, Caspar is from India and has a horse and Balthazar is from Africa and rides an elephant.

Together, we lay out refreshments for the kings and for their animals; Wine, Turron, milk and bowls of water, and because their mother tells them it is true they believe it to be true and she explains.

‘The three kings are real.’

She says to me in an aside ‘They are saints, and they bring spiritual gifts’

I think the kids only started to disbelieve in the kings when Eve is about five and, and that was only because John and Carmen’s classmates told them there were no visiting kings.

The children get one or two presents each, but never very many. In the UK children get lots of presents, but our children just get a few. Still, the experience of Christmas in Mexico is a rich one for them. Christmas in Mexico is full with family, tradition and spirit.

The sixth of January is the last day of Christmas, it’s the Epiphany, and after that we go back to school and to work. On the day of the three kings you eat a special fruit cake, a Rosca de Reyes with a little plastic baby hidden inside it. It’s a Spanish tradition they share with Mexico. The person who gets the slice with the baby in it has to organise the tamales and atole for Candlemas on 2nd February. That’s more of a work thing, really.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: