“What is Christmas like in Mexico?” I was recently asked by a friend who had just moved here from the United States.
“Christmas?” I replied. “If you want to observe Navidad in Mexico, don’t come around on Christmas Day. All you’re likely to see is somebody mopping the floor or washing dishes from the night before.”
The night before, however, is another story. It’s La Noche Buena, and that’s where the action is! Everyone heads for their parents’/grandparents’ home at about 9 p.m. for a colossal family gathering from far and near, often including relatives now living “al otro lado” in the United States.
Yes, that night I suppose 90 percent of all homes in Mexico are empty from 10 p.m. on and you’d think all the burglars in the country would simply love Christmas Eve. But no, even most burglars are obliged to be present at Noche Buena festivities.
You could be in the throes of la muerte or coughing and sneezing with the worst gripa on earth, but you’d better show up on Christmas Eve to share your cold with all your relatives. In fact, I recall the year that the H1N1 virus had laid low nearly every soul in Guadalajara … and then Christmas approached
Calling off Navidad was, of course, unthinkable and there was much talk of wearing face masks for the celebration and bowing or waving instead of hugging, but on the night of the 24th, the masks were found uncomfortable and quickly discarded. How could anyone wave at their abuelita instead of hugging her?
So exactly what do Mexicans do on this Holy Night? Well, if you ask people, they might simply reply: “We eat a big meal and open our presents.” A lot more goes on than that, however.
What follows is my own description of what happens in a household that I am very close to.
A “Chair Square” is set up in the abuelitos’ living room. This consists of uncomfortable chairs (unless you are really lucky) set up along all four walls of the room, making it impossible for you to chat with anyone else but the two people directly to your left and right, but not to worry because the program is about to begin.
First come Bible readings and villancicos, Christmas carols, which may or may not be sung while holding lit candles. I remember when the villancicos were accompanied by at least two guitars played by family members. Alas, in recent years, the guitars have vanished. These carols, by the way, will almost certainly be ones that most English speakers have never heard of, such as:
Vamos pastores, vamos,
vamos a Belén
a ver en ese niño
la gloria del Edén
This, by the way, is just one of over 3,000 villancicos written by one man, Jeremias Quintero, a Colombian pianist. I have a suspicion that many Mexicans know the words not only to this song but all of the 2,999 others written by Quintero.
Next on the agenda is kissing the Baby Jesus. Actually it’s a figurine which one of the children carries to each person around the Chair Square. Sanitation questions about kissing it are supposedly resolved by wiping the little statue with a cloth. No one seems to object, however, if your lips don’t quite make contact with the object of devotion. Well, I at least, manage to get away with it.
Now another carol is sung and it’s petition time. This starts off with one of the children passing out a nativity scene figurine to everyone present. One by one, each person present petitions for good things such as world peace or a better lot for the poor. The petitioner then puts his sheep, donkey or wise man into the nativity scene ... and then it’s time for another carol, followed by the “Christmas Hug,” which, of course must be bestowed upon every person present, meaning that a whole lot of hugging has to take place to make sure nobody is left out.
At last a break occurs in the ceremony. It’s time to eat! As far as I can determine, the only traditional food item on the Noche Buena menu is romeritos. This is a succulent (seepweed in English) which grows in salt flats and has long been a favorite of people living in Mexico City. I find romeritos delicious, but they are hard to find any other time of the year, so enjoy! In my experience, the meat featured at this ritual meal has always been turkey but other families enjoy many treats, such as pozole.
The traditional Christmas drink is hot ponche, made by cooking down apples, guavas, tamarinds, jamaica (hibiscus flowers), prunes and above all tejocotes, Mexican hawthorns, which look something like crab apples. It should be noted that tejocotes are native to Mexico and are so important to making a proper ponche that between 2002 and 2006 more were seized than any other illegal fruit crossing the U.S. border. The punch is sweetened with piloncillo (cones of crude brown sugar) and sugar cane and can be “improved” by the addition of red wine or tequila.
After the meal, there is a brindis or toast made with pink or white champagne (cider is also used) and at last it’s time to open the gifts, which are carried from the Christmas tree to the lucky recipient by one of the children present.
In the wee hours of the morning, the festivities come to an end as family after family departs the homestead after a final round of hugging all present. At this time the streets are abandoned and silent, which is fortunate because many of the drivers out and about have imbibed just a bit too much. The festivities of Navidad have come to an end for this year and the sleepy revelers head for home. Merry Christmas to all and to all a Buena Noche!