The night may or may not be holy, depending on your belief system, but it will definitely not be silent. I’ve learned from my time in Mexico to expect Christmas Eve, Noche Buena, to be the noisiest night of the year. In that peculiarly Latino mix, religion is zealously celebrated in a militant manner. Groups from churches march through the street wearing fatigues, playing drums and bugles, and parading the banner of a saint. But the all night rocket symphony I anticipate is only one of the many experiences that encompasses Christmas in Mexico.

The Posada

Posada is a Spanish word for shelter or lodging. In Mexico it also refers to the nightly (conducted each evening between the 16th and 24th of December) reenactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem.   This may include children being dressed to perform the leading roles – Mary and Joseph, and possibly even having “Mary” led through the neighborhood on a burro.

Christmas in Mexico begins with a Posada. Photo by Doug Knuth.

The celebration centers around a song, a duet of sorts in which one group, those on the street, takes the part of Mary and Joseph, while the other group answers from within the house. Through ten verses, Mary and Joseph ask for shelter while being told that there’s no space available. Indeed, one of the verses sung from within says:

Ya se puede ir,
Y no molestar,
Porque si me enfado,
Os voy a apalear.

This roughly translates into, “You can go away already and quit being a pain, because if you tick me off I’m going to beat you with a stick.” Nice!

However, by the end of the song, the group inside has realized that the Joseph seeking shelter for himself and his Queen, is the Joseph and his Queen is the Queen of Heaven, and they are welcomed inside.


An informal market blooms on the street below my house every December. Among the items being sold – moss. The moss is being sold as an augment to the ubiquitous nacimientos – nativity scenes. Nativity scenes here are a little different from the ones I grew up with. For one thing, there is an additional character that is often present – the Devil. For another thing, the manger stays empty until Christmas Eve, then the doll representing the Baby Jesus is added.

These often life-sized dolls, I’m sorry to say, are typically quite Aryan-looking, with long blond locks and bright blue eyes. They look nothing like the people here, nor like the people originating in the Middle East. More like an infant Peter O’Toole.

I had heard about the tradition of using live animals in nativity scenes. I imagined scenes that looked all the more authentic for the presence of goats and sheep. On the contrary, I’ve found that the flesh and blood animals tend to put the tackiness of the statues into relief. It looks like a livestock pen with some plastic figurines thrown in.

Going to Mass

A few years ago, some friends came to visit me at Christmas and suggested we attend Mass. Although I’m not religious, I don’t mind going to an occasional Mass if I can do so respectfully and without displacing a believer.   It can be a good language lesson. On that Christmas Eve the priest spoke of Peace and Hope.   Afterwards, people brought the Jesus dolls for their nacimientos up to the priest to be blessed. Then they lit sparklers. Right there in the Basilica. Why was I surprised? This was Mexico. Of course, they light fire works in church.

Argonz'es photo of the Guanajuato Basilica.

Guanajuato Basilica. Photo by Argonz.

The Whole Enchilada

A Mexican family once invited me to join them for their holiday celebration. More than just eating and exchanging gifts, the celebration was a marathon that went on for hours (a little beyond my social stamina – I confess) and included numerous members of the extended family.

The night began with a Posada. Children were dressed up as Mary and Joseph and they, along with half of the family took the “outside” role, while the rest of the family stayed in the house singing the “inside” role. At the end of the song everyone came inside and stood in a circle. The doll representing the Baby Jesus was put on a blanket, the corners of which were held by “Mary” and “Joseph”. They gently rocked the baby while we all sang a lullaby.

Next, the doll was put on a tray full of candy and passed around from person to person. You were supposed to kiss the doll and then take a piece of candy. Of all the culturally awkward moments I’ve had in Mexico, this was one of the worst. One often sees people in churches here kissing statues of Christ or a Saint. Not being Catholic, this always strikes me as 1) Weird and 2) A bit gross. So now I was being told to plant a beso on this doll which had been handled by about thirty people. I admit it. I gave the Baby Jesus an air kiss.

Afterwards we went back outside to do the piñata, which had its own song, to eat tamales and to drink the sweet, fruity punch that had chucks of sugar cane floating in it. Then the gift exchange happened sometime around midnight. A noche buena indeed.

Doug Knuth's photo of children celebrating Christmas in Mexico.

It’s not a party until something’s on fire! Photo by Doug Knuth.

Feliz Navidad!


Assembling an altar for the Virgin of Sorrows

Sitting on my balcony at three in the afternoon on Holy Friday, I am enjoying something which can be hard to come by in Mexico – silence.  This respite from the sounds of city life is due to the fact that almost everyone is in church, watching or participating in a reenactment of the crucifixion. This is the day, bigger even than Easter.

But we’ve had a lot of notable days in the past few weeks.

Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict came – a big deal for my small city.  People responded in different ways.  Guanajuato is said to be the most Catholic city in Mexico, and for many here it was a monumental event.  Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from balconies all over town.  Banners with various slogans – Bienvenido Benedicto XVI, Welcome Holy Father and Friend, Vilcomen, You are St Peter, Guanajuato Receives You With Open Arms –  hung throughout the city. Faithful Catholics lined up to cheer him, “Benedicto, hermano, ya eres Mexicano!” Not being Catholic, this all seemed a little strange, but I believe the cheering throngs to be genuine in their faith.

Others viewed the visit as money-making opportunity.  People with homes along the Papal route rented space on their balconies.  Souvenirs were made and sold.  A man with a life-sized, cut out of the Pope charged people ten pesos for the photo opportunity.  I don’t do photos, but found myself tempted by the absurdity of the situation.

After the faithful and the capitalists came the third group – those of us who just wanted to ride out the storm with as little chaos as possible.  Only two roads reach the center of Guanajuato and both were closed for several days for security purposes.  This meant that goods which enter the city by vehicle couldn’t arrive.  Preparing for the Pope was a lot like preparing for a blizzard:

  • Make sure you have enough food, propane and drinking water.  Delivery trucks will not be able to enter the city.
  • Carry ID (showing your address) at all times.
  • ATMs will probably get emptied out by the tourists coming in.  Be sure you have enough cash on hand.

When the big night arrived, I stayed in and watched the festivities on TV.  It was a chance to learn some new Spanish vocabulary- useful words like Pope-mobile (Papa-movíl), and to enjoy seeing places I regularly traverse on television.  The next day he held a mass with half a million people in attendance (a massive mass!).  Then it was suddenly over and everything went back to normal.

Sandwiched between Holy Week and the Pope’s visit are two of the days I like best in Guanajuato: Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) celebrated on Thursday, and Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows).  Dedicating the sixth Friday of Lent to the sorrowful Virgin is a tradition that originated in Germany in the 1400’s.  The Virgin of Sorrows is the Virgin Mary in her grief and suffering. She is considered the patron saint of Guanajuato, perhaps because the city was founded on mining and people relate to the sorrow of losing a loved one.

Virgin de Dolores altar

Virgen de Dolores altar (2)

Elaborate altars to the Virgin appear all over the city.  They contain many elements- a picture of the Virgin, candles, purple to represent the pain of Calvary and white representing the purity of the Virgin. Chamomile, wheat, oranges and fennel are also used, each assigned a specific meaning.  People need flowers to decorate their altars and the day before Viernes de Dolores has now become a festival in itself.

Buying flowers on Dia de las Flores

The streets are jammed with vendors selling flowers and decorated eggs, hollowed out and full of confetti.  Colorful, meaningful and local- these two days encompass everything a visitor could hope to see in a traditional celebration.

Easter eggs on Dia de las Flores