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Mexico City - Christmas celebrations in Mexico are marked by diverse traditions and attractions which, combined with the sunny weather, drive thousands of tourists to the country during the winter months of December and January. It is during this time that visitors to Mexico will experience the unique traditions and warm hospitality of the country at its best as Mexicans countrywide celebrate the ultimate fiesta with sumptuous regional holiday cuisine, colorful and ornate decorations and traditional festivities.

One of the most impressive Mexican holiday customs are Las Posadas. A longstanding tradition carried out nightly from December 16 through 24, the Posadas are a religious and social celebration, paying 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 of the Sun, which celebrated the virgin birth of the Aztec Sun God, Huitzilopochtli.

On the nine nights before Christmas, a party is held in a neighborhood home. At dusk, the guests gather outside the home to watch a procession of children and musicians dressed in colorful robes and bathed in the glow of candlelight. Once the singing procession reaches the home, one half enters the home while the other half remains outside to sing a plea 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. Pastorelas are dramatic pieces which represent various historical scenarios, including the trip of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary to register themselves in the Roman census, the hardships they suffered while searching in vain for shelter, or one of the most common, the shepherd's adoration of Baby Jesus.

The plays date back to Mexico's Colonial period when Catholic missionaries used these dramatizations to convert natives to Christianity. The first known pastorela to have been performed was "Los Reyes" (the three kings) acted out by missionaries in 1527 in Cuernavaca. Today, they are often performed by professional groups, but also by children and amateurs.

Mexico welcomes the New Year with an abundance of music, dancing and fireworks. Streets are filled with revelers, friends and families congregating for parties that often last till dawn. One tradition calls for eating twelve grapes, one with each stroke of the chiming bell, at midnight for luck in the coming 12 months. New Year's Day is usually a quiet time of rest and reflection.

In many regions of Mexico, gifts are not exchanged on Christmas Day. Instead of awaiting Santa Claus on December 25th, children in Mexico anticipate a visit from Los Reyes Magos or the Three Wise Men, on January 6th. Sleepy-eyed boys and girls awake to find small gifts in their shoes, rather than in their stockings.

On the eve of January 6th, families and friends gather to share a traditional "Rosca de Reyes": a ring-shaped cake with a small doll baked inside. The lucky person who finds the doll in his or her slice of cake must host a party on February 2nd, known as Candlemas Day. 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 foreseeing a year of bachelorhood bliss.

No Mexican holiday is complete without the traditional nacimiento or nativity scene. Often made of clay, nacimientos can be extremely ornate and elaborate and sometimes even require their own rooms. Many Mexican families pass the nacimientos 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. During Christmas time in Mexico, they represent "Las Luces de Belen" or the lights of Bethlehem. According to legend, a star guided the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus.

Long before the poinsettia became a traditional symbol of the holiday season, the Aztec cultivated the red and green plant, which they called cuetlaxochitl meaning "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure." Poinsettias were a favorite of Kings Moctezuma and Netzahualcoyotl for many reasons. The red flowers represented blood sacrifices and were used to make valuable red dye. The plant was thought to have medicinal powers such as stimulating circulation, healing skin infections and curing high fevers.

In the seventeenth century, Franciscan priests noticed that the scarlet flowers bloomed during Christmas time and began using the flowers to decorate the churches and altars during the Fiesta of Santo Pesebre or Holy Manger Procession. Since the poinsettia was a reminder of blood sacrifices to the Aztecs, the Christian church adopted the plant to symbolize the death of Christ. Nowadays, these flowers are known in Spanish as "Nochebuenas."

Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, saw the plant on a visit to Taxco in 1825. He sent several plants to his home state of South Carolina and later supplied them to a local nursery. Today the poinsettia is one of the most important crops in the U.S.

No Mexican celebration or festivity would be complete without traditional dishes. Some of the most popular Christmas recipes include ponche con piquete, a warm punch; buñuelos, thin, fried pastries; tamales, cornbread filled with meat or jam and wrapped in cornhusks; and pozole soup. Visitors to the region during this time of year will be exposed not only to the beauty, tradition and spirituality of the Mexican culture but also to customs dating back thousands of years. - By Lucia Dunn, Mexico City Correspondent.

  • 2 cups of sugar (browned over a skillet) 1 pound of sugar cane (peeled and cut into 1" pieces)
  • Juice of 4 oranges 1 pound apples (cored, peeled, and cut in 1" pieces)
  • 1 gallon of water 1 pound of tejocotes (can be substituted w/ plums )
  • 1 cinnamon stick, 1/2 pound of tamarind (peeled)
  • 4 cloves, 1/2 pound prunes
  • 1/2 cup raisins 1 pound guayabas (can be substituted w/ pears)

Bring to boil: water with the fruits and sugar; then add cinnamon, cloves, orange juice, and heat until all the fruit is cooked. Before serving, add a shot of rum to the glass or clay mug, then add punch.

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  • 4 eggs 1 teaspoon salt
    1/4 cup white sugar 1 cup white sugar
    1 teaspoon vegetable oil 1 cup vegetable oil for frying
    2 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a large bowl combine eggs with 1/4 cup sugar and beat until thick and lemon-colored. Add the oil. Combine separately 1-1/2 cups of the flour, the baking powder and the salt. Gradually add this to the egg mixture and beat well. Turn dough out onto a floured board (use remaining 1/2 cup flour) and knead thoroughly until dough is smooth. Shape dough into sixteen balls. Roll each one into a circle about 5 inches in diameter. Let stand uncovered on waxed paper for about 10 minutes. Heat oil in a deep fry pan to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Fry circles until golden brown, turning once. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with sugar/cinnamon mixture. Store airtight.

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