ON THE 52nd DAY OF CHRISTMAS
San Miguel de Allende has myriad festivals, celebrating something most every week if not every day of the year. So when we speak of the Christmas season in our city, forget 12 days, the season lasts a total of 52 days!
Christmas Day is perhaps the quietest day of the entire season. It’s a day dedicated to recovering from all the previous days and nights of festivities, particularly the Nochebuena—Christmas Eve, which culminates with mass at midnight, followed by a family meal. Most akin to the US Thanksgiving meal—but late at night.
So part of the peace and quiet on Christmas Day has to do with dealing with the previous night’s food and drink intake, and definitely some hangovers. Families stay home, eat left-overs and just relax. At some point they do attend mass, of which there are many throughout the day.
But let’s go back to the beginning. It all starts with the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, also known as La Guadalupana which goes from December 12 through the 16th. The festivities start the day before with the placement of a banner of the virgin before the Parroquia. In the evening, people gather before the image and sing the traditional mañanitas. Just before midnight on December 12, fireworks begin. A little after 4am on the 12th noisy church bells ring, of course these are accompanied by noisy fireworks. Around 5:30am a huge procession with people from many neighborhoods winds through the streets. Bugles and drums add to the cacophony of sounds. The noisemaking continues and culminates at 10am with the furious ringing of bells in the tower of the San Antonio church. And of course, all of this accompanied by more fireworks!
After December 16, the celebration changes its focus toward the birth of Jesus. On this day, scenes of the nacimiento (birth), or nativities, are placed in public places and in private homes. They are set up in preparation of the event on December 24, at which time a baby Jesus is placed in the scene. The nacimientos are more traditional in Mexico than the Christmas tree, which, has been added over the years, influenced by other cultures. Traditionally, in San Miguel de Allende, a giant nativity scene was placed in front of the Parroquia. The location this year in the gazebo of the Jardin Principal. But there is another, nativity scene in front of the Angela Peralta Theater at Mesones and Hernandez Macias. This is a particularly spectacular display because the creator is no less than Hermes Arroyo, known in San Miguel as the maker of the mojigangas. But his claim to fame goes far beyond our city—his nativity scene was displayed at the Vatican in 2016.
Posadas: It is also the start of the posadas, the recreation of the trek of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. A posada is an inn or shelter, and these acts involve either a performance on stage or at the doorway of friends who have agreed to host a particular posada.
There are two sets of players—the peregrinos (pilgrims), representing Mary and Joseph, and the posaderos (inn-keepers). There are traditional songs intended for the two groups. The pilgrim group walks with candles in a procession toward the intended home. They stop at the doorway and start singing a “request for shelter” song. One of the traditional songs goes like this:
In the name of Heaven I ask you for shelter, For my beloved wife Can walk no farther.
Within the house, the second group then sings back: This is not an inn I shall not open the door For how could I know That you might not be villains The song goes back and forth between the two groups, until the outsiders say who they are:
We’re weary traveling
All the way from Nazareth
I’m a carpenter named Joseph
And my wife’s name is Mary.
They are then allowed to go in and the party begins. The parties can be simple or elaborate depending on the hosts. They often start with a religious service and a contemplation of a particular virtue: humility, strength, detachment, charity, trust, justice, purity, joy, and generosity. Tamales are the traditional food and ponche (punch) is served along with it. There will always be a piñata that the children break to collect the scattered candies.
Posadas go on for nine days, until the 24th of December, each night the party being hosted by different friends. These represent either the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy or the nine days that it supposedly took Joseph and Mary to reach Bethlehem from Nazareth. On the final night, the baby Jesus is placed in the manger and everyone goes to midnight mass.
Piñatas: Another major part of the holiday festivities are the ever present piñatas. Their history is diverse and hard to pinpoint. It appears that the origin might be from China, where they had figures of a cow or an ox which was broken on New Year’s Eve. These containers were filled with seeds and heralded a good future crop.
In the center square of the town of Alcoman, there is a statue of a monk holding up a piñata.
The tradition was brought to Europe, and Spain in particular, in the 14th century. The Italian word pignatta means clay pot, and that’s what was used originally. When this was brought to Latin America, there was already an existing Aztec tradition of something similar. The birthday of their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was in mid-December and one of the traditions was to break a pot filled with treasures that when broken out of the pot became the offering to the idol.
When the church appropriated the Aztec tradition, the shape of the piñata was transformed into seven sided star. The seven rays represent the seven deadly sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. The stick with which the piñata is struck is “virtue” and the one striking is blindfolded and represents blind faith. The treats that fall out were meant to be the temptations of evil. Later the meaning changed to the “rewards of faith” or, since the piñata is filled with candies, “the sweet life.”
Originally the striker was supposed to be turned 33 times, once for each year of Jesus’s life, and the fact that they were dizzy was to show how one is disoriented by temptation. The piñata eventually lost much of its religious symbolism, and is now used at parties, particularly children’s birthday parties. The number of turns is now according to the child’s age.
In my next installment I will continue with the rest of the celebrations leading us through Christmas and finally the last, or 52nd day of the season.