‘TIS THE SEASON FOR SYNCRETISM
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
The traditions involving the birth of Jesus on December 24, are not unique to Christians. Many other civilizations have had celebrations involving birth, or rebirth at the end of the year, long before the religious Christian festival. Many other gods were supposedly born to a virgin, and many of them were “born” on or around December 24 or 25—Mithra from Persia, Krishna in India, Horus in Egypt, Attis and Dyonisus in Greece. Many of them predate Jesus by thousands of years.
But, since we live in Mexico, I would like to focus on an Aztec tradition that also took place in winter, and the rituals of which have been incorporated in the festivities at Christmas. The conquering Spanish saw the potential of integrating native beliefs into Catholic dogma, so instead of eliminating them, they allowed the insertion of the ancient Aztec traditions into the Christmas festivities. The name for this phenomenon—in any context—is called syncretism. It represents the superimposition of the beliefs of a conquering nation, upon the existing beliefs of the people being subjugated. It eases the transition from old traditions to the new.
Hutzilopochtli, was the Aztec god of war and the sun, known as “blue hummingbird to the left.” Every year he died during the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—and was reborn as soon as the days began to lengthen. On December 21, the sun “dies” or stops moving, and emerges once again, or is “born,” on the 24 of December. The celebration of this entire process was called Panquetzaliztli by the Aztecs, and it lasted twenty days, culminating on the 26th.
The Spanish conquistadores saw how the Aztec devotion to the blue-feathered, warrior god Huitzilopochtli, bore striking resemblances to the worship of Jesus. They saw an opportunity to convert the old traditions into the new Catholic celebration of baby Jesus—fusing the two holidays into one. In this way, through syncretism, they could alter the old, indigenous people’s traditions, converting them to Catholicism. With this, they could forge a new country altogether.
Today’s Christmas traditions in Mexico reflect this mingling of the two diverse cultures. One important element of Panquetzalitzli, was visiting people’s homes with offerings. This has evolved to the Posadas celebrated for nine days during Christmas season. A posada is an inn, or a place for lodging. In the Mexican, Catholic tradition they are mini-plays reenacting the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and their attempts to find a place to stay.
The posadas are played out between two sets of people—those inside, the inn-keepers; and the traveling Joseph and Mary—the outsiders—who ask for lodging. They take place in different homes where the “outsiders” stand at the door and sing songs requesting to be let in, while the ones on the inside refuse at first, until finally realizing who it is, and allowing them within. It is a way of “visiting” friends and family, and closely parallels the Panquetzalitzli visits of the Aztecs.
Food is a major part of Christmas celebrations. Although Catholicism eventually won out in Mexico, and Christmas celebrations mirrored Spain’s more closely, not all was lost from the Old World during the holiday season. Most aspects of Mexican culture are a mix of ancient, indigenous heritage, and Spanish culture. One example is the classic Christmas dishes with traces of the delicious and iconic pre-Hispanic gastronomy.
There are tamales, chilles rellenos, roasted pork loin, pozole (a hearty soup), bacalao (cod), and atole (a cornstarch based drink). These dishes have evolved over time, and are a true mix of the two diverse cultures. A dish like romeritos is a direct descendant of pre-Hispanic foods. It is based on a plant similar to baby spinach and rosemary—believed to be poisonous by the conquistadores—which is cooked with nopales and potatoes, and a mole sauce. Served during winter months, especially on Panquetzaliztli in honor of Huitzilopochtli, it is still served to this day with corn tortillas or bread on Christmas Eve, but in honor of a different god.
No Christmas celebration is complete in Mexico without ponche—punch. This drink originated in India and made its way to the New World. It is a warm brew of different fruits—guava, orange, apple, pear, dried fruits, piloncillo and cinnamon, typically spiked with rum or wine.
Another part of the Aztec winter ceremony used another sacred ingredient: maíz. Women crafted figurines with blue toasted maíz and maguey honey. In modern-day Mexico people still craft figurines out of corn, but they use the husks instead, constructing biblical figures and nativity scenes. The piñata is another remnant of Aztec traditions, transformed into a Christian one. Ancient people of Mesoamerica used to make hollow clay figures in the shape of their deities. The Spanish missionaries took that tradition added many Christian symbols. The traditional posada piñata is a colorful star with seven spikes representing the seven deadly sins. The colors and tassels are the Devil’s tricks to lure humans to a life of sin. The stick used to break the piñata represents God’s love, and blindfolds are a symbol of blind faith.
In most cases, syncretism works without an official plan or starting date, in the case of the Panquetzaliztli becoming a Christmas celebration, we have a record. In 1587, Fray Diego de Soria, saw the potential and brought the idea to the Pope, who apparently approved, and the project was on its way. The old and the new melded into one, and the Christmas traditions became the people’s traditions in Mexico.