While many children around the world will wake up with excitement on Christmas morning as they run to the family Christmas tree to see what Santa has brought them, children in Mexico will need to wait a couple of more weeks. Or that is how it has traditionally been.
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Traditionally the Three Wise Men and the Nativity Scene replace Santa Claus and the Christmas tree in Mexico, but over several decades of American and Mexican culture blending, Mexico is at risk of losing some of its holiday traditions in exchange for the commercialized celebrations of the holiday season north of the border.
In Mexican tradition, children received gifts on January 6, Día de Reyes or the Day of the Three Wise Men. January 6 is the biblical time that the three wise men made their way to baby Jesus’ manger in Bethlehem bringing gifts. It is that event that is celebrated in Mexico’s tradition with giving gifts while Christmas day is celebrated with the birth of Jesus and is acknowledged with the traditional home nativity scene and special mass.
The nativity scene is tradition in homes all around Mexico and is setup with as much love and attention to details as the Christmas tree, which is also gaining popularity in Mexico.
The nativity plays an important role in Christmas time for Mexicans. The nativity is set up in the house on December 16, the first day of Las Posadas, however the nativity scene does not include baby Jesus or the three wise men until later in the holiday season.
Nativities are set up on the first day of Las Posadas to represent the beginning of Mary and Joseph’s search for an Inn. On December 24, baby Jesus is added to the family nativity to represent the birth of Christ. December 24 is an important day in the holiday celebrations as it marks the final night of Las Posadas and the Misa de Gallo, the traditional Christmas Mass at midnight, followed by a family gathering and celebration with traditional fiesta foods, and the event of placing baby Jesus in the scene.
Because of the growing influence of American culture in Mexico, many children have come to expect some gifts on Christmas day, which isn’t keeping with the tradition of Mexican culture. Just as Christmas trees are not part of the true Mexican culture but have become common place in many parts of Mexico.
Día de Reyes, when children traditionally receive gifts, is another special occasion. Days before, children all around Mexico write letters to the three wise men telling them what they want for their Día de Reyes gifts, much like American children would write to Santa Claus. However, in many areas of Mexico those letters are tied to balloons and the family makes their way to the town square to release the balloons and letters into the air for the three wise men to receive in heaven.
On Día de Reyes children will receive the gifts brought to them by the three wise men with family and friends gathering and sharing the traditional “Rosca de Reyes”, a wreath shaped bread. Inside each Rosca de Reyes is a small baby Jesus figurine; the person who receives the piece of bread that contains the baby Jesus must invite everyone to their home on February 2 to enjoy another party of tamales. Día de Reyes is also the day the three wise men are added to the home’s nativity.
February 2 is known as Candelaria Day and the final day of the Christmas celebrations in Mexico. On this day the baby Jesus from the home nativity scene is taken to be blessed and then the nativity scene is carefully put away until December 16 when the tradition returns with Las Posadas.
All of these traditions start with two simple things, the nativity and three wise men. Throughout Mexico in larger cities and places popular with foreigners these simple things are losing their cultural significance as more people turn to the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.
Mexico doesn’t need Santa Claus or Christmas trees when the three wise men and nativity create an opportunity for the holiday season to stretch into February! Say no to Santa this year and enjoy a traditional Mexican holiday season.
If you cannot quit cold turkey on Santa Claus, try to work in some Mexican tradition this holiday season.