It's Christmas In Mexico
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If you have ever been in Mexico in month of December, you will find it is unlike any other. Like all countries, Mexico has celebrations throughout the year. But Christmas is unique.
It brings the family together around the table, but with a distinctive touch. What is special is the celebration of the birth of Christ. The fact of Christ's birth is celebrated around the world, but in Mexico it takes on not just a note of mysticism and religiosity, but also love, repentance, forgiveness and celebration. These are fundamental elements of the Christian faith practiced in the country.
Mexico is very religious, though this fact is belied by a troubling reality. Mexico is among the world's most corrupt countries. Transparency International's corruption index ranks Mexico 105 out of 172 countries worldwide.
Mexico's 120 million people, according to the latest census, are 82% Catholic, while 8% are evangelical or other "pseudo Christian" groups. If we follow the math, 10% of Mexicans are not religiously affiliated and so do not celebrate Christmas, or their fiesta will be of another type that is not centered on remembering with family the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The nativity in Mexico is known as a "nacimiento" (birth) and it came to Mexico during the Conquest of the Mexica / Aztec people by the Spanish in 1521. The nativity was used as a tool in the immense evangelistic work the Spanish were doing in the land. Almost every Catholic family in the country will a nacimiento in their home in a place where it can be seen by all who enter. Some are very elaborate. Others not so much. But they are just as essential to a home at Christmas as is the arbolito or "our little tree."
Evangelical families do not typically follow suit. For evangelicals, the nacimiento carries connotations of idolatry. So, they usually only have their Christmas tree. Some very legalistic evangelicals even forgo the tree. These stricter families might only have a nice meal.
A nacimiento must have all the proper stable animals. The cow, lamb, horse, chickens, the three kings, Joseph, Mary, and a manger where you will find the baby Jesus in his swaddling clothes. All this will be the center of an almost religious family ceremony on December 25. It will be "raised" on February 2, symbolizing the end of Mary's time of ritual cleansing when she presented herself at the temple. Families will take their figurines to the local church, where the priest will bless them. And then there will be another celebration, the Feast of Candelaria.
This celebration is marked by the presence of tamales, a Mexican folk dish, and cups of hot chocolate, which is also a Mexican invention. The tamales are paid for by anyone who, on Three Kings Day (Jan 6), finds a small pastry figurine hidden in their piece of cake. This is a means of distributing the costs of the expensive Feast of Candelaria.