In Mexico, Christmas starts on December 16th with a nine-day celebration known as “posadas.” These celebrations commemorate Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage before Jesus’ birth, but it originated in an Aztec tradition.
Most aspects of Mexican culture are a mix of ancient, indigenous heritage and Spanish culture brought in during the Colony. We can see that syncretism in the Day of the Dead celebrations, and of course, Christmas. Though the actual celebration of Christmas Eve in Mexico is pretty much European Catholic, our culture has found ways of taking this tradition and changing it. One example is the classic Christmas dishes with traces of our delicious and iconic gastronomy (including our pre-Hispanic roots), and of course, the protagonist of our story today, the traditional Mexican posadas.
This is a nine-day celebration prior to Christmas that commemorates the pilgrimage Mary and Joseph made right before Jesus was born. For nine days, people reenact this episode in Christian history with delicious food, amazing seasonal beverages, the traditional Mexican piñata, candles, candy, and of course, the religious rites announcing the upcoming Christmas. However, although it all focuses on the birth of Jesus, the origins of these traditional celebrations have nothing to do with Christianity, but rather one of the most important events in the Aztec calendar: Panquetzaliztli.
The Panquetzaliztli was the celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. The celebration lasted twenty days, but the main “parties” took place from December 17th to the 26th. For the ancient Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli died every year and was reborn on the Winter solstice, so the Panquetzaliztli was a celebration of this entire process.
The festivities started with a race where figurines of the deity, made with amaranth and maguey honey, were carried for about 11km. Another important rite was carrying these same figurines in a procession that had different stations where rituals and offerings took place. At the end, these sweet Huitzilopochtli figurines were eaten.
Another important part of the celebration was the decorating of fruit trees with colorful pennants made with amate paper as a way of thanking nature for the food provided throughout the year. They would also have offerings of corn tortillas and pulque (an alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant).
When the Spaniards came, they conquered in both military and religious terms. One of their main goals was to evangelize the different cultures in the territory, and their most effective method was taking pre-Hispanic traditions and imposing their Christian beliefs on them. This is how the Panquetzaliztli soon became the traditional posadas we celebrate to this day.
The Huitzilopochtli procession was soon transformed into the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph. The sweet figurines became the aguinaldo (a small candy basket given to indigenous people after Christmas mass), and of course, we have the protagonist of this nine-day celebration: the iconic Mexican piñata.
Ancient Mesoamerican towns used to make hollow clay bases in the shape of their deities, but the one made during Panquetzaliztli was one of the biggest and most important ones. So, the Spanish missionaries took that tradition and adapted it with all sorts of Christian symbols. The traditional posada piñata is a colorful star with seven spikes that represent 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 the fact that we’re blindfolded when we break it is a symbol of blind faith in God.
We owe this extravaganza to one particular missionary: Fray Diego de Soria, who, in 1587, took his idea of turning the Panquetzaliztli into a Christmas celebration to the Pope. For a little over a century, the posadas only took place in churches, until the eighteenth-century, when it was secularized and adopted by each different state with their own different traditions.
The Spanish evangelization methods turned out to be extremely successful, to the point that the story of the Panquetzaliztli is still unknown to many Mexicans. Posadas are a huge part of our heritage, though, and like many other key elements of our culture, we owe them to our rich and emblematic pre-Hispanic past.
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