Christmastime has always been special to me. I have early memories of waking up Christmas morning before anyone else to gaze at the tree full of presents in perfect stillness, alone. This was a fleeting feeling because I immediately woke up everyone so that I could open the presents I had waited for all month. These the memories I have from my American Christmas—Christmas trees, red and green decorations, hot chocolate, Christmas carols and, above all, presents.
These things seemed to morph and disappear the years my family spent Christmas in Mexico. Christmastime in Mexico creates a completely different picture—celebration of mass, bells ringing, fair rides, fried foods, Los Reyes Magos and lots and lots of fireworks.
Both versions leave me with a warm content feeling—the kind of feeling that comes from truly happy moments.
I remember my last Christmas in Mexico.
On Christmas morning, three thundering booms like canons firing into the sky startled me awake. It was six o’clock, and I heard music filling the streets outside our house. Out-of-tune tubas and off-beat trumpets accompanied the voices of men, women, and children singing a traditional Christmas song about Mary and Joseph’s search for room in Bethlehem, their steady voices seeking sanctuary in the dawn.
I rolled over, perturbed by the early morning wake up call, to see my sister laughing at my disgruntled face. We got out of bed to find my parents were awake. My father was coolly dressed in his usual khaki pants, pistachio polo, and white tennis shoes along with an excited smile that made his peppered mustache curl around the pointed corners of his mouth.
“Good morning!” my father said in his heavily-accented English. He also laughed at the sight of my face. He grabbed me into one of his rib crushing hugs, the only kind he’s capable of, and told me to get dressed for breakfast because the games were about to start.
Every year that my family visited Mexico for Christmas my father hosted games on Christmas morning for the children of Colonia Belesario Dominguez, the pueblo where my family lives.
On Christmas Eve he stopped at every house asking donations of a few pesos that he could give as prize money to the winners of the games. Of course everyone pitched in.
The Christmas morning games are a proud tradition in Colonia Belesario Dominguez, one in which the surrounding pueblos also participate.
On this occasion, my father had set up a wooden table covered in small piles of flour with hidden coins right in front of the small blue and white church at the center of town. The rules are similar to bobbing for apples, but instead of water and apples contestants stuck their faces into piles of flour trying to get whatever coins they could with their mouths.
People crowded around the church, children pushing toward the table, excited, eager to try to win a small fortune that they’d spend later that night at the fair. The crowd cheered and clapped, encouraging the children—faces stuck in flour, breathing through their nostrils causing small clouds of flour to rise from the table. Every time they lifted their faces bore looks of sheer concentration.
This was little kid stuff, a game only for young children who were willing to embarrass themselves for a few coins. The event everyone was really waiting for was the big race around the pueblo.
Earlier that morning my father and a few other men went around the pueblo and marked a path that took the participants around town. The first one to make it all the way around would receive a cash prize. A group of young boys, and later, girls, began to line up at the starting line. They exchanged fiercely competitive looks at one another.
As my father began to count down the start of the race the anxiousness of the boys became palpable as they started nudging each other out of the way, hoping for a small edge over the other competitors. Once my father shouted the final number, ¡uno! they raced off down the street like a herd of wild horses, vying for the front of the group. The crowd cheered as they watched them speed down the street of multicolored houses and small shops around town. I remember the hum of excitement that came over the crowd as they waited for the participants to come around. While waiting, people placed bets on who would win. People shouted in excitement as the first of the runners came into view, the rest not far behind.
The race ended when the first runner crossed the line. The winner collected five hundred pesos, second and third place received three hundred and one hundred pesos, respectively. The winners, gleaming with sweat, stood grinning victoriously as they received their prize money.
Christmas afternoon was always spent with family, eating lunch and preparing the Christmas feast for dinner. My Tia Clara stayed busy in the kitchen preparing mole, arroz, and pollo for the nighttime meal. People set up the stands and rides for the fair. I stepped outside to watch the bustle. The sound of children’s excitement was inescapable as they bought up any and all small fireworks they could find for the night’s festivities.
The pueblo looked alive, glittering in the sun with streamers, papel picado, and tinsel lining the flat-topped brick and adobe buildings.
I remember peeking through windows to see small festive altars set up. Nearly all the families in town set out figurines of the Nativity, along with figures of the Virgin Mary and they lit candles. Some houses had small plastic trees decorated with popcorn string and glittery ornaments—the only thing reminding me of American customs.
As nighttime fell, families made their way to the church to start El Arrullamiento del Niño Dios, the rocking of baby Jesus. They brought small baby Jesus dolls and blankets. To perform the ritual, two people stood on either side of the room stretching a blanket between them. They placed the baby Jesus on the blanket, and once everyone was ready, they began singing together and rocked Baby Jesus to sleep.
When El Arrullamiento was over everyone went outside to enjoy the rest of the night’s events. Children lined up to hit piñatas and collect small bags of candy, fruits, and peanuts. The teenagers paired off and headed over to the rides and booths. For the adults, the night was filled with either chasing around excited children or enjoying the company of their neighbors while drinking festive ponche over bonfires.
The event everyone anticipated the most was the fireworks show that brought the celebration to a close. The Christmas fireworks weren’t the regular kind of fireworks that shoot into the sky. These were towers made of fireworks rigged to go off in a chain reaction. Starting at the bottom of the tower, a spark went off and the tower came to life. It started off small—with golden specks flying through the air making its way up the tower igniting the section of firework angels that began to spin round the middle of the tower. Once that was lit, almost immediately, a firework figure of the Virgin Mary lit up, glowing iconically against the night sky. Finally, while that continued to burn, the very top of the tower burst into action, blossoming into a firework poinsettia. The setup included two identical towers. The wonderful chaos of smoke and fire, kept onlookers transfixed in amazement at what was happening.
It almost didn’t seem real, it was as if I somehow had slipped into a Harry Potter story and into a magical realm by accident. I tried frantically to capture the beauty of the towers on camera to no avail. The pictures gave the impression that everything was one big fire. After a few shots I gave up and decided to just enjoy the experience alongside my cousins and sister, trying to record every detail in my memory—the way the smoke thickened the crisp night air, people dodging embers flying through the air, and most of all how exhilarating it felt to be witnessing something so amazing with people that I loved.
Each time we visited Mexico it got harder to leave. We used to try to make it every two years and later every four years or so, but that was never a guarantee. As the years have passed, the situation has only made visiting more difficult. The last time we visited, there was already talk of drug cartels moving in and threatening small local businesses for “protection” money. My cousin had a small tailoring business that she kept secret in order to avoid these kinds of threats—that was four years ago. Before, we were able to travel more affordably driving out to visit all together as a family. The situation has worsened, and politically Mexico is undergoing a time of significant change. It has become too dangerous to drive all together, and because of this my parents flew out alone this year to visit our family in Mexico.
As I’ve gotten older and the years between my visits to Mexico only seem to grow longer, I feel nostalgic remembering the holidays I’ve spent visiting my family in Mexico. How different it is to spend Christmas in a place that doesn’t have Santa or constant pressure to buy presents for the people you love. The focus of Christmas in our pueblo in Mexico is the hope that the birth of Christ brought to the world and a sense of how special it is to be with those we love to celebrate this hope. These are the memories I hold close until I’m able to go back again.
Eliana Zacarias is a writing intern for Spectrum Magazine.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6519