"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas in Oaxaca

We are leaving for Oaxaca in one week. I have done exactly nothing to get ready. That, however, is a story for another post. Today I would like to inform you all of a few lovely Christmas Season traditions that I am looking forward to. Firstly, I am delighted that the Christmas consumerism we all love to abhor has yet to take hold in Mexico. There really is no tradition of gift giving on Christmas. A couple of weeks later, on Three Kings Day (Epiphany), small token gifts are given to children only.

Given that there are also no Christmas trees or Christmas lights, one might be forgiven for wondering just what Mexicans actually DO for Christmas. Well - and I know this going to be hard to believe - for most Mexicans, Christmas is still a religious holiday. They celebrate the birth of Jesus by following the biblical story. The major ritual that Mexicans enjoy is that of Las Posadas.
Beginning on December 16th, various houses in a given parish will host the nativity. The manger scene is set up in the first home, and then people dressed as Mary and Joseph will proceed from the church to that home, stopping at other homes along the way to sing songs and ask for lodging. They will, according to the script, be denied until they reach the home where the nativity scene is. Of course, as they journey through the streets, they acquire a long train of local families and children who follow along with lit candles and join in the singing.

At the appointed home, the entire train is finally allowed entry, and there is a party with hot drinks and snacks, and perhaps a pinata for the children. This happy scene is repeated at a different home every night until the 24th, when the creche is installed back at the church. The holy family arrives at the church at midnight on Christmas eve, and midnight Mass is spoken.

After THAT, most families go home and have a feast in the wee hours of the morning. The children drop where they may and are carried to bed. On Christmas day everyone sleeps until mid afternoon, which may be a source of envy for American parents whose children wake them up at first light, even if they have to stab them with forks.

Another picturesque tradition, this one unique to Oaxaca, is la noche de los rabanos, or "the night of the radishes." About one hundred and fifty years ago, there began a tradition in Oaxaca of people creating nativity scenes out of various local materials such as dried flowers and straw and displaying them in the zocalo, or main square. The most unusual such material was the giant Mexican radish: a truly gargantuan root that can be as big as a man's leg.

Over the years, local folks have taken this tradition to astonishing extremes, comparable, perhaps, to the fanciful, enormous gingerbread houses created and displayed in the states. For two nights, the 23rd and 24th of December, thousands of people crowd into the zocalo to see the amazing displays made out of radishes.

Some of these displays are really incredible: scale models of the city cathedral; troupes of dancers in native costumes; beloved religious icons.

I am looking forward to Christmas in Oaxaca. Christmas in America is the 800 pound gorilla of holidays - the holiday which must be appeased. For many of us, a great deal of the joy has been leached out, as we run ourselves ragged and spend more than we can afford to give our children an experience which we secretly doubt is even valuable at all. I cannot, for example, bring myself to entirely "deprive" my children of Christmas as they know it - we will be hanging stockings in Abuelita's house, and Santa will stuff those stockings. But I hope and expect that my kids will enjoy Christmas as it is practiced there. That they will experience the kind of joy in family and giving that we give lip service to up here.

Here are a few links to other posts about our trips to Oaxaca, both at Christmas and at other times.


Laura said...

I love that the sense of community still exists... The pagentry and ritual are important in people's lives, and we've (USA) lost that for the most part.

I also really love the unbridled use of color. The city where I used to work was so dull and drab - all the buildings (even the historic ones) were painted tan, or beige or gray and there was a lot of "natural" concrete. No wonder the downtown was dying...

Enjoy your time there - it sounds really wonderful!!

Olive said...

That sounds like my kind of Christmas. I have made it a rule (here in our house at least) that NO presents are given, just the joy and pleasure of the company of our loved ones, sharing a happy meal. It's all I need.
Its hard to get out of the commercial hype that the stores have turned Christmas into. I decided the "no gift" rule years ago when I watched my grand children tearing the paper off each parcel, tossing the gift inside aside, until they found something that they liked better. After hours of tedious shopping and wrapping, (something that I do not enjoy) it became the obvious way to go. They didn't know who had given them their gifts. Mind you, I don't think they understand fully why I think this way even after 20 or so years !!
I hope you enjoy your vacation to Oaxaca Aimee, I wish i could bring my family along to one of their traditional celebrations, then they might begin to understand my thoughts.
Happy Holiday

Olive said...

Strange, when I post my comments on your blog it says Dec. 6th, 1.22 PM Here it is 7th Dec.7.52AM

Aimee said...

Olive good for you - even if your grandlids don't quite get it now, someday they will. And I'm sure it makes for a more restful and peaceful holiday for all concerned!
Hope this year is a good one at your house.

Stevie said...

How wonderful! Mt family lived in Monterrey, Mexico for 4 years and Christmas was sooo great! I get so tired of hearing here in the US how if families don't have enough money and gifts then "they won't have a Christmas." Huh? Enjoy your trip!
Stevie @ www.ruffledfeathersandspilledmilk.com