Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas and New Year Fiestas in Mexico

 Christmas celebrations in Mexico are marked by diverse traditions and attractions, which - combined with the sunny weather, good food and friendly residents - drive thousands of tourists south of the border this time of year. It is during this season that visitors get to experience the unique traditions and warm hospitality for which the country is so well known.

Mexicans countrywide celebrate the ultimate fiesta with regional holiday cuisines, colorful decorations and traditional festivities.

Posadas -
Between Dec. 16 - 24, one of the most impressive local holiday customs - known as posadas - are re-enacted every year. A longstanding tradition carried out nightly during the Christmas season, these are both a religious and social celebration, honoring the biblical journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The nine days of processions were originally created to teach the Aztecs the story of the birth of Jesus and to coincide with the nine-day Fiestas del Sol, celebrating the birth of the Aztec Sun God, Huitzilopochtli.

Pastorelas and Posadas are traditional in Mexico
In much of modern-day Mexico on each of these nights before Christmas, a party is held in a neighborhood home. At dusk, the guests gather outside to watch a procession of children and musicians dressed in colorful robes, bathed in the glow of candlelight. Once the procession reaches the home, half of the group enters, while the others remain outside, singing a plea for shelter inspired by Mary and Joseph's search for shelter long ago.

The doors are then opened and the celebration begins with traditional food and drink and piñatas in the shape of the star of Bethlehem filled with candy. The last Posada, held on December 24, culminates in midnight Mass.

Pastorelas -
Another key aspect of the Mexican Christmas scene, are dramatic plays representing various historical scenarios, including the trip of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary to register in the Roman census. These pastorelas highlight the hardship they suffered while searching in vain for shelter, the shepherds' adoration of the Baby Jesus and other historical events related to Christmas.

The plays date back to Mexico's Colonial period when Catholic missionaries used these dramatizations to convert natives to Christianity. The first documented pastorela, dubbed Los Reyes (the kings), was acted out by missionaries in 1527 in Cuernavaca. Nowadays, they are often performed by professional groups, but have also become a favorite with amateurs and school children.

Año Nuevo (New Year)
Mexico welcomes the New Year with an abundance of music, dancing and fireworks. Streets are filled with revelers who congregate for parties, which typically last till dawn.

A popular tradition calls for eating 12 grapes, one with each stroke of the chiming bell at midnight, which assures good luck for the upcoming year. In addition, many Mexicans believe that donning new red underwear to welcome the year guarantees yet more good luck. New Year's Day is usually a quiet time of rest, reflection...and recuperation.

Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day)
In many regions of Mexico, gifts are not exchanged on Christmas Day. Instead of waiting for Santa Claus on December 25, children anticipate a visit from los Reyes Magos, or Three Wise Men, who arrive on the eve of January 6. Sleepy-eyed children awake to find small gifts in their shoes, rather than in their stockings. On January 6, families and friends gather to share the traditional rosca de reyes, a ring-shaped cake with a small doll baked inside.
Rosca de Reyes is part of Three Kings celebrations

The lucky person who finds the baby must host a party on February 2, known as the Fiesta de la Candelaria (Candlemas Day). In more traditional communities, some cakes contain a ring and a thimble. The recipient of the former is assured of marriage within the year, while the person who finds the thimble is blessed with bachelorhood bliss. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Poinsettia Story

Long before the poinsettia became a traditional symbol of the Christmas season in Mexico, the Aztecs cultivated the red and green plant, which they called cuetlaxochitl, meaning: "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure," in their native Nahuatl.

Poinsettias were a favorite of both kings Moctezuma and Netzahualcoyotl for many reasons - not the least of which, was because the red flowers represented blood sacrifices so favored by the Aztecs. On a practical note, the flowers were used to make valuable red dye and were thought to have medicinal powers such as stimulating circulation, healing skin infections and curing high fevers.

In the 17th century, Franciscan priests living near Taxco noticed that the scarlet flowers bloomed during Christmas time and resembled the star of Bethlehem. They began using them to decorate churches and altars during the Fiesta de Santo Pesebre, or celebration of the Holy Manger.
According to legend, people flocked to church, long ago on Christmas Eve with bundles of flowers to fill the Christ child's manger. A little boy named José was very upset because he was too poor to buy any flowers. According to the story, an angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds from a nearby field. José did as instructed, but when he put the weeds in the manger, they were transformed into beautiful scarlet flowers, which Mexicans to this day, call Flor de la Noche Buena (Flower of Christmas Eve), or simply Nochebuenas.

Joel Robert Poinsett

When Joel Robert Poinsett, the first ambassador to Mexico (between 1825 - 1829) saw the fiery flower he was so taken with it that he sent several to his home state of South Carolina so that they could be raised in his greenhouse. Initially dubbed the "Mexican Fire Plant," the plant was later officially named the "poinsettia" in honor of its "discoverer."

By the early 20th century, the poinsettia was already popular throughout the US and was being sold as potted plants. The rest, as they history.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mexico Honors Virgin of Guadalupe

The "new" Basilica, completed in 1976
December 12 is a sacred day in this ancient land of the Aztecs as faithful residents and visitors from around the world pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

According to official Catholic records, the Virgen de Guadalupe - also known as the Virgen de Tepeyac - appeared as a young girl to the recently converted Aztec boy, Juan Diego on the morning of Dec. 9, 1531 (soon after the Spanish conquest) on the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City.

In pre-Hispanic times, Tepeyac had housed a temple dedicated to fertility goddess Tonantzín, "mother of the gods" and the area had been an important pilgrimage place for residents of the nearby capital city of Tenochtitlán. Following the conquest by Hernán Cortez in 1521, the shrine was demolished, and the natives were banned from going to the site. According to the legend, Juan was passing by the hill on his way to church in another town when he heard someone calling to him. He climbed the "forbidden hill," where he found a young girl - who seemed no more than 14 years old - cloaked in a beautiful blue shawl, standing in a golden mist. Speaking to him in his native Nahuatl, she instructed him to ask the bishop to build a church in her honor on that site.

After Juan reported this meeting to Spanish Archbishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the skeptical "man of the cloth" instructed Juan to ask the "lady" for some miraculous proof of her identity.

The following day, Juan's uncle was mysteriously healed after a long illness, a feat which didn't convince the doubting bishop. The Virgin then asked Juan to gather flowers from the normally barren hilltop. Despite the fact that it was December and way past the normal blooming season, Juan found Castilian roses (not native to Mexico) and took them to the lady. She placed them in Juan's peasant cloak or tilma and sent him back to the bishop.

When he opened his cloak before the bishop on December 12, the flowers spilled onto the floor and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was imprinted on his cloak. The image was that of a young woman without child, her head lowered demurely. Wearing an open crown and flowing gown, she stood upon a half moon.
The "old" Basilica

Soon after, the bishop began construction of the church - where Juan's cloak with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was displayed. The original shrine was rebuilt several times over the centuries, most recently in 1976. Today, the "old Basilica" stands next to a "new" one, designed by Architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez. The new circular floor plan allows the image of the Virgin on the cloak to be seen from any point in the Basilica.

Juan Diego's cloak is preserved behind bulletproof glass and hangs 25 ft above the main altar and, after more than 450 years the colors of the image remain as bright as if they had painted yesterday. The coarsely-woven cactus cloth of the shawl, which seldom lasts more than 25 years, shows no evidence of decay.

Juan's cape, preserved for posterity
The immense plaza leading to the Basilica can hold 50,000 worshippers. Today, more than 12 million faithful visit the Basilica every year, making it the second most visited church in the world, after St. Peter's in Rome. Throughout the year, pilgrims converge on the sacred site - often on their knees - to honor the Virgin.

As news of the apparition spread, combined with the fact that the mother of the Christian God had appeared to one of "their own" and spoken to him in their native language, was enough to send Indians in droves from hundreds of miles away to see the sacred shawl. The miraculous image was to have a powerful influence on the conversion of the peoples of Mexico to Catholicism. From 1532 to 1538, more than eight million Indians were converted to Christianity.

On May 25, 1754, Pope Benedict XIV declared Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of what was then New Spain, including Central America, and approved liturgical texts for the Holy Mass in her honor. Pope John Paul II visited the shrine in January 1979, and again when he beatified Juan Diego there on May 6, 1990. In January 1999, Our Lady of Guadalupe was named patron saint of the Americas. Juan Diego was canonized in 2002 as the first indigenous North American saint.
December 12 is also the informal kick-off of the very festive Christmas season in Mexico, ending with the Epiphany on January 6.


  • The "old Basilica," built between 1695 - 1709 is located to the side of the "new Basilica." Behind it is a small museum which houses restored religious art and artifacts. The museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Mondays. 
  • Nearby, are steps leading to the Capilla del Cerrito (Chapel of the Hill), which was erected on the spot where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego. 
  • The Basilica de Guadalupe is located in the northern part of Mexico City in an area called Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo or simply "la Villa."     

  • By taxi: Take any taxi from an "authorized" taxi stand, or from your hotel. All drivers know how to get there and they have a set rate.
  • By metro: Take the metro to La Villa station, then walk north two blocks along Calzada de Guadalupe. 
  • By bus: Take any bus along Paseo de la Reforma, running north-east that says "La Villa."


Sunday, December 8, 2013

When in Brazil, Dine Like a Local

Rio de Janeiro's impressive view from the top

The extraordinary cuisine of Brazil is an amalgam of the cooking heritage of three disparate groups of people: the native Indians, the conquering Portuguese and the African slaves the latter brought to work in the sugarcane fields. Every bit of the country’s food bespeaks its distinct culinary history.
The native Indians mainly subsisted on corn porridge, cassava meal, sweet potatoes, hearts of palm and many species of game and fish. In 1533, the Portuguese colonized Brazil, bringing with them a variety of North African imports such as dried fruits and pastries that were inspired by a lengthy Moorish occupation.

It was the African cooks in the colonial kitchens of the sugarcane barons, however, who provided the strongest influence in generating what is now considered Brazilian cuisine. Their contributions, which included dende pepper and coconut milk, staples of West African cooking, left a permanent stamp on the Brazilian palate. Within the state of Bahia, for instance, the predominant cuisine is Afro-Bahian, which evolved from plantation cooks improvising on African, Indian and traditional Portuguese dishes using locally available ingredients.

Churrasco is Brazil’s version of the barbecue. Fresh meat, ranging from beef to chicken and pork, is grilled to perfection over a wood-fired grill. Churrascarias are among the preferred restaurants of Brazilians and can be found around every corner. Most of them offer buffet-style service, so guests can eat as much as they like, tasting several kinds of meat. No visit to Brazil would be complete without dining at one of these establishments. Waiters, equipped with what is called a rodizio circle the restaurant with long skewers of perfectly flame grilled meats, which they cut into wafer thin slices at your table. You’ll be given a small card, green on one side and red on the other. If you display the green side, you’re telling them that you want service to be non-stop. To take a break - just flip the card to the red side.

Colorful display of delicious churrasco

Feijoada, considered by most to be the national dish of Brazil, is basically a black bean stew with a variety of meats and sausages added to it. Traditional side dishes include rice, farofa, onions, kale and orange slices. A common side dish in Brazil, farofa is basically cassava flour toasted with butter or bacon grease. Various ingredients can be added or it can be used a stuffing.

Hardy feijoada
A favorite in the state of Minas Gerais, couve e mineira, is a tasty blend of kale and garlic sautéed in olive oil.
Introduced by the Portuguese, bacalhau (salted cold) finds its way into appetizers, soups, main courses and savory puddings throughout Brazil. It is often served with another Portuguese-inspired favorite, bolinos de arroz, which is made of rice, parsley and onions formed into balls, dipped in egg batter and fried.

Guaranteed to give you a "kick"

Coffee is a highly appreciated beverage in nearly all parts of the world, yet nowhere is it such an important part of everyday living as in Brazil. The drink, called cafezinho, is served in demitasse cups at frequent intervals throughout the day. It is not unusual for a Brazilian to consume anywhere from 12 to 24 of these little demitasses per day.

While you're there, don't leave without sampling an authentic caipirinha. Many Brazilians think of this drank as the national beverage.

The refreshing, and sometimes strong, beverage can cool anyone down on the hottest of days. It consists of crushed lime slices and sugar added to liquor called cachaça and it is served over crushed ice. If you're a margarita lover, you might abandon that cocktail after a taste of this one.
The "pause" that refreshes