hispanic holiday traditions

nacimiento, or a nativity scene depicting the baby Jesus. (Courtesy photo/Israel Mosqueda)

Family and faith breathe life into the heart of many Hispanic traditions, particularly during Christmastime. Traditional Mexican-American Christmas pastimes can look different from American customs, celebrating beliefs rooted in Mexican culture.

“Our traditions are so beautiful,” said Montrose local Maria Gonzales.

Originally from Nayarit, Mexico, a state located near Jalisco, Gonzales has lived in Montrose for 15 years, adapting to the area while learning about different traditions.

Gonzales considers the Montrose community a supportive one, willing to learn about Hispanic traditions, such as Día de los Muertos. There are times, however, when she worries about some of the traditions fading. Because of how she and her family observe the way people celebrate in the U.S., Gonzales finds that they are adapting their own traditions.

“I remember when there was more power in our traditions,” she reminisced, “I know that we need to do more to include everyone [in our traditions].”

Gonzales recalled her time growing up in Mexico, celebrating Las Posadas, or “inns” in English. The tradition begins Dec. 16 with two participants dressed as Mary and Joseph, traveling from home-to-home for nine nights. The participating community selects which homes will be visited and the roles they will play.

Mary and Joseph sing for each house they visit, calling for a posada, or a place to stay for the evening, as the biblical couple once did in their travels.

The pair simulate the holy pilgrimage as they’re turned away from different houses until they reach a home that welcomes them with food, sweets and sometimes prayer. Homes will often prepare a piñata and candies for children, Gonzales said.

The pilgrimage ends on Christmas Eve, often with festivities and fireworks as participants await the strike of midnight.

The nine days leading up to Christmas are also known as novenario, or the Christmas Novena, in the Spanish Catholic church. The tradition refers to a period of nine days of devout prayer and can serve different purposes within Mexican culture. A novena can be known for nine days of mourning a lost loved one, but the tradition is also often used to petition or honor holy saints such as Jesus Christ or the Mother Mary.

The Christmas Novena consists of nine days of prayer in honor of the holy couple’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

“The way we do it in Mexico is a little different, maybe because of the weather, but it’s pretty much the same,” said Gonzales of the religious custom. “In the nine days before Christmas, we as Catholics go to church [each day] for prayer.”

La Posada looks different in the U.S. as well. While the principle remains the same, participants within the Catholic church often adapt the cultural tradition as a church ritual, coinciding with the Christmas Novena.

Like so many others, Gonzales usually connects with her family on Christmas Eve and attends service. The family then waits for midnight together, when the bigger celebration begins and gifts are exchanged.

“A huge difference between Mexican and American holiday traditions is that we celebrate [Dec. 24] opposed to [Dec. 25],” said 19-year-old Clara Carrasco, a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up rooted in both cultures.

“A big thing about Christmas is it’s always family time,” she said. “During the holidays, especially now, there’s not necessarily a sense of mourning, but more a sense of just not being able to have the full extended family here due to different nationalities. But we try our best to connect with family even though they’re on the other side of the border.”

Carrasco’s family traditions include contacting relatives still in the “Motherland” and joining in traditions her family holds each year, such as making tamales for Christmas.

Making tamales is a tradition that often transcends most family rituals, and it’s one that is “almost better” than unwrapping presents, Carrasco noted. Each year, her family likes to don matching pajamas and take family photos together since the holidays provide one of the few opportunities to gather due to careers and educational pursuits.

Growing up as Mexican-American, Carrasco explained that more emphasis was placed on Three Kings Day, than Christmas. Three Kings Day, known as Epiphany for Christians in Western culture, celebrates Jesus’ introduction to the world shortly after his birth.

On Jan. 6, children leave their shoes by the door so the three kings know where to stop for gifts. Children leave out offerings such as grass and hay for the camels and horses traveling with the three kings, similar to leaving out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Families will wake up on Jan. 7 to gifts under the tree, which usually stays up past Christmastime.

“Christmas is the birth of Jesus, but for me, especially being a first generation Mexican-American, Christmas just seemed more about Santa Claus growing up,” Carrasco remarked on the differences in celebrations.

Food also plays an important role in Christmas traditions. Aside from the well-known tamales, Gonzales enjoys making birria tacos, pozole, ponche (fruit punch) and buñuelos each year. Birria is a dish that hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco, traditionally filled with goat meat. Buñuelos is a traditional fried dessert fritter made from flour and sugar and remains popular among holiday celebrations.

Gonzales’ family likes to indulge in chocolate drinks and pies, merging the Spanish and American cultures into one large celebration.

The cultural merging of traditions has become common among Mexican-American families, according to Gonzales. She hopes to keep the practices alive among younger family members and by teaching others in the community more about the Mexican culture’s customs and traditions.

Gonzales asks that people “don’t hesitate” to reach out to the hispanic community and ask about their traditions.

“We’re willing to share our tradition and learn from other traditions,” she said.

Carrasco sees a divide among cultures when it comes to celebrating traditions, particularly during the holidays. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, the young adult added, but noted that regardless of culture, there’s a lack of focus on directly addressing the needs of people less fortunate. Seeing people more focused on friends and family while forgetting about a stranger’s needs is “disheartening,” she said, adding that it’s difficult to reconcile the notion of having gifts under the Christmas tree while knowing a homeless person will be sleeping in the cold through the night.

Carrasco would like to see more support from the community for the Hispanic culture and their traditions. While the holidays are a happy time where people are “slightly nicer” to strangers, she says she doesn’t really see support for the community, but she anticipates that this will change in the future.

“I think there could be more opportunities for people to share different traditions,” said Carrasco, noting that the Catholic community is known for “exchanging” cultures.

The idea revolves around people from different cultures gathering together to share their beliefs and traditions, learning from each other in the process. Language barriers often prevent these exchanges from happening, she explained.

“In the future, I see people being more accepting and just being more willing to exchange regardless of the barriers put in place,” Carrasco said.

Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

Cassie Knust is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.

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