[Updated 10/26/2022] From Cinco de Mayo and Día de Los Muertos (a.k.a. Day of the Dead Festival) to tacos, tequila, and piñatas, traditional Mexican culture has become increasingly embedded in American popular culture.
The incorporation of European and African cultural influences has transformed the country radically since the time of the ancient Aztecs and Maya.
But the indigenous influences (especially Mayan art and agriculture) have left an indelible imprint on what we recognize as the culture of Mexico today.
Because around 80% of Mexicans identify as Catholic, Christmas in Mexico is an immensely popular holiday.
And while Christmas symbols such as Santa Claus and Christmas trees do have their place, Mexican Christmas traditions such as candle-lit processions, elaborate nativity scenes, and dancing are deeply rooted in the country’s Spanish history.
So here’s a look at 40 fascinating Christmas traditions in Mexico, from the Posadas and Pastorelas to Los Santos Inocentes, the Mass of the Rooster, and more!
6. At midnight on Christmas Eve, many families go to a special Mass, known as the Misa de Gallo (or Mass of the Rooster). Afterwards, there are even more fireworks than usual shot off to celebrate Christmas Day!
7. Though the Mexican Christmas celebration is said to begin on December 12th, it is prefaced by the Day of Immaculate Conception on December 8th.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is not considered a public holiday, in that most businesses still have normal operating hours. However, this Spanish Christmas tradition is widely acknowledged in Mexico.
It is centered around the idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without sin. This notion that was cemented in Catholic tradition by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
Millions of Catholics from around the world make the pilgrimage to see a special image of Mary at the Basilica de Guadalupe. The image is a brown-skinned woman with her hands folded in prayer.
Though the day is an official national holiday, most Mexican companies organize feasts for their employees. On the night before the feast, vigils are held outside local churches.
The Christmas event is also about reverence for Mexican identity. Juan Diego was a converted Aztec who Mary visited twice in 1531. The icon of Mary was imprinted on his cloak, and was a motivating factor for building a church on the Hill of Tepeyac.
Mary has since played a notable role in Mexican history, including being the patroness of a revolt against the Spanish and reconciling the devotion of Spanish and indigenous peoples.
9. Mexicans also celebrate Los Santos Inocentes (Day of Innocent Saints) on December 28. This day honors the babies King Herod ordered to be killed in his attempts to kill the Baby Jesus.
Much like April Fool’s Day in the US, this Mexican Christmas tradition includes telling people bold-faced lies, which represents the trickery of the innocent.
10. New Year traditions in Mexico are also interesting. For instance, one custom is to eat 12 grapes– one at each of the 12 bell tolls at midnight. I tried it in my high school Spanish class, and it’s much harder than it sounds!
11. While some children in Mexico expect to get presents on Christmas Eve, in southern Mexico it’s common to receive presents on January 6– the Epiphany, or Dia de los Reyes, which celebrates the Three Wise Men.
12. Finally, February 2 is La Calendaria (the Candles). This is the final holiday related to Christmas in Mexico, and many people have large parties on this day. Some parts of Mexico, such as in Veracruz, host large festivals with parades and bullfighting.
13. Specific regions of Mexico have their own special Christmas traditions as well. For example, Oaxaca City has Noche de las Rabanos (“Night of the Radishes”) on December 23rd.
This unique celebration involves carving locally grown radishes into a range of figurines, including wild animals, the Virgin of Guadelupe, and mythical creatures.
The tradition dates back to the late 1800s, when Oaxaca City’s mayor made a radish carving competition part of their Christmas market. Radishes were also a part of the traditional holiday meal.
The original radish carvings were said to be quite simple, but contemporary versions are very elaborate and demonstrate an unusually artistic skill set.
14. In the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, the Niñopa is relocated under the custody of a new family every holiday season.
The sponsor family, or mayordomo, is in charge of many festivities and traditions throughout the year, as well as parties at Candlemas and Day of the Child.
The Niñopa is a revered depiction of Christ as a child. It was produced over four centuries ago in the San Bernardino monastery, which is in the parish where Xochimilco is now located.
The image was part of the Catholic church’s effort to evangelize the Aztecs.
15. The Fiesta Negrohispana is a celebration of African identity in Mexico. It stretches throughout the posadas (December 16-24) in Alvarado and Tlacotalpan, on the Caribbean Coast.
The struggle to fight for Afro-Mexican identity has been hard, but it’s been seeing more recognition and evolution in recent years.
Mexico’s second President, Vicente Guerrero, was black, as was Emiliano Zapato, one of the most celebrated figures in the Mexican Revolution.
39. Christmas songs in Mexico are called villancicos.
40. On each night of the Posadas, Mexicans sing the traditional song, “Canto Para Pedir Posada.” People split into two groups, then they each sing alternating verses.
41. Another Mexican tradition is to sing New Year’s carols. For example, there’s “Rama Navideña,” about the tradition of carrying a branch adorned with images of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Another traditional song is “Cinco Pa’Las Doce,” (5 Minutes to Midnight), which brings in the new year.
42. “Los Peces en el Río” (The Fishes in the River) is another traditional Christmas song from Mexico. It describes the Virgin Mary as she washes the Christ child’s clothes in the river.
43. “Canta, Rie, Bebe,” (Sing, Laugh, Drink) is a more modern tune that encourages the Mexican people to celebrate Christmas with joy.
44. “Vamos, Pastores, Vamos” (Let’s Go, Shepherds, Let’s Go) sings of the shepherds’ journey to visit baby Jesus.
45. “Ya Vienen los Reyes” is a villancio that’s particularly fun for children. According to Mexican tradition, the Three Wise Men bring children gifts on January 6, and this song is about the royal trio being on their way! –by Sonny Grace Bray