Christmas in Mexico (North America)
A Brief History
When Christopher Columbus arrived in the “New World,” the indigenous people had civilizations and cultures that were older and richer than many in Europe. Columbus and his crew mistakenly called the native people ‘Indians’ despite the fact that he had not arrived in India as they had supposed. Yet, somehow the name stuck.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Mexican Empire, ruled by the Aztecs, had about 25 million inhabitants. This was three times the population of Spain. Its capital, Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City), was larger and more established than many European cities. Tenochtitlan –the biggest city in the world at the time-- had a huge population of about 300,000 souls. It was a wealthy city with palaces, stylish residences, temples and pyramids—all surrounded by a beautiful lake. The Aztecs believed in human sacrifice to appease their gods and therefore, sacrificed thousands of people—usually war captives.
Codex Azcatitlan depicting the Spanish army,
with Cortez and Malinche in front
When Cortés and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, they were welcomed by Moctezuma and his people. Moctezuma showered them with gold and silver, with the naïve assumption that they would take the gifts and leave. However, the Spaniards were now even more incented by the promise of great riches to conquer this new land. While Cortés greatly admired the Aztecs' visible achievements, he was fully resolved to take it over.
How was Cortés, with only about 1800 men, and 20 cannons able to subdue a formidable foe who had vastly superior numbers, and resources? It turned out to be the perfect storm for Cortés and against the Aztecs. First, Cortés exploited the hatred of the surrounding indigenous peoples—the very people that the Aztecs had been using for human sacrifice. Second, Moctezuma, was a superstitious man, who seems to have believed that it was fate that the Spaniards had arrived to seal their doom. Historians differ on whether he thought Cortés was sent from the gods or whether he was just indecisive or convinced that this was their fate. Third, the Spaniards had superior fire power. Lastly, those who were not killed directly by the Spaniards were killed by the smallpox they left behind when the Spaniards were initially driven from the city.
The first major blow to the Aztecs came during the festival of Tóxcatl. As the Aztecs prepared to celebrate, they were warned that they could no longer engage in human sacrifice. Pedro Alvarado, who had been left in charge while Cortés was out of the city, became unsettled by the fear of revolt and initiated the killing of thousands of the Aztecs during the festival. Although the Spaniards were initially driven from the city, in the end, after a three month siege of the city, the Spaniards prevailed. This would not have been possible if it were not for the 200,000 or so indigenous allies who aided the Spaniards in their conquest over a two-year period.
When it was over, there was a tremendous loss of life and the city was destroyed. An estimated 100,000 Aztec warriors were dead, not counting civilians, whereas the Spaniards only sustained about 100 deaths. By 1600, about 90% of the Aztec population was dead thanks to war, malnourishment, famine, and disease. The Spaniards went on to disown the treaty with the allies that helped them conquer the land.
The ‘Spanish conquest of Mexico’ would ultimately bring the Aztec Empire--the central region of Mesoamerica—under Spanish control. When Hernán Cortés arrived in April 1519, it marked the beginning of what would be 300 years of Spanish domination of the region.
Following the conquest, the Catholic Church set up an extensive network of monasteries, churches and parishes throughout the land. With more than 90% of the population claiming to be either Catholic or Protestant, the Catholic Church’s legacy and impact is irrefutable. Thus, just as many historians have wondered how such a small number of Spaniards could conquer the Aztecs, some have wondered why so many converted as well. Just as there are differing theories about the former, there are divergent theories about the latter. There are three major theories: the legend of Quetzalcoatl, forced Christianization, and the Aztecs converted on the basis that Catholicism was not much different from their own religion. Many historians believe that it was a combination of the three.
Although it is now doubtful that Moctezuma thought the Spaniards were gods, as some earlier historians proposed, there is some evidence that he thought the Spaniards were somehow linked to the Quetzalcoatl legend. According to the legend, in the year 1 Acatl, or 1519, Quetzalcoatl, the white bearded god, was to return to reclaim his kingdom. Hernan Cortes arrived in the great city of the Aztecs-- Tenochtitlán – on Good Friday, April 22, 1519.
Moctezuma consulted his magicians and foreseers and no one could explain the arrival of these strangers and accompanying bad omens. According to one native account, it was a common man—a macehual—that provided the explanation. He told the ruler about a vision of a small mountain floating in the water. Later, when light skinned-men on a floating mountain arrived, Moctezuma became more concerned. According to one of the Spanish sailors, Moctezuma told them that his ancestors long past had spoken of men that would come from where the sun rose and rule over the lands of the Aztecs. Therefore, it is surmised that Moctezuma believed Cortés was Quetzalcoatl or sent by him. Cortés, being the opportunist and shrewd tactician that he was, took advantage of Moctezuma’s confusion.
Cortés returned the day after their first meeting and explained the Christian faith to Moctezuma. While Moctezuma said he needed time to think about all he’d been told, many others converted based on the belief that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl. So, because some of the Aztecs believed Cortés to be a god, they obeyed him and converted to Catholicism.
A tlacochcalcatl pictured in the Codex Mendoza
The Spaniards used force to convert those Aztecs who did not easily succumb. Some scholars have argued that they were not forced, but were made to understand how deceived they were in worshiping idols, and how evil their practice of human sacrifice was. Others point to the Spaniards’ actions of destroying idols and temples and killing the nobility. Additionally, they point to the practice of kidnapping Aztec children to be raised Catholic by the missionaries. Ultimately, all of these practices helped undermine the native religion and helped spread Christianity.
The most recent and current theory is that the Aztecs converted because they did not see Catholicism as much different from their own religion. There were many similarities. The Spaniards and the Aztecs both had the cross as a religious symbol. The cross in Christianity was the symbol for redemption and in the Nahua religion it was the symbol for the rain god. Both had a revered female religious figure. In Catholicism the Virgin Mary and in the Aztec faith Tonantzin (“our mother”) was a goddess of fertility of life (human and agriculture). Other shared common religious practices were baptisms, confessions, communions, feast days, and fasting.
The friars did their best to incorporate the tenets of the Aztec faith with the tenets of Catholicism. This included building churches on top of the sites that had previously been Aztec sites of worship. Thus they created what was later referred to as ‘Nahua Christianity’ to make it more acceptable to the people. This led to many thousands of conversions in a relatively short period of time.
Life sized nativity
In Mexico, some people observe the nine days before Christmas, la Navidad, with posadas. Posadas take place on each of the nine days of la Navidad—December 16th to the 24th. Posada means ‘inn’ or ‘shelter.’ The posada is a simulation of Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem in search of a room. People go caroling, singing songs from door to door, while neighbors join in the processional.
Nativity scenes, called nacimiento, are a very important part of Christmas celebration in Mexico. They are often made of life sized figures. A very popular symbol of Christmas is the poinsettia, which originates in Mexico. The Poinsettia, or 'nochebuena' (Christmas Eve) flowers are seen everywhere during this festive time of year.
People in Mexico also celebrate 'los santos inocentes' or 'Day of the Innocent Saints' on December 28th, which commemorates the night Herod ordered all the infants in Bethlehem killed.
Rosca de Reyes and baby Jesus figure
January 6th is Epiphany, or 'el Dia de los Reyes.' On this day presents are left by the Three Kings (or Magi). It's traditional to eat a special cake called 'Rosca de Reyes' (Three Kings Cake) on Epiphany. A figure of baby Jesus is hidden inside the cake. The baby Jesus hidden in the cake represents the flight of the Holy Family, fleeing from King Herod's Massacre of the Innocents. Whoever has the baby Jesus in their piece of cake hosts the meal for Candlemas (February 2nd).
Candlemas marks the end of the Mexican Christmas celebrations. Also known as La Candelaria 'the Candles' or Virgen de la Candelaria 'Virgin of Lights or Candles' is celebrated in many countries around the world. This day commemorates the 'Presentation of Jesus at the Temple' or the 'Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (or Mary).' This is a day to celebrate when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God for giving them a son. Lots of Mexicans have a party for Candelaria.
Pray for government leaders to repent of corruption and seek God's righteousness. Pray for the love and forgiveness of Jesus to overpower the strongholds of crime, violence, and corruption. Pray for empty religious traditions to be replaced by radical discipleship.