Holiday Season in Mexico

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! 🎶 Which is my musical way of stating the obvious: another holiday season is here! And this year, I thought I’d really get myself into the spirit by chronicling all the upcoming días festivos that I have to look forward to. Interestingly, seven years ago, I wrote something quite similar about celebrating Christmas in Poland, and after reading that post again, I was amazed at just how many parallels there happen to be, particularly in the number of holidays celebrated on either side of the big day. So, if you find yourself in need of more holidays/international celebrations, here’s what Christmastime looks like en México:  

Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe

The first true holiday of the festive season falls on December 12th, but like any other Christmas-celebrating country, the decorations and festivities really start well before December. In fact, since Thanksgiving isn’t really a thing south of the border, there aren’t as many quarrels about when to start decorating; anything after Día de Muertos (November 2nd) is fair game. Of course, one of the first and most ubiquitous Christmas decorations you’re likely to see are the nochebuenas (or poinsettias). Nochebuenas are indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala and were used for wintertime celebrations even before Christmas was celebrated in the Americas. Actually, a lot of Mexico’s holidays tend to be a mix of customs from various indigenous groups (such as the Aztecs or Mayans) as well as from the colonists/Christians of Spain. And a great example of this is Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe.

La Virgen de Guadalupe is another name for the Virgin Mary, and she just so happens to be the patron saint of Mexico. On Día de la Virgin de Guadalupe there is a huge pilgrimage in her honor to a site of great importance in Mexican history. However, it’s really only the truly devout who partake in this annual event. For most Mexicans, this day is known first and foremost as the official mark of the holiday season, and it often kicks off the fiestas in the form of food, drinks, and posadas. I, personally, have come to associate the word “posada” with “party”, but it actually means “inn”, a nod to the nativity story. In practice though, posadas are very much like the Christmas parties we have in the US. There are generally posadas for every peer group: family, friends, co-workers, etc. and no matter who you’re celebrating with, you’ll likely see piñatas, eat buñuelos (a fried dough treat), and drink ponche (a warm, fruity beverage). Mmm!  

Noche Buena y Navidad

Next up is Christmas Eve or Noche Buena (not to be confused with nochebuenas the plants or Noche Buenas the beers haha). As a Catholic-majority country, church services are really common on Christmas Eve, including a very special midnight mass, also known as the Rooster’s Mass (it got this name because it is said that the crow of a rooster announced the birth of Christ). After mass, a feast is expected, and yes, that could be in the wee hours of the morning, which is why Christmas Day is seen as a rest and recovery sort of day. Of course, some people end up skipping church on Noche Buena, but the big family meal is rarely missed. Similar to our Thanksgiving, turkey or ham are common center pieces although the more traditional option would be bacalao, an olive and codfish dish. I’ll probably skip that one this year…

Another interesting thing about Christmas Eve night has to do with the all the nativity scenes. Nativity scenes (or Nacimientos) in general are extremely popular here. Like extremely. They feature in the décor of restaurants, banks, apartment buildings, malls, city squares, etc. Some are literally larger than life-sized and some are incredibly creative (we saw one this year made entirely out of poinsettias), but despite all the variety out there, they all have one thing in common: the baby Jesus is missing. That is, he is missing until Christmas Eve night. I absolutely love this detail and can’t believe how everyone pulls this off. Do they set an alarm to remember? Where do they keep the waiting babies? Who gets the placement privilege at the local mall? So many questions!

Día de los Santos Innocentes

Onto my least favorite of the wintertime holidays…Día de los Santos Innocentes is Mexico’s version of April Fool’s Day. It occurs every year on December 28th and started out as a day in which you could borrow something from someone without having to give it back, a sort of “finders keepers” day. However, over time, it has evolved to include all sorts of pranks pulled by family members, friends, and even news outlets. Basically, don’t trust anything you see or hear on this day, and definitely don’t lend anyone anything you might want back.

Noche Vieja y Año Nuevo

The next set of holidays on the list are, of course, New Years Eve and New Years Day. Celebrated much the same around the world, with food, fireworks, and late-night fun, there are a few Mexican traditions that stood out to me last year. The first being the 12 grapes you eat as the clock strikes midnight. The idea is that you make a wish for each grape (12 representing the 12 months of the New Year), and if you can get ‘em all down be the time the clock is done chiming, your wishes will come true. After trying this last year, I have to say that it is definitely harder than it sounds! Fireworks are another super common tradition, but not just at midnight. In fact, fireworks can be heard pretty much all December and well into January – another vestige of indigenous practices and a popular way of celebrating anything and everything in Mexico.

Día de los Reyes y Candelaria

Finally, we come to the last two holidays of the season Día de los Reyes (January 6th) and Candelaria (February 2nd). Día de los Reyes or Day of the Kings (often known as Three Kings Day or Epiphany in the US) is a holiday that is probably more exciting as a child. It’s another day where kids can expect presents, this time from the Wise Men. And while adults might not get any presents, everyone does get to partake in the sharing of the rosca de reyes. A rosca is a ring-shaped pastry that has a hidden figurine of the baby Jesus somewhere inside. Usually, you eat the rosca with family or friends, and whoever gets the baby, then has to buy the tamales the following month on Candelaria. Roscas come in all different shapes and sizes these days (in fact, we got a rosca of tacos last year in addition to a more traditional pastry), but no matter what kind of rosca you eat, just remember to bite carefully! Also, I advise you to order your tamales for Candelaria days in advance – a mistake I won’t make again!

Wow! So many festivities to look forward to in next two months! Honestly, celebrating the local holidays is one of my favorite parts of living abroad, especially because we get to take these customs with us and celebrate them wherever we end up in the future! And now you can too! ¡Felices fiestas a tod@s!

Holiday Season in Hefei, China!

25551909_10215409724504614_4922483156100992958_n (1)Happy holidays from Hefei! Tucker and I are now into our fifth month of living in China and have just made it through our first holiday season in the Far East. China is the first country we’ve lived in that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, so we were pretty curious to see what it would be like over here. I’ve collected about a month’s worth of holiday observations to share with everyone, so let’s get to it!

25442748_10215324111684347_2436088416400639503_n (1)The Lead Up: Holiday decorations were everywhere! Early in December we started noticing Christmas decorations around the city: large, lighted trees, festive window stickers, red bows, etc. Our local supermarkets put up displays and seasonal aisles that sold everything from ornaments and stuffed Rudolphs to full-sized Santa animatronics (only mildly creepy). I had a great time buying a new set of Christmas décor (we now have a set on three separate continents) for our apartment here: stockings, lights, Santa hats, a small tree, etc. We were also able to find some seasonal treats like Andes candies, hot cocoa, and Ferrero Rochers as well. The malls were probably the biggest Christmas perpetrators with decorations on just about every store front, staircase, and atrium. People were often lined up to get their pictures with Santa or to enter the “Secret Wonderland”, which to us looked like a small, dark room with tons of white Christmas lights on the ceiling. Of course, many American chains like Starbucks and Dairy Queen also had their usual holiday specials advertised in the usual places, and Christmas music (particularly Jingle Bells) could be heard in most stores and restaurants throughout the month.

Christmas Eve: The word for Christmas Eve in Chinese is “Ping’an Ye”, which sort of sounds like “pingguo” (apple), so on Christmas Eve many Chinese people give apples as gifts to their friends and neighbors. The stores sell brightly wrapped apples just for this occasion, and if you tell a Chinese person that we, in fact, don’t have this tradition (despite the fact that it stems entirely from a play on Chinese words), they will be extremely surprised. Other than the apples, many Chinese Christians also go to church on Christmas Eve. In fact, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, it was more popular for local church services than Christmas Day. However, the religious facet of Christmas is not as well-known as some of the more commercial aspects. For example, when I asked the students in the English Corner what American Christmas traditions they knew, they stuck to things like presents, Santa Claus, and holiday movies. It was really surprising to us which things they had heard of and which things are just not associated with Christmas for them. Leaving Santa cookies, for example, was something they had not heard of, but during Chinese New Year they have a similar tradition, which I can’t wait to be a part of!

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Christmas Day: Christmas Day is not a national holiday in China; therefore, people (regardless of religion, nationality, etc.) do not get the day off. I was lucky to not have classes that day, but I still got many work-related emails and had to go pick up my paycheck (on Christmas Day!!). When I told my colleagues and students what I planned to do on Christmas, which was to spend the whole day in my pajamas watching the Yule Log on YouTube, they were very surprised. In China, Christmas is the biggest shopping day of the year. Many people (especially the younger generations) spend the day going to the movies or out to eat, and then out shopping for gifts for each other or for their significant others. Christmas Day for the majority of Chinese people is more like another Valentine’s Day, only with slightly different characters. I took no part in the holiday shopping as I can only imagine what the crowds were like, but I did enjoy my fair share of Christmas gifts/messages. On WeChat, a Chinese social media app, I received over a hundred holiday messages from students, coworkers, and friends I’ve met over the last few months. I read “Merry Christmas” and “Sheng Dan Kuai Le” many times over the holiday and was blown away by the effort so many people put into making my Christmas Day a little more cheerful.

 

New Year’s Eve: New Year’s Eve, as we know it, refers to midnight on January 1st, but in China that’s only a minor New Year. Their longest holiday and biggest celebration is for the Lunar New Year, which will be in February this year (more on this later, I imagine). For our piddly little New Year, there was a bit less going on in Hefei than in other Chinese cities. We have signs and decorations wishing everyone a “Happy 2018” and from what I could tell, there were many parties downtown as well, but the large celebrations are reserved for China’s mega cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc. We ended up watching a live stream from Hong Kong and were surprised that the only fireworks we heard were coming from the laptop. I suppose since we live on a university campus and China, in general, is really strict about air pollution, local fireworks seem to be rare on New Year’s Eve. I have a feeling this might not hold true for Lunar New Year though. Can’t wait to find out! Happy 2018!

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Christmastime in Poland

Tucker and I have now been in Poland for over three months, and one of my favorite things about being here long-term is getting to see how people in Poland celebrate the holidays! We’ve been through several Polish-exclusive holidays (like All Saint’s Day, Andrzejki, etc.) and shared our American customs for holidays like Thanksgiving, but Christmas is the first holiday that both countries have in common, and it’s a big one. We had read and heard about many Polish Christmas traditions, but experiencing them was so much better! I didn’t take near enough photos, but here is my written description of our Polish Christmas:

Mikolajki – The Christmas season in Poland, much like in the US, lasts more than just a few days. We started seeing Christmas decorations in mid-November – there’s no Thanksgiving here, so no one fights over when to start decorating! There are also a few extra days of Christmas-related celebrations, such as Mikolaijki. Mikolaijki (or Saint Nickolas’ Day) is associated with Santa and seems to be mainly celebrated with children in school. Typically games are played, songs are sung, and children receive gifts of candy or sweets. As an adult, it doesn’t mean quite as much as we all still had to go to work, but it’s certainly a fun way to begin the holiday season.

Wigilia – Next is Wigilia (or Christmas Eve), which is the main day of Polish celebrations. Most people work half-days on Christmas Eve, and celebrate with their families in the evening and for the next few days. There are many articles, videos, etc. describing some of the customs Polish families observe on this evening, but it really differs from family to family. Some traditions include starting the evening meal after the first star can be seen, putting hay under the tablecloth, and always leaving an empty chair at the table for an unexpected guest. These particular traditions were ones we read about, but the families we celebrated with this year, didn’t observe them. Perhaps they are a little antiquated, like caroling in the US – we talk about it, but I’ve never seen it.

For our Wigilia, we were invited by our friend, Mateusz (who is also our Polish teacher) to his family’s house in Łask, Poland. Łask is a small town about 30 minutes outside Łódź, which allowed us to experience not only a Polish Christmas, but also Polish life outside the city. When we arrived, we were joined by Mateusz’s mom, brother, and brother’s girlfriend. The six of us then sat down for a truly amazing homemade Polish meal. There are typically 12 dishes served for Wigilia, and they usually only appear on Polish tables once a year. We had mushroom soup, cabbage pierogies with mushroom sauce, carp, cod, Greek fish, herring in a milk broth with potatoes, barscht, and I (alone) was also given a croquette (since I’m not a big ryby-eater). Traditionally, there is no meat served on Christmas Eve – fish obviously doesn’t count. To drink we had homemade wine, dried fruit compote, eggnog (made by Tucker), and ajerkoniak (Poland’s much stronger version of eggnog). For dessert there was sernik (cheesecake), szarlotka (apple pie), makowiec (poppy seed cake roll), and a very delicious cream/custard cake.

The food was delicious and unlike anything we had had before, but most exciting was the company. We got to use our very minimal Polish (plus our brilliant translator, Mateusz) to talk about food, family, and the differences between life in the US and Poland. We were also able to experience the feeling of family while we were there: everyone helping to clear the table, laughing and poking fun at each other, etc . It was very fun for us to see how Polish family members interact. Perhaps not so shockingly, it’s very much like in the US (and I suspect in most families worldwide). After dinner and conversation, we walked around the city of Łask listening to stories about the town’s history and asking a variety of Poland-related questions. Eventually, it was time to go home and open up our presents! In Poland, presents are opened on Christmas Eve, so in an effort to be both Polish and American, Tucker and I opened our gifts just after midnight (technically on the 25th).

Boże Narodzenie – Christmas day in Poland is similar to the day after Christmas in the US: more food and more family! Tucker and I decided to be very American and have steak for breakfast, but later in the day we headed over to my friend (and colleague) Weronika’s apartment for Christmas dinner. Weronika and her family welcomed us on the stairs and we, again, immediately felt like part of the family. We had amazing conversations ranging from German vocabulary to movies of the seventies, played games in English and Polish, and, of course, ate more than seems possible. For dinner we had mushroom soup, beetroot and herring, a variety of dips and sauces (many of which I forgot to ask the names of), bread with butter, and bigos (a sort of cabbage and meat stew). Everything, very typical in Poland, was again homemade: even the cakes and pierniczki (gingerbread cookies) we had for dessert. It’s really getting difficult to defend our lazy American habits! Sadly, after the wine and cookies, we had to say “dobranoc” and head back home to our empty apartment. Christmas is a difficult time to be away from family, but our incredibly generous Polish friends made sure that not only did we learn about how they celebrate the holidays, but that we felt like we were a part of them. Tucker and I are so thankful for the people we have met here in Poland and can’t wait for them to visit us in the US (or wherever we are) in the future!

Ultimately, Tucker and I had an amazing Polish Christmas, and we’re looking forward to the Nowy Rok and all the other upcoming holidays! I hope you enjoyed reading about our experience this Christmas, and I wish I could share every detail. But for now: Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!

Merry Christmas!