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!

Missing Polska

It’s Christmastime once again, and I find myself pining (see what I did there?) for Poland. This time last year, Tucker and I were decorating our apartment in Łódź and brushing up on Polish Christmas traditions (of which there are plenty). This year, while I’m very excited to be celebrating Christmas with my family, American-style, there are definitely many things I’m missing about life in Poland. For example:

Drinking Tea with Friends

I miss Polish tea culture! In the United States, coffee is generally the warm drink of choice, and, unfortunately, I really hate coffee. In Poland, I was gradually forced into drinking some form of hot liquid (especially on cold mornings), and eventually, I learned to love hot tea. Although at first I fought it, now I find myself missing the constant drink (and snack) offers at every Polish gathering (from dinner at a friend’s house to a meeting at work) as well as always getting the choice of coffee or tea. In the past few months I have done my best to bring this tradition to my life in the US, but sadly all I’ve done is become known as the weird, coffee-hating, hot tea-drinker.

The Language

I’m very sad that I will not get to use my well-practiced “Wesołych Swiąt” this year (or the even more challenging “Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku”). Instead, I have to waver with the very difficult “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” debacle. Not only am I missing Polish greetings, but I’m also missing the intensive grammar practice. I know that sounds crazy to most people, but I loved it – and it’s just not the same outside of Poland. I’m really doing my best to continue studying the complex Polish language, but it’s not nearly as gratifying without the unsuspecting strangers to practice with.

Public Transportation

I miss not having to worry about driving. Weather, distance, gas prices: there are so many things we consider when deciding if it’s worth it to leave the house in the United States. However, in Poland, I never worried about that. I had trains, trams, buses, sidewalks…plenty of methods at my disposal; thus, we found ourselves out and about much more often. I used to think having a car meant having freedom (and to an extent in the US it sort of does), but it’s definitely a limited freedom. Access to a good public transportation system is real freedom.

Proximity of Destinations

Somewhat related to public transportation, I also miss the nearness of points of interest. Poland (and Europe in general) has so much to see (mountains, castles, seas, etc.), and it’s not nearly as spread out as the United States. It was easy for us to go to a different region of Poland or even a different country just for the weekend. I miss being surrounded by the diverse histories and cultures of Central Europe. It’s only a 2.5-hour flight from Warsaw to Rome, Athens, Paris, or London. Location, location, location!

The Food

Where do I even begin when talking about the food? I miss everything about Polish food. I miss the buffets at the university cafeteria; I miss the cheap ham sandwiches sold at train stations; I miss the home-cooked feel of everything we ate in Poland. The żurek, rosół, pierogi, kotlet schabowy, kopytka, even the surówka, I miss it all! This is another aspect I tried to bring back to the States, but alas, it’s just not the same. Atlanta doesn’t even have a Polish restaurant where I can get my fix! At least when I was in Chicago I was able to get some fresh kabanosy and wash it down with a cold Żywiec.

The Hospitality

Perhaps most of all, I miss the people. I miss my Polish friends, and I miss the friendliness of Polish strangers. Poles are very genuine, and in my experience they make great friends and mentors. I miss the conversations we had – always very intelligent and rarely superficial, and I miss the interest they took in learning anything they could about US culture and the English language. After spending some time back in the US, I’ve witnessed so many differences that I didn’t realize existed, and I love sharing them with the people I left across the Atlantic. I have a feeling I will be making realizations about Polish and American culture forever!

Of course, there are many other aspects of Polish life that I find myself missing – seriously, I could go on. Fortunately, I have been able to incorporate a few Polish customs into my American life. Things like drinking beer with a straw (and on occasion fruit juice), not taking off my jacket as I shop for groceries, wearing slippers around the house, and you better believe we’ll be watching “Home Alone” on Christmas Eve! 🙂 In short, my time in Poland changed my life. I’m still so grateful for that opportunity and am ready for my next overseas adventure (soon to come)!

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!