Do you know when and how the first Christmas was celebrated in Mexico?
As is logical, until the arrival of the Spanish, Christmas was not celebrated in Mexico. It was thanks to the process of colonization, closely linked to that of evangelization, that the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was established on the American continent. However, there was one factor that benefited its rapid establishment: its coincidence with the panquetzaliztli, the Huitzilopochtli festival.
It is easy to think that the first Christmas was celebrated in 1519, the year that Hernán Cortés arrived in today’s Mexican territory. In this expedition, Cortés was accompanied by the Mercedarian priest Bartolomé de Olmedo, who was in charge of officiating the masses among the soldiers and carried out the first tasks of evangelization among the indigenous people in a measured way. Consequently, it can be assumed that the first Mexican Christmas happened in the military camps.
Indigenous contact with Christianity was not a project until 1523 when Fray Pedro de Gante and the 12 Franciscans arrived in Mexico to begin the evangelization process. Likewise, the first recorded Christmas occurred just five years later, in 1528. The testimony of the event is a letter sent by Fray Pedro de Gante to Felipe II, where he narrated how they celebrated in the company of the indigenous converts.
For that occasion, according to Pedro de Gante, guests arrived from up to 20 leagues (100 kilometers) away from Mexico-Tenochtitlán. “So many came that they could not fit in the patio”, highlights the religious in his text. At the time of Christmas Eve, the Franciscan tells that Spaniards and indigenous people “sang the same night of Nativity to the angels.”
From the Huitzilopochtli festival to Christmas
In order to transmit Catholic teachings, the friars searched for points of agreement between the pre-Hispanic and Christian religions. For example, they observed that the indigenous people celebrated the birth of the god Huitzilopochtli during the winter solstice. The custom of the tenochas was to invite those close to them to their homes to enjoy the tzóatl, a sweet that today we know as amaranth joy.
Pedro, who learned Nahuatl and was introduced to the indigenous culture, describes how he made use of pre-Hispanic dances and songs, which he clothed with Christianity. That is, the songs were now dedicated to Christ, although they remained in indigenous languages.
«But by the grace of God I began to know and understand their conditions and characteristics, and how I had to have with them, and that all their adoration of them to their gods was to sing and dance in front of them, because when they had to sacrifice some for some something, as well as to achieve the victory of their enemies, or for temporary necessities, before they were killed they had to sing before the idol; And since I saw this and that all their songs were dedicated to their gods, I composed very solemn meters on the Law of God and faith, and how God became man to save the human lineage, and how he was born of the Virgin Mary, leaving her pure and without blemish.
Traditions that endure to this day
Finally, all kinds of pedagogical strategies linked to art were developed to teach religious maxims. Religious images were painted on the tilmas, the same ones that the natives carried. During Christmas, plays about the birth of Christ were established, which were transformed into the shepherds. To liven up the parties and transmit moral teachings, the piñata and posadas were implemented. As the natives were very aware of the work with sculptures, the friars invented the nativity scenes, with the objective that the indigenous people understood the evangelical teachings in their own language and could appropriate them. Thus, among the Tenocha, the Huitzilopochtli festival was gradually abandoned.
“It was a pedagogical process: he prepared plays, the children of the native nobility dressed up as angels, translated and composed religious hymns, instructed the residents to use Christian images in their original clothes,” says historian Carlos Fernando López of the tower.
Although it is probable that Christmas had already been celebrated before 1528 in Texcoco, the official place of the first celebration was the Chapel of San José de los Naturales (as the religious referred to the Indians), which was in today Temple of San Francisco, located at the intersection of Madero and Eje Central in the Historic Center of Mexico City. There are no remains of the Chapel of San José.