Feliz Navidad: Celebrate Mexican Holiday Traditions

las posadas 2128

The Mexican Christmas season kicks off December 12 with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Mexico City and all of the Americas) and ends two weeks past December 25. Read on to learn the significance of Las Posadas and Three Kings Day, plus traditional Mexican foods eaten during the holidays. A special interview with Food Network Chef Marcela Valladolid follows.

Las Posadas
From December 16 to 24—the nine days before Christmas—Mexicans celebrate Las Posadas, which means “inn” or “lodging” in Spanish. These nine days honor Mary’s nine months of pregnancy and the journey with her husband Joseph to find a place to stay, a birthplace for Jesus. By tradition, families would light candles, pray, sing and participate in a walking journey.

Typically, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park hosts a Las Posadas celebration, a walking candlelit procession. Local actors walk from inn to inn, symbolically asking for lodging. The procession ends with a live nativity and musical performance in front of Casa de Estudillo. Participants and visitors enjoy bonfires, sing carols, and enjoy complimentary hot chocolate and s’mores. The Las Posadas celebration also typically includes all-day activities, crafts and choir performances. The park’s decorations represent the historical setting of Pueblo de San Diego. Visit www.fiestadereyes.com to see if the annual celebration will return this year.

Festive Foods
Mexican Christmas celebrations involve many cultural foods—especially tamales, a corn-based dough or masa filled with sweet or savory ingredients, wrapped in a cornhusk or banana leaves, and steamed. Sweet tamale ingredients include pineapple, strawberry, chocolate, pumpkin and guava; while savory ingredients are cheese and proteins like pork, beef, chicken and turkey.

“Tamales are the most traditional food to make and eat during the holidays, not only for Mexicans, but for many fellow Latin Americans,” says Teresa Anaya of Northgate Gonzalez Market, noting the tamales tradition goes back to Meso-American times. Five of the eight Northgate Markets in San Diego County offer free seasonal tamale-making classes.

“Customers usually learn to make three types of tamales and a drink that complements the tamale season,” says Anaya. Kids under 12 can take classes, too, learning to make two kinds of tamales. While participants don’t cook their tamales on-site, they do taste one that’s been cooked. Registered participants receive an apron, tamale spreader, a certificate of class completion, and a coupon for tamale ingredients and supplies. Class size is limited. Contact your local Northgate Market to see if tamale-making class (for kids or adults) are being offered this year: http://northgatemarket.com/en/Cooking-Classes.

In addition to tamales, Mexican Christmas celebrations often feature a full dinner. Paulina Chaidez of Cocina 35, a restaurant in downtown San Diego, caters many Mexican Posadas. They serve turkey breast with picadillo stuffing, topped with cream, almond and Granada sauce. During holiday parties, the meal ends with buñuelos, a customary south-of-the-border cinnamon dessert, as well as hot chocolate and café de olla, a spiced Mexican coffee made in a clay container with cinnamon, clove, cacao and a special unrefined sugar called piloncillo.

“It’s the most traditional coffee in Mexico,” says Chaidez. “It’s aromatic, has great flavor, and is really good for winter.”

Three Kings Day
The Mexican Christmas season ends Jan. 6 with the Epiphany, also known as Reyes Magos or Three Kings Day. This commemorates the visit of the three wise men who gave gifts to Jesus. Traditionally Mexicans exchanged gifts on Christmas and the Epiphany, but these days not as many people participate. This is also the day when Mexicans eat a sweet, ring-shaped pastry called La Rosca de Reyes or Three Kings Bread. A tiny plastic baby is baked into the bread and whoever gets it is considered to have good luck.

“Each guest has to cut their own piece and if you get the niño (baby), you have to buy the tamales for Dia de la Candelaria on February 2,” says Chaidez. This day, also known as Candlemas, commemorates when Jesus was presented at the temple.

Find an easy recipe for Three Kings Cake at www.sandiegofamily.com/things-to-do/dining-and-recipes/king-cake.

marcela 2128

Mexican Christmas Traditions: An Interview with Food Network Star, Chef Marcela Valladolid

Local chef and cookbook author Marcela Valladolid grew up in Tijuana. Until a recent move to L.A., the Food Network star of “The Kitchen” and “Best Baker in America” lived in Chula Vista with her fiancé and three children: Fausto, David and Anna. Her Decembers are filled with family, friends and lots of festivities on both sides of the border.

“I'll go to a posada with my mom’s side of the family, and another with my childhood friends,” Valladolid says. “We celebrate all month!” Here she shares her favorite Mexican Christmas traditions.

What are your favorite Mexican family holiday traditions?
Although we host a traditional Christmas dinner, we certainly have elements that remind us and our kids of our beautiful heritage. Tamales make an appearance at the table. There is always a piñata for the kids. Sparklers (luces de bengala) remind me of Christmases spent in Tijuana.

Which foods are a special part of your Mexican holiday celebrations?
We certainly do a rosca (Three Kings Bread), which we purchase in Tijuana every year. We make tamales or purchase them from my friend, Vivi Ley. We also make tortas de bacalao (salted cod) during posadas.

My mom used to make a few staples every single holiday season. Our home would become a factory for buñuelos and polvorones (Mexican wedding cookies). We would help my mom package them in cellophane bags with huge red bows for her to distribute to friends, family, teachers, nuns and anyone she wanted to show thanks to during the holiday season.

What advice do you have for families who celebrate more than one culture during the holidays?
Do it loud and do it proud. In this house being half Mexican is something we shout from the rooftop. Our food, language and traditions are simply the best in the world. I truly feel that and I know that I will pass that on to my kids!

Casa Marcela Cover 2128

Read more about Marcela Valladolid’s love of food, family and culture in her delightful cookbook, Casa Marcela: Recipes and Food Stories of My Life in the Californias.

Kristen Castillo is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Chula Vista with her family. 

Free Summer Concerts 2022

Free Summer Concerts 2022

San Diego’s Free Summer Concerts 2022 Start the summer on a high note! Here are outdoor gigs and free summer concerts happening throughout San Diego County in 2022. CARLSBADTGIF Concerts . . .

Read more

Come to the All-Inclusive Day of Play & Resource Fair

Come to the All-Inclusive Day of Play & Resource Fair

FREE EVENT! It’s one of our favorite days of the year—and all activities and resources are free and open to the public! Kids of all abilities will love this event brought to you by the Special . . .

Read more

Family Things To Do Outside of Comic Con No Badge Required

Family Things To Do Outside of Comic Con No Badge Required

Even if you weren't able to get a badge to Comic-Con this year, there are plenty of fun events you can take part in outside of the convention center. Often fans in costume, walking around downtown are . . .

Read more

10 Simple Pleasures Kids Will Love this Summer

10 Simple Pleasures Kids Will Love this Summer

When I think back on my childhood summers, it’s the simple pleasures I remember most. Running barefoot in the grass. Romping with my dog in the backyard. Reading my favorite book in a shady spot u . . .

Read more

Fun Family Day Trips and Staycations

Fun Family Day Trips and Staycations

One of the ways families can keep their chins up amidst a pandemic is to plan their next trip. Leisure travel is currently suspended in California, so keep a close eye on travel advisories and healt . . .

Read more

San Diego Family's Ultimate Summer Sand-Bucket List

San Diego Family's Ultimate Summer Sand-Bucket List

San Diegans have it really rough—living in a top travel destination that others dream of visiting. One thing is sure--there is no shortage of fun things to do, especially when the kids are out of . . .

Read more

Summer Fun after Dark

Summer Fun after Dark

There are few things more exciting to children than staying up past bedtime. If your kids are begging for some night owl fun this summer, San Diego offers plenty of nighttime family fun ideas that a . . .

Read more

25 Summer Boredom Busters

25 Summer Boredom Busters

Boredom is a precursor to creativity, so being bored is not all bad. But if you're ready for a change of pace, our boredom busters encourage families to get moving and start making memories! Go O . . .

Read more

San Diego Family Magazine Logo

Be Family Informed – Sign up for our Newsletters below!