Growing up Mexicana without God: Remembering A Secular Christmas Tradition
I was born in Puebla, Mexico at 2:00 am on Christmas Day. This meant I shared my birthday with the most important person on Christmas in Mexico: Jesus Christ.
Mexico is a very Catholic country and Christmastime is primarily focused upon the Nativity Scene and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ–but I was raised agnostic.
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
I heard this Karl Marx quote many times from my mother. My parents told me that God was a fairy tale and that Jesus Christ was a real person and a good one, but definitely not an immortal saint who rose from the grave. They told me that people needed religion to not feel scared in a confusing world. My parents did not believe in lying to me so they also spilled the beans on Santa Claus. They upfront told me he was a made up story. This made Christmas a very different experience for me than it was for my fellow classmates.
Christmas, for me, was the time of the year that I got lots of presents because it was my birthday that just so happened to be on Christmas Day. I was an only child till I was 10, so for all those years, Christmas was all about celebrating my birthday and spending time with my family.
I loved walking downtown Puebla and enjoying the beautiful Christmas decorations. I was fascinated by the giant and lifelike nativity scene in the Church courtyard. Every time I saw the baby Jesus I wondered what made him so special that everyone commemorated his birth. I was not exposed to religion so I really had no frame of reference for this man that everyone else seemed to think was so special. On some level I even resented him. I felt like this Jesus baby was jacking my birthday. When people would tell me happy birthday I’d say “You too.” I think on some level I thought that Christmas was everyone’s birthday.
In the mall there was a whole different scene. There was a nativity scene, but mostly there was all this Santa Claus, snow, and reindeer imagery. This was confusing as well because there is no snow in Mexico except high in the mountains. I had never seen snow in real life. So this was just another fantasy. I knew even less about this Santa Claus character. I could not figure out what Jesus had to do with Santa Claus, but clearly these were the starring characters in this thing called Christmas.
One time at the mall they had two Santas; one at each entrance. Me and my parents laughed and joked about it because we imagined other parents having to awkwardly explain to their kids why Santa was teleporting all over the mall.
When I saw the mall Santas I always knew it was a man in a suit.
Christmas was always a magical time for me because it was my birthday and it was happening during such a festive and holiday season. In Mexico, December is a month of continuous parties and celebrations, of candlelit processions, and candy eating.
I loved the festivity and it made my birthday more special.
We would put up a Christmas tree, because that was the part of Christmas that they thought was fun, and we put the gifts under it. We shopped for the gifts together. My father made enough money as a Physics college professor for us to have all our needs met. We did not own a car and we lived in a modest house with a small back yard.
I had everything I needed, but we did not have a disposable income. I had to think carefully about things I really wanted. There were things I would see earlier in the year and I would ask my mother. She would tell me that if I still wanted it by Christmas she would get it.
On Christmas Eve we would gather around the lit tree with all the gifts under it and quietly contemplate. In the morning, my parents would put on a record of Pedro Infante songs.
‘Las Mañanitas’ was the Mexican happy birthday song that most people sang at all the birthday parties. When I woke up on Christmas morning, hearing Pedro Infante’s silky voice singing that song, I felt like Christmas and my birthday had truly begun.
We opened our presents as the record played. Then my mother made Mexican ‘Abuelita’ hot chocolate. We had breakfast and then made preparations for my birthday/Christmas party.
A few days prior, me and my dad would go and pick out my piñata, which my dad would then string up on a clothesline in our back yard. We would also buy Rompope, which is a much more delicious version of mildly alcoholic eggnog.
During my birthday, they would let me drink some Rompope, because the alcohol content was very small. We would have a big rollicking party with my dad’s university colleagues. They were all from the Physics department and they really liked to party. They would bring their spouses and their kids. We would play American, Spanish, and Mexican rock music. The adults would drink and hang out, laughing and talking, while the kids ran around getting into mischief.
One moment I remember fondly was when I was asking for more Rompope and my mother said I had had enough. One of my dad’s friends said “It’s her birthday, she can have as much as she wants.” and poured me a double. Believe me, you cannot get drunk off Rompope. The sugar high will get you first.
One time I put on an impromptu performance for our guests. I had just seen the Warren Beatty film Dick Tracy and had become completely and hopeless obsessed with Madonna. I had been dressing up as her in my room and dancing to her songs as if I was putting on a show. I suddenly got inspired to play ‘Sooner or Later’ from the soundtrack album and perform it for everyone. I put on an oversized shirt that I wrapped around my waist so that it was armless. I put on lipstick. I put on the cassette tape, and I got up on a chair ( was a short child of 9) so that everyone could see me.
I remember everyone staring at me, not knowing what to say. It was my birthday and so they had to indulge me. I got off on this power and I got off on the mixed reactions of amusement and surprise. I went full Madonna.
Ironically, I was terrified of hitting the piñata. When it came time to hit it, I would suddenly be paralyzed with fear. I was so self-conscious of people watching me hit and judging my performance. People were always very vocal and boisterous during the piñata hitting. They liked to blindfold the hitter and spin them around, to make it harder. They would cheer and exclaim as you missed or made it. I could not take the pressure, even though it was all in good fun.
Every year I would run up to my bedroom and hide while everyone called up to me to come down. My dad would come up and try to show me it wasn’t scary, as the others began hitting, but I could never do it.
As soon as the piñata was about to break I would run down to get the candy, though.
After the piñata we would grill steaks in the back yard and eat tacos. After tacos we would light the candles on the birthday cake and everyone would sing ‘Las Mañanitas’ and then I would make a wish and blow out the candles and everyone would clap and cheer.
These memories of my birthday celebrations in Mexico are some of the happiest memories in my whole life. That was a magical time of innocence even without Jesus and Santa.
Leza Cantoral is the author of Planet Mermaid and editor of Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective. She writes about noir film for Luna Luna Magazine. Her upcoming collection of short stories, Cartoons in the Suicide Forest, will be coming out later this month through Bizarro Pulp Press. You can find her short stories at lezacantoralblog.wordpress.com Twitter @lezacantoral