I experienced my first church-centered fiesta a month after arriving in Mexico. Resplendent with Aztec dancers, fireworks, parades, beer vendors, carnival rides and nightly music until dawn, the nine-day party celebrating Saint Francis (the patron saint of the main church in Chapala) keyed me into the understanding that Mexican Catholicism was not the Catholicism of my staid grandmother. I still, however, wasn’t prepared for Christmas in San Martín de las Flores. My then-boyfriend, Jesús, had grown up in San Martín, a mestizo neighborhood in Tlaquepaque, and I was excited to spend my first Christmas in Mexico with his family.
The oddities of that Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) started well before the tequila. Sipping champurrado (a delicious, hot corn and masa-based drink with chocolate) and prepping 19 chickens for the “small” family party scheduled for later that night after midnight mass, I heard what sounded like sleighbells in the street.
“Los toros!” my boyfriend’s niece screamed and the whole family dashed for the front door.
I wasn’t sure what I was witnessing in the dying light of the shadowy cobblestone street. Bulls, yes, but they were trotting on their hind legs holding (was it?) pitchforks, a thick belt of bells wrapped around their midriffs, jingling rhythmically. As they approached, I realized they were young men, probably teenage boys, wearing masks and horns and, indeed, they were carrying pitchforks. Although he was behind me, Jesús sensed my bewilderment and explained that these boys rounded up the neighborhood kids for the pastorela. Not yet familiar with the term for Christmas nativity plays, I flashed on the pork-filled pasteles my Puerto Rican aunt used to make at Christmas.
“Is that like a tamal?” I asked in my horrible Spanish. Guessing by the laughter, the answer was no.
No one seemed to know where the strange, to me, tradition of the bulls had come from, but pastorelas, Jesús’s sister Angelica explained, were a centuries old tradition in Mexico. I had been in my fair share of nativity plays as a child, my shyness relegating me to nonspeaking parts (usually one of the shepherd’s sheep), but I could make no sense of Angelica’s description of a pastorela, which included the repeated words diablo, San Miguel, and pecado, sin.
“You will see later,” she promised.
The Hollywood-worthy spectacle I witnessed later served only to add several more layers to my initial confusion. A parade of bulls, young and old, accompanied (and seemingly menaced) angels, shepherds, and saints along the crowded streets that all led to the church. A scarily convincing Satan offered the shepherds temptation after temptation on their journey to meet the baby Jesús. The drama climaxed with an epic battle between the devil and Archangel Michael. The crowd booing Satan with gusto and madly cheering the odds-on favorite, San Miguel. And then it got weird.
Dozens of parishioners, dressed in robes, started weaving through the densely packed crowd. They held up long poles topped with flower-encrusted domes that had bright streamers tapering down all around. The domes looked like psychedelic jellyfish swimming in a dark sea. They began to pulsate with the rhythm of a song everyone knew, and everyone sang. I thought I was having an acid flashback. I looked around the crowd, trying to ground myself. At first comforted by Angelica’s smiling face, I was taken aback by how sickly her baby looked. Then I realized that ALL the babies cradled fiercely by the faithful looked horribly ill.
I tugged at my boyfriend’s sleeve. “What is the name of that disease that makes your face look plastic? You know, cyclo-derma or something?” (Scleroderma, it turns out. I had been close.) He just looked at me blankly and returned to singing.
The singing stopped and the baby-carrying members of the congregation surged to the front of the crowd, holding their babies aloft.
“What are they doing?!” I gasped.
“The priest is blessing the baby Jesúses for the Nacimientos,” my niece explained, as the priest started flinging holy water onto countless figures of the baby Jesús that would be added to their nativity scenes that night. Oh God, they are plastic, I realized with both relief and embarrassment.
The mass concluded not long after, but our night went into the wee hours. Piles of food, gallons of beer, bottomless shots of tequila and more champurrado were served up, all in the company of our newly blessed baby Jesús. As I sat back and listened to the conversations spoken in an unfamiliar language, familiarity yet crept into my heart. Older siblings teased each other about which one had gotten fatter or lost more hair. Children ran around the house and yard in packs, their laughter erasing thoughts of the year’s hardships. Teenagers created playlists on the fly, blasting music through a gigantic Bluetooth speaker. This scene I knew. The strangeness of different customs, in a different culture, many miles from home, gave way to the joyful chaos and comforting embrace of family. I was home.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com