Huitzilopochtli, carols and the salvation of the apocalypse: the first Mexican Christmas | Culture

Huitzilopochtli, carols and the salvation of the apocalypse: the first Mexican Christmas | Culture

It was not a Christmas like the one most are used to these days. There are no records of leafy pines or bright spheres or wrapped gifts with large colored bows. There were also no Santa Claus red caps and no poinsettias or Easter flowers, as they are known in Spain. At the first Christmas celebration in Mexico, documented in 1528, guests arrived from as far away as 20 leguas (almost 100 kilometers) away from Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Mexica Empire. Some came by land, others by water and a few were sick. "There were so many who did not fit in the courtyard," said Pedro de Gante, the Franciscan who called the celebration, incredulous in a letter written decades later to King Felipe II. At the height of the night, the friar narrated, guests "They sang the mesma night of Nativity to the angels "a carol in which they cried out:" Today the world's redeemer was born ".

Christmas took a long time to settle in the colony of New Spain. Ghent, a clergyman from Flanders (now Belgium), left Spain in May 1523 and landed in Mexico three months later. The old Tenochtitlan was still destroyed after its fall in 1521. The friar began his mission in Texcoco, a town that had been an ally of the Aztecs and today is located in the eastern periphery of Mexico City, with a clear slogan: to save so many souls as possible before the apocalypse. The Franciscans had a marked millenarian accent, the belief that they had to prepare for the day of final judgment. In the first years of the Colony, this translated into converting the "heretics" into the evangelization of the Indians. "It often happens to us to baptize in one day 14,000 people, sometimes 10,000, sometimes 8,000," Gante assured in his epistolary witnesses.

The first Franciscans were imbued with the traditions of pre-Hispanic cultures, learned Nahuatl and in some cases Otomi, and laid the foundations of what was a long and complex syncretic process. Ghent identified the importance of the oral tradition in the identity accounts of the original settlers, of the songs and dances offered to the gods, and of the need to represent the pre-Hispanic pantheon in figurines or monoliths. The transition from polytheism to the dogma of the Trinity or to the saintship began in a rudimentary way with songs and rites translated into indigenous languages. "It was a pedagogical process: he prepared plays, the children of the nobility disguised themselves as angels, translated and composed religious hymns, instructed the villagers to use Christian images in their original clothes," says the historian Carlos Fernando López of the tower.

With Ghent also came the tradition of placing births or cribs, for example, explains López de la Torre. "It is very likely that in Texcoco Christmas would have been celebrated before, during those first years, but we do not have historical records," he says. The site of the celebration of 1528 was the Chapel of San Jose de los Naturales (as the religious referred to the Indians), the first religious building on the site that is still the seat of the Temple of San Francisco, practically in countermask of the current Palace of Fine Arts, in the heart of the Mexican capital. After 490 years, there is no longer any trace of the chapel, between the current streets of September 16 and Ghent, which had an open roof and had a vocation for the masses, to reach as many people as possible.

A coincidence was also decisive for Christmas to arrive in Mexico. The Christmas festivities coincide with the winter solstice, an astronomical event that marked the cycles of the harvests and that was celebrated in many cultures: the Slavs, the Romans, the Chinese, the sub-Saharan peoples, among others. The Mexicas had the panquetzaliztli, the party to commemorate the birth of Hutzilpochtli, the sun-god of war and patron of the Mexica metropolis, explains Sonia Iglesias and Cabrera. "It was the most important celebration of the Aztec pantheon", summarizes the author of Mexican Christmas.

It is simplistic to say that panquetzaliztli, which translates from Nahuatl as the raising of the flags, be it "Christmas Mexica" because it was completely different from the current celebrations. There were the now demonized human sacrifices, it lasted several days and a kind of Lent was done in the previous weeks. "But the coincidence of dates was taken advantage of by the evangelizers, in the end Christmas is also the most important festivity of Christianity and was fundamental for the introduction of the indigenous to Christianity," argues López de la Torre.

Fray Pedro de Gante
Fray Pedro de Gante Culture.Gob

"Today, the party has acquired other characteristics, more often than not commercial," says Iglesias and Cabrera: "However, in all our indigenous and peasant cultures is celebrated in a traditional way and more attached to ideological purposes for which it was created. " Christmas would take many years, if not centuries, to shape as it is known today. Then came the bonuses, the inns, the pyrotechnics of the Nao of China, the different theories about the origin of piñatas, the importation of the tradition of the Christmas tree (attributed consensually to the empire of Maximilian of Hapsburg), the figure of Santa Claus or of Santa Claus, the arrival of the turkey to the menu of the festival and the idea of ​​the American ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett to use the poinsettia as the symbolic flower of the date. In Mexico, in the old New Spain, everything started with a carol.


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