TEPOTZOTLAN, Mexico — The wind blows with a frosty breath on a December night outside the 17th-Century Church of San Francisco Javier. Flood lamps illuminate the extravagantly baroque facade, casting a flowing, liquid radiance on the ornate confusion of saints and angels.
The crowd huddles in restless anticipation, wrapped in woolens against the cold night. The sky is shot with stars, the air thin and dry and astringent.
From one of the cafes on the edge of the tree-lined zocalo comes the soft strum of guitars, and an acrid smell of incense wafts from the dark recesses of the church.
Voices subdued, we shuffled closer, pressing toward the bolted doors of the monastery. There were few tourists in the crowd. The people around us spoke in Spanish, a bit of English mixed in.
They asked us where we were from, where we were going, how we happened to know about this place. Their faces reflected an unspoken pride in their culture, and we felt privileged to be among the cognoscenti.
We had come to see "La Pastorela," the traditional Mexican Christmas drama depicting the struggle between good and evil. Versions of medieval miracle plays, pastorelas were brought to Mexico by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s.
Originally solemn religious dramas, today they are spirited pageants, a mix of religion, folklore and theater with an accent on rustic comedy.
Mexico's most famous pastorela takes place every year from Dec. 15 to 23 in the 17th-Century monastery of Tepotzotlan, 25 miles north of Mexico City. It includes the ritual of Las Posadas, a candlelight procession reenacting the search of Mary and Joseph for an inn.
The ancient wooden doors of the monastery swung open and the throng of nearly 400 surged into a courtyard that was no more than 50 by 80 feet.
As we passed through the doors we were handed rustic pottery mugs filled with ponche, a hot spiced fruit punch steaming with the zesty aroma of cinnamon and oranges.
The courtyard of the old monastery is open. Tiered rows of folding chairs had been set around the periphery, leaving a small arena of worn and polished cobblestones in the center.
We found a seat, and the warmth of other bodies shielded us from the wind as we cradled our mugs in both hands, slowly sipping the liquid.
A tarnished moon showered a thin silver light on the cloistered walls draped in moss and flaming bougainvillea. The air was heavy with the musty smell of time, and the high walls seemed to enclose us, to define the boundaries of our world for a few hours, a world both intimate and somehow favored.
While we waited we talked to the young woman sitting next to us. Known to her friends as Maribel, she is a graduate of the University of Mexico and had spent six months in Georgia perfecting her English. She spoke with a soft drawl, her dark eyes intense as she explained the meaning of the program we were about to see.
"The shepherds represent simplicity," she said. "Sometimes they're just lazy and stupid. Buffoons. It's all in fun, you understand. They're going to Bethlehem to see the newborn Christ Child.
"But on the way they're going to meet many obstacles, all brought on by the devil, who is sometimes dressed as a Spaniard, sometimes as a monster in a hideous mask. Each year it's a surprise. It all depends on who has written the script."
Suddenly, trumpets blare. Guitars twang. Violins cry. The crowd cheers as a mariachi band enters in black costumes bespangled in gold, with red silk scarfs tied at the neck of crisp white shirts and huge black sombreros banded with mirrored chips.
Brass and violins pierce the air, and the music ignites the crowd. We hum along, swaying side to side, clapping to the rhythm of the cheerful Mexican Christmas carols.
"The shepherds!" Maribel exclaimed, beaming in appreciation as two clowns entered the arena accompanied by wild cheers.
Dressed in huaraches, baggy white pantaloons and huge straw sombreros with brims that flapped like wings as they moved, the shepherds soon had everyone laughing with their comical antics to divide the audience--our side versus their side--in a contest of who could sing the loudest.
Our attention was riveted by a sudden blast from a trumpet. Then another blast from somewhere far away. And again, a plaintive call.
"Up there," Maribel says, pointing. A spotlight high on the parapets of the monastery isolated a single figure: the angel Gabriel in white robes and golden halo, announcing on a slender trumpet the miraculous birth of Christ.
The cobblestone arena was soon filled with adorers making their way toward Bethlehem--peasants leading sheep, Indians swaddled in varicolored serapes, a child on a white donkey, a lamb and a chicken, a hermit in hooded monk's robe and an enormous fat lady in a gaudy, hot-pink huipil and flower-laden hat.