"In the name of heaven, oh grant us shelter. . . ."
With these words begins one of Mexico's great customs: the Posadas or pre-Christmas celebrations. During these nine magical days before Christmas Eve, family and friends throughout the country gather to commemorate the lonely wandering of Joseph and Mary in search of shelter.
From behind the door of the house where the carolers stand comes the familiar answer to their plea:
"This is no inn.
"Continue on your way.
"I cannot open,
"For you may be a thief."
The "pilgrims" outside continue to plead, their sweet voices filling the still evening air and their candles enveloping them in a halo of light. Finally their persistence triumphs and they are welcomed:
"Come in, little pilgrims,
"And receive this corner.
"Tonight our home is yours,
"And so are our hearts."
The door swings open, revealing the Mexican home in all its Christmas splendor. Brilliant red poinsettias adorn virtually every surface, and the fragrances of jicama and tejocote (a sort of crab apple) fill the air.
A Christmas tree occupies one corner, but it is really secondary to the elaborate creche scene sheltered beneath its boughs. This wondrous arrangement of the handmade figures is the heart and soul of the Mexican holiday home. Out on the terrace hang whimsical pinatas, awaiting the joyous crowd that will soon knock them to the ground and scramble for the fruits and candies that scatter from inside.
And, of course, there is the large table laden with the marvelous delicacies of the Posadas season. As a child, I beat the pinata frantically, not for the treats it bore but because I knew I could then indulge in the carnival of flavors that awaited us.
As do most cultures, Mexicans celebrate life and prosperity with food. And at no time is the bounty as extraordinary as it is during the Christmas season--the country's most joyous holiday.
The flurry of eating begins with the Posadas. For this day, families spend days preparing the marvelous array of masa treats that are traditionally served during this time. In addition to the more common quesadillas, tacos and tostadas, the Posadas table boasts a fascinating array of traditional specialties.
A particularly fabulous dish everyone seems to fight over is tacos al pastor. For this delicacy, beef is marinated with fruit in a robust red sauce, called adobo, and roasted over a direct fire. It is then thinly sliced, wrapped in a fresh tortilla and sprinkled with a tangy tomatillo (roasted tomato or green chile) sauce.
Bean gordas-- thick tortilla patties filled with bean paste, cooked on the comal (Mexican griddle) and drenched with salsa and creme fraiche-- also disappear very quickly. Occupying a prominent position at every Posadas celebration is the indispensable holiday punch, a pungent wine-based brew made with crab apples, sugar cane, guava, prunes, apples and a healthy shot of aguardiente liquor.
In a sense, the Posadas are one long "appetizer" for the Christmas Eve feast. The appetites are teased and tempted for nine joyous days. Finally, families gather for this fabulous meal in the warmth and intimacy of their own homes.
The foods served at the Christmas Eve tables are as symbolic as the silver and crystal heirlooms that decorate it. The ritual of preparing these traditional recipes brings back the memory of those who shared them with us and reinforces the bond of family and culture.
Much like the American Thanksgiving, Mexico's Christmas Eve menu consists of several standard dishes varied slightly by each family, depending upon their particular traditions and ethnic roots.
The feast begins with a Champagne toast and a delicate salad made with sectioned oranges, cooked beets, roasted peanuts and romaine lettuce. No dressing is necessary, as the wonderful juices of the oranges and beets form their own perfect marinade.
Then, a luxurious cream soup, gentle and soothing in flavor and texture, is brought to the table. In my family, we have always served a hearts of palm soup that my mother's mother-in-law introduced from Veracruz. In her day, the family would cut fresh palms from outside and remove the tender hearts just before preparing the dish. Today, we use canned palm hearts that are readily available at the grocery store.
Two main dishes are usually served: turkey, which represents our Indian ancestry, and a spicy codfish stew that comes from the Spanish. The turkey, which was referred to as a mystical bird in early Aztec writings, is served either with an adobo or mole sauce, or is roasted and stuffed.