In Mexico, Christmas is about the family matriarch and lots of food

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Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal

When it comes to Christmas, Mexicans care more about the Eve rather than the actual day. That’s according to Gustavo Arellano, Anaheim-based author of the book “¡Ask a Mexican!” and columnist for the LA Times.

“So Christmas Eve, you go usually to the matriarch of the family. It used to be my grandma. She passed away. Now it’s my Tia Maria, she’s the oldest aunt. So she sets up this humongous nativity scene in her bedroom. And around it, we pray. We do a whole rosary. She’s a very devout Catholic,” he says.

The rest of the time, Arellano’s family eats a ton of food: pozole, which is a pork and hominy stew; buñuelos, fried flour tortillas dusted with cinnamon and sugar; ponche, fruit punch.

KCRW Communications Director Connie Alvarez has similar traditions. Her parents were born in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.

“We'd head to the oldest woman's home, which in our case was our grandma. You prepare for Christmas. You make the tamales a few day before. It's pretty much an assembly line. The kids got to sort the leaves -- the corn husks. Then somebody else, maybe the older kids, would spread the masa. The adults would put just the right amount of meat and whatever was going to be inside. Then time to boil them. Everybody would anticipate this day when you would eat all these tamales. And of course there was pozole,” she says.

A snowman piñata on the Christmas tree. Photo by Connie Alvarez/KCRW

Then January 6 is The Day of the Three Wise Kings, or the Feast of the Epiphany. Children received gifts that morning. “My parents would put gifts around our heads, kind of like a halo as we slept. So we'd wake up to whatever the gifts were around our heads,” Alvarez says.

The Feast of the Epiphany, as told in the Bible, is when the three wise men presented themselves to the infant Jesus, and gave their gifts. “In Mexico, that's when you traditionally give out all the gifts. The bread that goes with it is called rosca de reyes. But it’s also known in the U.S. as king's cake,” Arellano says.

The cake is oblong, filled with lots of sugar … and sometimes a little figurine of the baby Jesus. Depending on a family’s tradition, the adult who finds the baby is supposed to give gifts to everyone the next year. If a child finds it, they receive an extra gift.

Arellano says the other big tradition is Las Posadas, meaning shelter. For 14 nights during Advent, kids go around their neighborhoods and sing songs. They're replicating the search for shelter, which Joseph and Mary found on their way to Bethlehem.

“Every night, house after house would reject people who would play Joseph and Mary. And then there’s one house that would say, ‘Okay we'll welcome you in.’ And that's where you would have the party,” explains Arellano.

He says all the small towns in Mexico celebrate Las Posadas. It’s not as common in the U.S. -- sometimes people do it for only one night.

Olvera Street in LA also hosts Las Posadas. “It was really beautiful because you get some of that religious aspect. But also you come together. And even if they were strangers, you just felt like one big family in L.A.,” Alvarez says.