‘Tis the Season of Salt Cod, Piñatas, and Ponche

Holiday decorations in Puerto Vallarta. Photo © Julie Doherty Meade.
Holiday decorations in Puerto Vallarta. Photo © Julie Doherty Meade.

Growing up in temperate Northern California, there was always something amusingly incongruous about hanging up snowflake-shaped ornaments and singing carols about a “winter wonderland” when none of our Christmases would ever be white. The first time I spent the season in Mexico, the contrast between my idea of the winter holidays and my sunny, south of the border surroundings was all the more pronounced. I still chuckle when I see a snapshot of a Christmas tree on the balcony of an apartment building in Puerto Vallarta, which I took on a sunny, high-80s afternoon in late December.

Of course, equating Christmas with Santas and sleighs reveals my narrow, rather Dickensian view of the holidays. Mexico’s Christmas season is full of tradition and pageantry—though very few conifers. After a half dozen holidays down south, I began to recognize the signifiers of the season in Mexico: the proliferation of shiny piñatas strung over the narrow streets in San Miguel de Allende; the corner shops stocking Noche Buena, a dark beer that is only produced during the holiday season; rows of red poinsettia (a native Mexican flower) planted along the gardens flanking the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City; fruits for traditional ponche (warm fruit punch), like guava, sugar cane, and apples, on sale in the public markets; the explosion of fireworks on the night of December 12, the Day of the Virgin de Guadalupe at the start of the Christmas season; and, perhaps most charming, the jolly noise on the streets every evening as families make their way to Christmas posadas, traditional parties take place during the twelve days before Christmas.

Big family meals have always been my favorite part of the holidays at home, and eating my first traditional Christmas dinner in Mexico is among my fondest memories of the holidays. As it was in my Irish Catholic household growing up, Christmas is principally celebrated on December 24 in Mexico. (Christmas Day is a time to eat leftovers and lounge around in your pajamas.) The traditional Mexican Christmas meal usually includes a wonderfully unusual mix of dishes, including salt cod served in the Valencian style with tomatoes, bell peppers, capers, and olives; romeritos (a native Mexican green) in mole sauce; and ensalada de navidad, a salad of shredded beetroot, walnuts, and raisins.

In truth, we didn’t make all these dishes on my first Mexican Christmas, though my husband Arturo’s traditional salt cod was a savory highlight of the meal—and, naturally, we drank tequila. After cooking all day, we started to eat late in evening, well past ten o’clock, as is traditional in Mexico. Hours of food, toasts, dishes, and second helpings followed, and we didn’t wrap up until sometime after four o’clock in the morning. The next day, everyone came back for leftovers and half-drunk bottles of wine, cementing the special feeling we’d created over dinner.

Looking back, there’s nothing particularly foreign about my first Christmas in Mexico, though it was certainly magical to me. Instead, like all great holidays, it was about the people I spent it with, and the feeling of friendship and camaraderie that I still strongly associate with Christmas in Mexico.

The holidays begin to wrap up in Mexico on Three King’s Day on January 6, when children traditionally receive their Christmas presents and families get together to eat a sweet, dried-fruit-topped bread wreath called a rosca de reyes. Within a few weeks, the weather begins to get warmer and the first signs of spring appear. The first blooms on the trees are always a welcome sight, though it’s with regret that I drink the last Noche Buena in the fridge.

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