For most of us, Christmas is unbreakably tied to long-standing, comfort-creating traditions. Activities, foods, songs, people, decorations, even smells – we find comfort in these familiar symbols of childhood, family, fun and belonging. Like no other time of the year, change is unwelcome. We cling to sentimental reminders of the times we felt the most loved.
When you move to another country – a really different country – traditions change and that can be hard. Over these past 3 years, I have tried to hold loose those things that no longer work here and to cling to what is truly the most important. I have been willing to exchange cold air for hot breezes, crispy snow for soft sand, hash brown casserole for chilaquiles, Christmas carols for tuba banda music. This year we put up our tree and covered it with the family heirloom decorations we have been hanging since our children were babies. But everything else was different and it was fantastic!
In early Fall, our youngest daughter Brett suggested we travel somewhere different for Christmas this year. She was planning a 5-month trip through Mexico, and although she could easily fly to our home, she really wanted to show us a place she had grown to love. Her boyfriend would be there and our oldest would fly down from Canada. Oaxaca. Let’s all meet in Oaxaca this year. Every part of our Christmas tradition would be different, but we would be together and that is the tradition that means the most.
So we rented a great Airbnb in Oaxaca and came together for a week to embrace Oaxacan Christmas traditions. It was amazing, and I want to share just a few things we experienced there.
I have never seen so many parades. Every night, the streets would explode with brass bands, dancers in traditional costumes, paper mache giants, and so many people. Some were religious pilgrimages heading to the giant churches in the plazas, others were celebrating Oaxacan foods like radishes and chocolate. Seriously, there is a parade for chocolate!
Noche de los Rabanos (Night of the Radishes)
Since 1897, every year on December 23rd, over 100 contestants gather in the plaza (Zocalo) to compete in a radish carving contest. Many thousands of people gather to see the elaborate masterpieces – and when we found out the line to get close was 3-4 hours long, we decided to watch from a distance. The atmosphere was exciting – and of course it started with a parade!
Check out more photos of this crazy competition here
In Mexico, Christmas Eve is a much bigger family celebration than Christmas Day. Again, we headed to the main plaza and watched 3 or 4 different parades go by. There were at least 7 different Santas greeting children near the massive Christmas tree and 4 or 5 Baby Jesus’ going by in the parades. We ate tamales oozing with mole and drank giant glasses of steaming hot chocolate. It was chilly, and it was cute to watch the little Mexican children wearing wooly toques and long scarves.
Although they are more often associated with Easter, I purchased traditional cascarones, hollowed out eggs stuffed with confetti, and broke them on the heads of all my family members – and of course I got one too. It is supposed to bring us good luck but I’m pretty sure I just gave Meigan a headache!
Although I had given up on the idea of a Turkey dinner, I was excited when my daughter texted on Christmas day to say she had seen a sign advertising turkey at one of the street chicken stalls. She would bring it home for dinner. Yay – turkey after all. But when it arrived, it looked more like the leg of a tough old dinosaur, and the sweet macaroni salad was not exactly mashed potatoes. But we were together, and we laughed at the sad Christmas feast!
Sparklers and fizzlers and cannons. So many fireworks and noise makers. Everywhere. All day and all night. If you can’t beat ‘em you may as well join ‘em. We are now officially part of the problem!
Traditional Oaxacan food is outstanding – some say the best in all of Mexico. Over 200 kinds of mole (chile sauce), including my favorite, the thick slightly bitter black chocolate mole. Tlayudas – crispy blue corn tortillas slathered in lard and bean paste and other vegetable and meat toppings and grilled over hot coals. Tamales – pockets of chicken and tomatoes and peppers wrapped in corn dough, steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. Quesillo – the mild white string cheese that is pulled off the round balls as needed. Chapulines – grasshoppers that are eaten crispy like peanuts or are used in sauces or even in ice cream! I can’t say I loved that – the taste was okay, but no one needs tiny grasshopper legs stuck in their teeth! Giant plates of meat – thin beef and pork marinated in orange chiles, and small round links of spicy chorizo. Big mugs of hot chocolate made with either milk or water to drink, or the local favorite mezcal, a smoky version of tequila. All of it so affordable. We ate many times a day, at the local markets or small restaurants, with no guilt because of the low price and the thousands of steps we knew would wear it all off.
Most importantly, we just spent time together. We played our traditional game of Upwords (I won…woop woop). We went exploring throughout the grand historical city, shopping for small artisan gifts for each other. Oaxaca is famous for its black pottery and for its colorfully painted Alebrijes, those imaginary animals that come alive in the movie Coco. Intricately embroidered blouses and handmade jewelry. We came home with a bit of it all.
We headed out of the city as well. Mont Albán is a cluster of archaeological ruins dated to 500 BC. We walked over 18,000 steps and climbed 78 stories as we explored these pyramid-like structures. Another day we headed into the mountains to visit Hierve el Agua, an area that contains stunning rock formations (petrified waterfalls) and mineral springs. We climbed to the base of the formation to see the stunning view up close, but of course what goes down…..
The thing with travel is that when we let go of what is familiar and embrace the experience of another person in another place, our own traditions become less rigid, more fluid. We can build new ones. We can see things we never knew existed and taste flavors that change our outlook. Turkey flooded with gravy gives way to turkey bathed in black mole. A slab of bread becomes a flat corn tortilla, my morning caffeine comes from chocolate instead of coffee. But like every other Christmas tradition, it comes with my husband at my side and my daughters nearby. We have grown, we have changed, we have risked…. But still we say, from our family to yours, Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad. Happy New Year. And most important of all, Happy Birthday Baby Jesus!