In Mexico, Christmas is the best season of the year. With the fiesta-loving, lively nature that sets us apart, we Mexicans have styled this religious celebration very much in our own fashion. So much so that perhaps no where else in the world do so many traditions exist to celebrate it, from asking for room at the inn, to remembering the road Mary and Joseph took to Bethlehem, to piñatas, those big star-shaped clay and cardboard figures that are smashed with heavy sticks to release their sweets and seasonal fruits as gifts to the children…
And the “pastorelas”! There is no Christmas Season without these pastoral dramas of the Nativity. Whether in remote towns or in the big Mexican cities, pastorelas set the stage for the whole of December and leave us, through their playful language and funny situations, the most important message of the season: Good always overcomes Evil.
Pastorelas are plays that recreate the biblical passage where the shepherds follow the Star of Bethlehem to find the Christ Child. In order to reach the birth place of the Redeemer, they have to experience a series of changes in fortune and confront the Devil, who will do everything possible to prevent them from completing their mission. It is at that moment that the Archangel Michael intervenes to defend the shepherds on their journey.
Well, that’s the general idea of the pastorelas. They are very different today; the fact is, they were already very different when they were first presented hundreds of years ago, being one of Mexico’s oldest traditions. Imagine that you are back when the Spaniards reached the New World and began to colonize its inhabitants, instructing them in the Catholic fait
In Tenochtitlan, the great capital of the ancient Mexicans or Mexica, people entertained themselves with an art form that combined song, theater and dance. Performances were greatly enjoyed in the plazas and open spaces, where the actors tended to make jokes, pretending they were drunk, sang and gave recitations for the townspeople, who thundered their applause.
For the Mexica, the play was not just a form of entertainment, but a way to communicate with their gods, as well. Before the altars, in the smoke of the aromatic copal, the priests acted out battles, played warriors at victory and in their defeat. This is how they informed the deities who ruled their days, simultaneously handing down their history to the entire people.
The play was so important for the Mexica that they had professional singers, actors, dancers and buffoons; poets and orators, as well as memorization experts: remember that the Mexica had no alphabet, just a picture-based type of writing that represented objects or sounds. There were also people who produced the ceremonial vestments, jewels, plumed feathers of exotic birds, and fabrics, something quite similar to what we would call today, an innovative clothing designer.
When the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521, these specialists ended up with no work and no stage. This situation actually lasted for a very short time, however, because the Franciscan monks who arrived in the New World between 1523 and 1524 quickly became aware of the Mexicas´ artistic sensitivity and took advantage of it to lay a bridge between two cultures that had nothing in common.
Already in Italy and Spain, the Franciscans had observed the advantages they reaped by teaching the faith this way. Only a couple of centuries before, the Iberian Peninsula had seen the initial representation of “autos” , that is, acts or actions inspired by the most important biblical passages or by the lives of saints. And they were quite successful.
As a result, it was completely natural for the Franciscans, in order to evangelize the indigenous peoples en masse, to explain the most important passages of Christ’s life graphically, through a play for example.
The pastorela tradition is said to have begun in a little town called Acolman, a short distance from the Teotihuacan pyramids, where the Franciscans arrived in 1528. Other versions say that Cuernavaca, i n the State of Morelos, was the birth place of this deep-rooted tradition. Whether Acolman, or Morelos, the fact is that the force behind them lay in the Franciscans, and the artistic ability in the indigenous people.
Another truism is that Acolman is the origin of another beautiful Mexican custom. It was here that Fray Pedro de Gante gathered a group of natives for the singing of hymns in celebration of Christmas, an event that would later turn into “asking for room at the inn”.
With activities like this, the Franciscans earned the trust of the Acolman inhabitants and introduced them to religious activities. In the beginning, they accepted the indigenous people´s belief that the theatrical presentations of biblical scenes had a certain “power of purification”, and consequently , flowers and songs were included “to keep evil spirits away”.
Within a very short time, the indigenous people took over the entire production of the pastorelas . They were the actors and musicians; they produced the sets and made the costumes… They are even thought to have translated or written the texts to/in Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica, something fundamental to the evangelizing mission of the stagings.
The indigenous people were much taken by the story… of the shepherds who followed a shining star, perhaps because they identified it with their own legend in which a great comet announced the end of one empire and the birth of a new one, but above all, because when they rendered “adoration” to the Christ Child, the actors playing the shepherds introduced their own prehispanic dances that concluded in a mitote with leaps of joy
The first formal record of the pastorela we know of dates from 1536. It is called “El Auto de Adoración de los Reyes Magos’ (The Adoration of the Three Kings). Written in Nahuatl, dancing and music were added to it. It had thirteen actors: the Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, The Three Kings, their messenger, an angel, King Herod, his chief steward, and three Jewish priests.
As you might imagine, the shepherds, secondary characters in the bible story, in this setting where they danced and kibbitzed about, soon became the main actors. Each shepherd took on a personality, like Gila, the group leader, and Bato or Bartholomew, the ignorant, scatter-brained fellow who serves to explain the religious message to the public.
The time arrived when owing to its major element of jocularity and even mischief-making, the pastorelawas no longer allowed in the churches, not even in the atriums, and it had to take to the streets. Freed of restraints, it acquired the language of the common folk, spontaneous situations, and a certain element of irony in connection with the government of New Spain.
These “irreverent stances” did not please the Holy Inquisition, an iron-handed institution that checked up on the proper behaviour of Catholics in the Spanish territories, and so it was that they were declared irreligious and their staging prohibited.
Then, in the 19th century, Mexicans, particularly those living in the country’s capital, entertained an immoderate admiration for all things foreign, mainly from France. As a consequence, the pastorelaswere relegated to towns and settlements far from this international influence.
Mexican intellectuals would not take long to rescue them from hiding however, to make them shine now not in the atriums or public plazas, but in Mexico’s brightest theater. “La noche más venturosa”, written in 1821 by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, marks this new epoch for the pastorela and casts it solidly among the most famous, deep-rooted traditions of Mexico.
Today, pastorelas are very different. Very rarely do the personages of Jesus, Mary or The three Kings appear in them. The shepherds may be a band of street urchins or rural workers from the North, and there is a huge variety of settings; besides the jocular language, the content may be highly sexual or even vulgar.
Nonetheless, the basic theme continues to be the struggle between Good and Evil, with the outcome always favouring Good. And although the message is not solely Catholic, it is evangelical in that it brings good news and is a time for renewal. Implicitly, it carries a collective desire to start over and to imbue all of society with good intentions.
The pastorelas of today are laced with political irony, mockery, or at least funny allusions to public figures, and a strong dose of the typically Mexican double-entendre that we call the ‘albur’. Without this non-exportable ingredient, the pastorela would be somewhat like a taco minus the salsa.
There are two locations, like the Atrio of Cuernavaca, and the El Carmen Museum in Mexico City, among others, where the tradition of a pastorela with the original personages is preserved, with the colors of the piñatas and the lanterns, and that end with a delicious hot punch to ward off the cold of winter nights. This is something that every Mexican girl and boy experiences and continues to nourish with poignant affection throughout his or her life.