How Mexico Celebrates Christmas

Pack an appetite

Over the river, through the woods and across the globe, Christmas feasting is an indulgent affair. Southern Italians prepare no fewer than seven fishes, Americans baste turkeys and turkey-sized hams, and France oh so casually plates intricate bûches de Noёl for dessert. In Mexico, Christmas celebrations span three full weeks, from December 12 to January 6. House parties jubilate, musical processions cinematically score the streets and local markets extend their hours to debut an array of seasonal specialties. Culinary traditions vary among the country's 31 states, but certain Christmas fare transcends regional geography. If, like us, you travel to eat, you'll want to keep your eyes peeled and your heart hungry to spot Mexico's five ultimate Christmas dishes in the markets, at restaurants or family meals nationwide.

① Tamales

These corn husk-wrapped pockets of tender masa are a perennially popular breakfast item in Mexico, where street vendors begin slinging mole, salsa verde and dulce versions at 6 a.m. daily. Come Christmas, tamale appreciation feverishly accelerates as chefs and home cooks compete in tamaladas, or tamale-making feasts, filling steamers with corn treats. To partake, unwrap the hot pockets and drizzle the interior with red and green salsas, Christmas colors that conveniently evoke the Mexican flag.

② Posole

One of Mexico's best-known dishes, posole is a hearty stew composed of toothsome hominy kernels simmered in rich, porky broth. Garnished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, sliced radishes and lime juice, posole can easily be batched to feed a crowd, making it a natural for large-format Christmas feasts. Look for it at markets and restaurants throughout Christmastime, or grab a bowl at Posadas, or traditional caroling expeditions that reenact Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

③ Buñuelos

Akin to sweet tortillas, these thin, crispy treats are a Mexican Christmas tradition, divergent from the common Latin American doughnut holes with which they share a name. Come December 18, Christmas markets fill with vendors offering the wheel-sized disks, made up of a lard-and-flour dough that is rolled thin, fried and drizzled with anise-scented simple syrup or pure virgin honey. A solid beverage pairing is frothy hot chocolate, or champurrado, the wintry sipper that's up next.

④ Champurrado

In Mexico, steaming-hot cups of atole—a sweetened corn drink akin to thin porridge—are a daily libation, typically slung by the same street vendors as your breakfast tamales. As temperatures decline, enterprising cooks unite two tempting beverages—the aforementioned atole and beloved Mexican hot chocolate—into one super drink: champurrado. A hearty, chocolaty, not-too-sweet concoction, champurrado provides a solid base for nightlong dinner celebrations and Christmas Eve's Midnight Mass.

⑤ Ponche

Christmas punches are enjoyed all over the world: Warming and easy to prepare in large quantities, they combine traditional holiday flavors—cinnamon, citrus and more—with something all merrymakers love: booze. In Mexico, punch is known as ponche. The sweet, fruit-laden beverage is served in virgin and rum-spiked versions, depending on the age of the imbiber. Often heated over a charcoal fire, ponche is ladled out at homes, markets and street fairs throughout the season.