Today U.S. stores are wrapping up the business of Christmas gift returns and poised to promote – with hardly a pause in between – Super Bowl party food, Valentine’s Day candy, and Easter bunny baskets.  Christmas may already be history for Americans, but in the villages along the shores of Lake Chapala the sacred season enters its third week.

Observances began on December 16 with daily Posada reenactments of Joseph and Mary’s search for a room at the inn.   Entire neighborhoods turn out to watch costumed children re-enact this timeless drama nightly through Christmas Eve, punctuated by a live nativity scene.  As in much of Latin America, observances in Mexico will continue through the twelve days of Christmas, ending on the January 6 Kings’ Day holiday.

Anyone who’s experienced Christmas in Mexico, though, will testify that it doesn’t just last longer, but often feels far more tangible.

Mexican folk art crucifixes

It’s admittedly easier to keep the fires of Christmas cheer stoked in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America.  Within U.S. government agencies and many large corporations it’s now widely considered a faux pas to offer holiday best wishes that are a reflection of any particular religious faith. The separation between church and state in Mexico has been a pillar of governance since the Catholic church leadership ended up on the wrong side of the Mexican Revolution over a century ago, but religious icons are routinely displayed in government offices and other public places.  Can it be that Mexicans have more ably resolved the relationship between personal faith and politics than their cousins to the north?

The biggest difference between Christmas in Mexico and the U.S., though, may be the role of gift-giving.  While every U.S. holiday has long been a retail event it is only this year that I noted for the first time in Mexico extensive retail advertising for Black Friday.  It was as disheartening as first seeing not that long ago the retail assault on the venerable Dia de los Muertos observance, seeking to replace homages to departed loved ones with superhero costumes and trick-or-treat candy.

Even though American-style conspicuous consumption is simply not an option for the many, many Mexicans of modest means, the holidays here seem particularly joyous.  It’s the time of year when many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make their sole yearly pilgrimages – often riding busses for 20 or 30 hours – to visit their Mexican relatives.  When they arrive they’re as likely as not to find two or three generations of the family still living in close proximity within their ancestral villages.  On Christmas Eve the villages seem like extended block parties as people take the edge off cool night air around curbside fires, street vendors cook at sidewalk stands, and children light firecrackers until the dawn.

Christmas is certainly what we choose to make of it, wherever we may happen to live, but Christmas in Mexico is effortlessly hospitable and universally inclusive… a truly communal experience.

Old-fashioned as it may seem, the words “Happy Holidays” just don’t seem to convey the spirituality and heartfelt sincerity implicit in holiday greetings now out of fashion, and we’re all arguable poorer for it.  How can it be lost on so many that the sentiment common to all of these greetings is a wish that the spirit of peace and harmony rekindled over each faith’s sacred holidays grace the lives of others throughout the year?

So… regardless of your religious tradition I wish you Feliz Navidad, today and every day throughout the coming year!