The highlight of many a Mexican festive occasion —a birthday celebration, Christmas party, or Posada— is the breaking of the piñata.
For the uninitiated, the piñata is a decorated clay pot or papier-mâché container filled with treats (more about those later) which is strung from a rope and flailed at in turns by party-goers who are blindfolded and armed with a stick. A person at one end of the rope —or sometimes a person at each end— will be able to swing the piñata in an attempt to keep it away from its assailant, and make the game last as long as possible.
When the piñata breaks, the contents are scattered on the ground and a rush is made to collect as much loot as possible.
At most children’s birthday parties and Christmas posadas the order in which the participants get a shot is based on age, from youngest to eldest. This is logical since the bigger the person, the more likely they are to break the piñata, and the idea is to keep it going for a good while—at least long enough to ensure that every child has a turn.
The duration of a “turn” is as long as it takes to sing the piñata song, which goes like this:
Dale dale dale, no pierdas el tino,
Porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino.
Ya le diste uno,
Ya le diste dos,
Ya le diste tres y tu tiempo se acabó.
Which loosely translates as:
Hit-it hit-it hit-it, don’t lose your aim,
Because if you lose it, you will lose your way.
Now you’ve hit it once,
Now you’ve hit it twice,
Now you’ve hit it three times,
And your time is up.
More thought and decision-making goes into a simple piñata ritual than you might expect:
First of all, what should go inside the piñata?
Christmas piñatas tend to be healthier than birthday piñatas. They usually contain pieces of sugar cane, tangerines, or little oranges called naranjas piñateras, peanuts, a Mexican fruit called tejocote, limas (a sort of cross between an orange and a lime) and a variety of candy: boiled sweets, chocolate coins, and such. Birthday piñatas tend to have more candy and less fruit. Some piñatas may also contain small toys and other trinkets.
Next, where to stretch the rope on which the piñata will be strung?
This often involves at least one person, usually an adult, leaning precariously out of an upstairs window, on a rooftop terrace, or hanging-off the side of one of those spiral iron staircases common in Mexico as a way up onto the roof.
Finding the right stick to strike the piñata
A traditional wooden broom handle is the best, and if you visit your local ferreteria you should be able to buy one. The new-style hollow plastic or thin hollow metal tube handles are too light to make any impression on the piñata, especially the more common papier-mâché ones which are quite resistant. A baseball bat is too heavy for the smaller swingers and gives an unfair advantage to the bigger children or adults. Piñata shops actually sell sticks that are about the right size and weight, which is fine in today’s world of ready-made. If the stick doesn’t break during the ritual, it can be stored ready for the next party.
Add a blindfold and the piñata ritual can begin
Once the piñata is all set up, and someone finds an adequate scarf or bandanna to use as a blindfold, the fun is ready to begin. (The little children are not blindfolded, by the way.)
If the piñata is one of the spherical ones with paper cones stuck on it, a common strategy frequently used by players is to knock-off one or more of the cones without breaking the piñata. There’s a sort of unwritten rule that if you break one of those off, that ends your turn, but you get to keep the cone, which is useful for filling with goodies once the piñata is broken. If the piñata is thematic —Disney characters seem perennially popular— an arm or a leg or any other non-core piece of the piñata could be broken-off and kept for the same purpose.
With clay-pot piñatas, one good crack can break them open and the contents would spill on the floor. With the more common and most popular papier-mâché variety, often the piñata will split rather than break, and just a few things fall out, prompting some of the children to rush-in to grab them while the person with the stick may still be in full-swing: if blind-folded, they might not realize the piñata has been split. This calls for a time-out while the stray pieces of fruit or candy are retrieved. If the split or tear in the piñata is big enough, the person in charge of the rope will usually shake it up and down so that more fall out. Then one of the adults will take it upon him or herself to declare the piñata broken, step into the arena, grab the damaged artifact and shake it until all the contents are emptied onto the ground.
This signal is a cue for the scrum, as children rush-in armed with their cones and other piñata parts, or at least one of those ubiquitous plastic bags, to fill.
After the adrenaline fest, adults with brooms appear to sweep up the remains of tissue paper, papier-mâché, and the odd broken fruit no one claimed; and some redress is made in benefit of the less aggressive of the participants whose share of the loot doesn’t come anywhere near to what even the least social-minded might consider fair.
The Cold Comes in Snaps and Waves
Cold weather in the temperate areas of central Mexico comes and goes throughout the winter months in a series of “numbered fronts” that bring icy gusts which may also cause early frosts for a few days at a time. Then it warms up for a while before the next numbered front makes its way down from the US—Mexico’s principal trading partner and supplier of cold fronts.
One practical result of this polar disorder is that the interior climates in Mexican homes are usually a day behind the frequently-changing outdoor weather; remaining warm when it’s actually near freezing out, and vice-versa.
It’s therefore not surprising occasionally to see people dressed for the North Pole on relatively mild days, or shivering in shirtsleeves on cold days.
The timing of the cold fronts is uncertain, but there’s almost always one in the week of November 20, which apart from being the anniversary of the start of the 1910-1917 Revolution, is when the tree-farms on the hilly fringes of Mexico City usually start selling Christmas trees that you can cut down yourself.
Evidence that it can get quite cold in the central highlands is to be found in supermarkets, which each year set out an array of portable electric heaters at the front of the store, clearly visible as you step-in from the chill. And early risers in the capital know how fridge-like the first Metro trains out of the shed can be on those nippy mornings, so it’s not unusual to see some particularly assertive commuter walking through the carriage slamming the windows shut—although this habit is less-frequent now as people prize fresh-air above warmth during the flu season.
Cold spells across Mexico’s central highlands can be felt anytime from late autumn through to early spring, although by mid-to-late February temperatures usually begin to rise appreciably, creating some windy days in March, as spring returns bringing back the warm days, and more light during the evening hours following the clocks change.
Kings’ Day Gifts and Kings’ Loaf Traditions in Mexico
Never a country to shirk its festive responsibilities, Mexico traditionally closes out its Christmas and New Year celebrations on January 6th, Día de Reyes or Three Kings Day.
Also known as Epiphany, the date marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ child: they are traditionally considered to have numbered three wise men, corresponding to the three gifts mentioned in the Bible.
For many years, Three Kings Day was the date when gifts would be given to Mexican children, who would put shoes out before going to bed on the evening of January 5th. Although this was gradually and inexorably taken over by the imported tradition of Santa Claus, families here maintain the tradition of giving children toys on Three Kings Day. Rather than the main course, this is for many a complement to the excesses of modern-day Christmas; “Por no dejar” —for the sake of keeping it— as some may say.
The continuation of Three Kings Day celebration is notable in the commercial world — toy prices in Mexican stores aren’t discounted to unload leftover inventory until around the second week of January, and the days leading up to January 5th can often see shoppers out late at stores and markets desperately seeking to fill last-minute orders.
The extravagant meals taken at Christmas and New Year are not repeated on Día de Reyes, but instead Rosca de Reyes (“Kings’ Loaf”) is eaten, usually with hot chocolate. The large oval-shaped cakes — sweet bread topped with crystallized fruit and sugar — are interspersed with little plastic dolls representing the baby Jesus. Whoever gets a doll in their slice, and you have to cut your own to avoid feelings of being cheated, is supposed to buy the tamales on February 2nd — Día de la Candelaria: a Catholic tradition celebrating the presentation of Jesus in the temple.
How many of the people who get the slices with dolls actually end up buying the tamales themselves is an open question. But you probably don’t want to gather for Rosca with people who insist on further slicing each slice horizontally to inspect for dolls: not the spirit you’d want to start out the year with.
There are other ways in which Día de Reyes marks the end of the long holiday season, sometimes referred to as Guadalupe-Reyes to describe the slow month between Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th and the grade schools going back for the new term around January 7th.
It’s also the time to start taking down Christmas trees, festive lights, and other seasonal decorations. But there’s no rush.
Candelaria on February 2nd isn’t a holiday in the sense of having the day off work, but it does come a few days before the Constitution Day holiday, which is celebrated on the first Monday in February. That is also an official holiday, and for U.S. sports fans it has the added advantage of usually being the day after Super Bowl Sunday.
So tamales and American football. It doesn’t get much more convenient, or neighborly, than that.
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Elevation: Why 7,000 Feet Can’t Deliver a Free Lunch
Mexico is a mountainous country, and many of its towns and cities away from the coasts are situated at elevations of least 5,000 feet above sea-level.
If you plan to live in Mexico, or visit here on a self-catering or camping vacation, a consideration to take into account is that the elevation (the land’s height relative to sea level) has an effect on food preparation, because water situated at higher elevation boils at lower temperatures.
The science is quite simple. The atmosphere surrounding Earth creates pressure against all objects within it. Barometric pressure at sea level equates to a little less than thirty inches of mercury, or 14.69 pounds per square inch. At this pressure level, water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade, 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, the density of the air becomes thinner at higher altitudes (which is why it’s harder to breathe at higher elevation) and the pressure continues to drop constantly until you reach space, where there is no air, no density, and no pressure.
Water thus boils at a lower temperature because the pressure on the water molecules is lower at higher altitudes, requiring less energy for the molecule bonding threshold to be reached (the point at which molecules break away and coalesce into steam). And so, because less heat (energy) is required to break up the molecules, the water boils at a lower temperature.
Boiling water, cooking, and baking at high elevation
Water doesn’t always boil at 100C/212F: For example, at 5,000 feet above sea-level water will boil at 94.9C (202.9F); at 6,000 feet water boils at 93.8C (200.9F); and at 7,000 feet water boils 92.7C (198.9F). This online calculator works out the figures.
Tea and coffee: Some tea-drinking connoisseurs argue that coffee is a better beverage option when one is situated in high elevation, because tea requires a high water temperature to “steep” properly. That’s probably more a matter of personal taste than science, but as staying well-hydrated is important when you’re situated at higher elevations, it’s worth noting that tea quenches thirst whereas coffee aggravates it.
Baking at high elevation in Mexico: If you’re accustomed to baking cakes and pastries in places situated at lower elevations, you’ll discover that the proportions of ingredients and the timings needed to complete the bake will need to be adjusted. This article shares some useful tips about baking at higher elevations.
General cooking: In terms of everyday cooking, you won’t experience an energy gain, i.e. use less fuel, to cook your meal because although the water reaches boiling point sooner, you need to leave your food cooking for longer. An example is preparing a hard-boiled egg. If it takes five minutes to hard-boil an egg at sea-level it will take proportionally longer at higher elevations; so any gain realized through lower boiling points is lost in the longer while it takes for the heat-energy transfer to take place.
This is another way of demonstrating that there really is no such thing as a “free lunch”—not even in high places.
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