The Mexican tradition of Three Kings Day

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Jan 062015

Unlike the USA and Canada, where gifts are usually exchanged on Christmas Day (25 December), the original tradition in Mexico over the Christmas season was to exchange presents on Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes, 6 January). In the Christian calendar, 6 January marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when the magi arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the infant Jesus. In homage to this occasion, Mexican children would dutifully stuff the largest shoes (or box) they could find with straw, and leave them outside their bedroom door on the night of 5 January, in anticipation of finding new toys the following morning.

Rosca de Reyes

A typical family-sized Rosca de Reyes

Three Kings Day is still very much a family day throughout Mexico. In the late afternoon or early evening, it is traditional for the whole family to share a rosca. Roscas are ring-shaped loaves of sweet bread, sold to be eaten on special occasions. The roscas for Three Kings Day each contain a small muñeco (doll). These muñecos were originally ceramic, but are now more usually plastic. The recipient of the piece of rosca containing the muñeco has to throw a party on 2 February (Candlemas day, Día de la Candelaria) for all those present at the sharing of the rosca. It is customary to provide tamales to feed everyone gathering on Candlemas day.

Cristina Potters’ outstanding blog Mexico Cooks! includes a comprehensive account of the significance of the cuisine associated with Three Kings Day and Candlemas Day,

In the 20th century the Three Kings Day tradition in some regions of Mexico broke down in the face of the enormous consumer-oriented publicity from north of the border, which stressed Christmas (rather than Epiphany) gifts. Some especially greedy Mexican middle- and upper-class children claim that their parents and grandparents should not only preserve the old customs but also embrace the new version, and therefore hope to receive gifts on both days!

The origins of the cabañuelas system of weather forecasting

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Mar 072010

An earlier post described the weather forecasting system known as las cabañuelas.

In this post, we look at the possible origins of such an unusual and distinctive system.

Is the term cabañuelas derived from the Mayan language?

The historical origins of the word cabañuelas are unclear. Some sources claim that the system’s roots lie in the Old World, and go back well before the Spanish colonization of the New World. Writing in Mexico Desconocido, Homero Adame claims that the origins date back to the Zumac, or “Festival of Luck”, in the Babylonian calendar. The term cabañuelas may be connected to the Hebrew version, which was the “Festival of the Tabernacles”. Adame also points out that twelve days in the middle of winter were used in India to forecast the future weather conditions. He applies the lore of las cabañuelas to the weather experienced in the city of San Luis Potosí in 2001, finding that it does a fairly good (though not perfect) job of predicting the weather later in the year.

However, an alternative viewpoint is argued by Graciela Minaya, in an article originally published in 1945, in La Nación, a Mexico City daily. She views las cabañuelas as an example of the common heritage of the ancient indigenous peoples of Mexico, central America, and the larger Caribbean islands, that was passed down from one generation to the next. This would explain the variability in details from one country to another.

In her view, las cabañuelas were probably handed down from the Maya. The Maya calendar had 18 months, each of 20 days, followed by five additional “non-month” days. The Maya version of las cabañuelas used the first 18 days of the first month to predict the weather for the year (18 months). To complete the system, the 19th day of the first month predicted the weather for the summer solstice and the 20th the weather for the winter solstice.

The Maya version was known as Chac-chac. For those who are curious, the 18 months are: pop, uo, zip, zots, tzec, xul, yakin, mol, chen, yax, zac, ceh, mac, kankin, muan, pax, kayab, cumhú. The spare 5 days are known as uayeb. The days of each month went in the following order: ik, akbal, kan, chiechán, cimí, manik, lamat, muluc, oe, chuen, eb, bon, ix, men, cíb, cabán, eznab, cauac, ahua, imix. Minaya argued that the 16th day, cabán, gave rise to the word cabañuelas, presumably because it had some additional significance, perhaps in terms of some other calendric calculation, or time-marker.

The testimony of Román Pané, a monk of the order of St. Geronimo, who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, lends credence to the idea that las cabañuelas originated in the New World. While in Haiti, Pané recorded the fact that “these Indians know by consulting their gods and observing the first days of the year which days will be good, which will be bad, which will be rainy and which dry.” (Loosely translated from what is the earliest purely ethnographic treatise on American Indians.) Pané, incidentally, is thought to have been the first person to take tobacco back to Spain.

How did the Maya come up with the system in the first place? They had already undertaken sophisticated astronomical observations and had developed advanced mathematical and calendric systems, even to the point of being able to predict the arrival of some comets. So, perhaps by long and patient observation of their weather patterns, they had also amassed evidence of cyclical weather phenomena.

Whatever their origin, las cabañuelas occur every January, giving everyone an opportunity to record the weather and see how well they work during the coming year. It is not at all unusual in early January, for example if the 8th of the month is cloudy and rainy, that someone will exclaim, “¡Ay! es que estamos en la cabañuela de agosto” (We are in the August cabañuela).

Should you hear this, you’ll know exactly what they are talking about! Both Chac, the Maya rain god, and Kukulcan, the Maya wind god, will be proud of you!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect. Click here for the complete article

The climate of Mexico is discussed, with several maps,  in chapter 4 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Climatic hazards, such as hurricanes, droughts and floods, are looked at in detail in chapters 4 and 7.

Mexico’s cultural geography and cultural landscapes are discussed in chapter 13.