Dec 102012

Geographic Travels, one of my very favorite Geography blogs, recently posted a photo of a Mexican Christmas Tree, accompanied by a short history claiming that the Christmas tree was first introduced into northern Mexico by German industrialists and others.

That may be a popular notion, but the true history of Christmas trees in Mexico is far more interesting!

According to Historia del árbol de Navidad en México by Hector de Mauleón, prior to 1870, no writers describe the use of Christmas trees in Mexico. By 1890, however, Mexican author Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (1859-1895) includes the Christmas tree in an inventory of Christmas customs writing that, “¡Tristes aquellos que no tienen un árbol de Noel!” (“Sad are those who do not have a Christmas Tree!”). At that time, small candles were apparently used to illuminate the tree.

Historians, including Teresa E. Rohde (1933-1992), generally agree that the Christmas tree was first brought to Mexico during the French Intervention by none other than Emperor Maximilian, whose execution in 1867 brought an end to this unfortunate episode in Mexico’s nineteenth century history. At some point during their three years in Mexico, Maximilian and his wife Carlota imported a Christmas tree from Europe and installed it in Chapultepec Castle, their palatial home. The tree impressed at least some of Mexico’s wealthy families, who began to install their own trees at Christmas time.

Artificial Christmas Tree with Coca-Cola decorations in Querétaro.

Artificial Christmas Tree with Coca-Cola decorations in Querétaro. Photo:

Within a few years, the Christmas tree had become a tradition in many homes and had begun to replace the elaborate traditional nativity scenes (nacimientos).

In 1878, General Miguel Negrete, who had fought against the French Intervention, decided to have a Christmas tree in his home. According to some sources, he may have brought the idea back from the USA, independently of the earlier European introduction. His tree garnered considerable press attention. It was decorated with 250 toys. As each of his guests arrived at the house, they were given a number, and later took turns to select a gift from the tree, according to one journalist’s contemporary press account.

Despite the popularity of Christmas trees in Mexico, some nationalists continue to decry the practice, considering them a cultural invasion that continues to threaten the much older tradition of nacimientos.

Modern Mexican Nacimiento. Photo: Ariaski (Flickr);

Modern Mexican Nacimiento. Photo: Ariaski (Flickr); creative commons license

Christmas trees are a good historical example of cultural invasion, but at what point (as Hector de Mauleón asks) does a new custom become a tradition? After 150 years, can we now agree that Christmas trees have been assimilated into Mexican culture? Or do we need to wait another 150 years?

Wherever you may be, and real tree or not, warmest Mexican seasonal greetings to all!

In an interesting follow-up post, Geographic Travels considers the possible “Layers of Geopolitical Myths” behind the introduction of Christmas trees into Mexico: The Christmas Tree in Mexico: Layers of Geopolitical Myths?

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  3 Responses to “Christmas trees in Mexico: a cultural invasion or Mexican tradition?”

  1. I bow to your knowledge. Interesting as everyone who told me about the “German-Monterrey Christmas Tree” myth was from Monterrey. Maybe it is a local myth to promote the city.

  2. It’s possible that everyone is “right”! Maybe there was independent introduction into the Monterrey area at some point. Was any time frame attached to the stories?

  3. Late 1800s. Doing a follow-up post on a half baked theory which may explain this all (hopefully)

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